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Tampa poised to be latest Florida city to decriminalize pot

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Tampa took a major step Thursday in joining the growing list of communities across the country   decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

City Council voted 6-0 to hold a public hearing on a law that would permit Tampa police officers to issue citations for possession of 20 grams or less of pot, instead of arresting the offender. A first offense would become a $75 fine. A second offense would raise the fine to $150. It would be $300 for a third offense and $450 for the fourth offense.

The vote came about nine months after Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration began examining the idea of decriminalizing possession of marijuana.

“Those arrests set their lives on a course that are almost irretrievable, so we think that a more rational approach to it, going the citation route, obviously escalating if there are frequent violations, is probably the right thing to do,” he told SPB last month.

Dozens of cities and/or counties across the nation have enacted laws in recent years to decriminalize marijuana, including Miami-Dade County, Miami Beach, Hallandale Beach, Key West, and West Palm Beach.

Weed advocates were out in full force at council chambers.

“We need to keep our people in Tampa out of cages,” said Kevin O’Neill, with the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County.

“The criminal justice system in this county, we all know is overcrowded,” said NORML Central Florida Executive Director Christopher Cano. In the fall of 2014, Cano told The Tampa Tribune about obtaining pot through the “black market” to provide for his father who was dying of terminal dementia.

“I want you to understand that you do have a series of decisions to make today,” Cano told the council. “That decision will determine the leadership of this city, and determine … the future freedom of our citizens.”

Dana Moxley Cummings, a cannabis advocate and former party chairwoman of the Libertarian Party of Florida,  told the council she began using cannabis oil when she was struck with Lyme disease in 2010. “I got better,” she said. “It healed me. It’s made me also realize that in doing so, it gave the perception that I was a bad person – I was a criminal.”

Mike Minardi said that the money saved from not incarcerating people for possession of more than 20 grams of pot would save money that could be used for more productive uses, such as addressing rape kits that currently go untested. “We can save people’s lives. Prevent them from losing scholarships, prevent them from entering the military. That’s the ramifications for cannabis criminalization does right now.”

Not everyone making public comment was in support. Teresa Miller with the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance said 20 grams of pot was the equivalent of 36 joints, “which in my opinion, comes down to trafficking.”

She said the proposal would provide the wrong message to children and young adults, and denied the notion that marijuana was harmless, especially to those people under 25.

When she suggested that the proposal be limited to 10 grams, several members in the audience began laughing derisively, prompting Council Chairman Frank Reddick to admonish them, saying he’d instruct police officers to remove them from the chambers if they kept it up.

The meeting ended with the council voting to hold the first public hearing on the proposal on March 3.

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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