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Tampa City Council OKs decriminalization of pot possession

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Following in the footsteps of other localities around the state and the country, the Tampa City Council has approved on first reading a proposal to reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The measure passed by a 6-1 vote on Thursday, with Council member Charlie Miranda, the lone dissenter.

The proposal calls for a $75 fine for people found in possession of fewer than 20 grams of weed. A second offense would raise the fine to $150, a third to $300 and a fourth to $450. Currently, possession of 20 grams of marijuana or less is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison or probation and a $1,000 file. A offender could also lose their driver’s license for up to a year.

“The reason why we’re doing this is that we want to try to get some folks out of the system, give them a second chance if they don’t want to offend again, and find a way that we can eliminate the use of our resources to go after a crime that currently is a misdemeanor,” City Councilman Mike Suarez said.

City Council Chairman Frank Reddick questioned why the proposed law would permit pot smokers four chances for citations before getting potential jail time.

City Attorney Kirby Rainsberger responded by saying that the new regulations depend on the discretion of a police officer.

Reddick said he has a problem with giving officers too much responsibility. “They’re becoming sociologists or psychologists where they can make a determination whether I can give this person another opportunity,” he said. “I don’t think officers should be put in that type of position where they have to make that kind of decision.”

Councilman Charlie Miranda said he’s not opposed to helping a chronic smoker, but agreed with Reddick the penalties weren’t sufficient.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said she knows a lot of people who indulge in cannabis and said she had no problem with the number of citations. She hoped repeat offenders would have the opportunity to access drug counseling if they felt that they had a problem.

The public weighed in as well, with most speaking out in support of the measure.

Tampa defense attorney Michael Minardi told the council the court system is overburdened with arrests for minor pot possession and disputed Reddick’s new-found concerns regarding officer discretion. “This isn’t a different issue for them,” he said. “Right now with misdemeanor cannabis under 20 grams, they have discretion. They can give a notice to appear, or they can make an arrest. This is going to be no different.”

Ellen Snelling from the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance said pot is extremely harmful to those under the age of 25 and that more information contends it reduces IQ and leads to  “hallucinations and psychosis.” She said a civil citation should be given only for a first offense, and that the threshold should be 10 grams, not 20.

Council will discuss the issue again on March 17. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has indicated he supports the proposal.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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