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St. Pete City Council takes first step in adopting civil citation program for marijuana offenders

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A St. Pete City Council committee unanimously approved taking a closer look at implementing a civil citation program for adult marijuana offenders. The ordinance would likely apply to individuals over the age of 18 caught with 20 grams or less of marijuana. State legislation already provides a similar provision for juveniles.

Instead of being charged with a misdemeanor, the offenders would be given a citation. For those who couldn’t afford the ticket, a community service option would also likely be included in the program.

The motion approved Thursday morning directs the city’s legal department to work with the St. Petersburg Police Department to come up with a draft resolution for the Public Services and Infrastructure committee to evaluate.

The draft ordinance will likely include some components discusses during Thursdays meeting. Among those, that an ordinance would be best served countywide. As such, the city will also notify the Pinellas County Commission of its intentions to implement a civil citation program and invite them to work with the city on the initiative.

The idea behind civil citation programs is to reduce the amount of people who wind up with a criminal record for marijuana use. It also addresses huge arrest disparities between African-American males compared to other demographics.

“I’m really poised to support this because it’s been deeply troubling for years,” City Council member Darden Rice said noting that a marijuana arrest should not “be something that affects the trajectory of the rest of your life.”

City Council member Steve Kornell brought up the issue as a new business item. He shared an emotional story about a former student, now a young adult, who called him asking for help after a marijuana arrest. Kornell said the man explained he was held in jail for 12 days and told that if he didn’t give a plea in the case, he would have to stay in jail until his trial. People of more affluent backgrounds in that situation would have had the opportunity to post bond.

“Those are the things we need to avoid,” Kornell said.

Council members made clear the initiative is not intended to send a message to kids that smoking pot is OK. Amy Foster pointed to a Harvard study that shows harmful affects of marijuana use in juveniles and young adults up to the age of 25.

And Rice gave her own emotional plea cautioning against giving kids the wrong message about drug use. She choked up as she reminded her young nephew tragically passed away this year at a party where kids were doing drugs.

A possible ordinance will likely contain provisions for evaluation and/or treatment for drug use. It may also contain a time frame for how long offenders have to either pay a fine or perform community service. Rachel Manzo of the group St. Pete for Justice was particularly pleased to hear council’s support for including a way to allow less affluent offenders avoid a criminal record.

“This isn’t bout making marijuana legal or sending the message that it’s harmless but it is about income inequality and racial disparity,” Manzo said.

She supports implementing a fair and effective civil citation program after having seen the effects minor marijuana infractions can have on a person.

“[One was]they a teacher and lost their teaching license and it becomes this snowball effect,” Manzo said. ” It’s just led to a lot of other things in his life which I think that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for that one event.”

The city will also have to determine whether to make the civil citation program available to only first time offenders or to extend it to those caught with marijuana a second time.

It’s also unclear how the city would work out the logistics of implementing such a program. The St. Pete Police Department recommended a countywide ordinance funded by whatever legislative body approved it and warned against passing an unfunded mandate.

While Council members were largely in favor of implementing something countywide and encouraging neighboring municipalities to do the same, Kornell said the issue is too important to wait for other bodies to jump on board.

“If the county says no, I’m still intending to say yes,” Kornell said.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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