Six months have passed since Orlando permitted police officers to issue citations instead of filing criminal charges for small amounts of marijuana, but so far the option is being used sparingly.
Officers were allowed to start writing tickets — similar to traffic citations — in October but had issued only 67 as of March 20. Penalties are $100 for first-time offenders and $200 for a second offense.
“I would have thought it had been a little more,” said Michael Barber, a criminal defense attorney at the Umansky law firm in Orlando. “I can tell you I see a lot of possession of cannabis cases coming through criminally … It seems they are not using their discretion.”
As marijuana and its place in society are re-examined in Florida and across the nation, Mascotte recently joined Orlando and Volusia and Osceola counties in Central Florida by allowing officers to issue citations for possession of under 20 grams of pot, or about two-thirds of an ounce.
Mascotte City Council members voted 4-0 in favor of the marijuana measure, which faced no public opposition and calls for $125 fines for a first offense and $225 for a second offense.
Last year, police in the south Lake County city of 5,500 made only one adult arrest with only a marijuana charge when a driver was pulled over at 2 a.m. on State Road 50 for driving with a broken headlight. He had a small amount of pot — 2 grams.
The council’s decision, however, is a nudge toward a national trend of viewing marijuana as less dangerous, Mascotte City Manager Jim Gleason said.
“It is subtly trying to get in line with what we think is happening across the nation,” he said. “There needs to be a real serious debate.”
Mascotte police now can either issue a ticket, give a citation that requires a court appearance or arrest the offender — all at their discretion. Marijuana citations are not misdemeanors and do not go on a person’s record.
Several other Florida municipalities, including Hallandale Beach, Key West, Wilton Manors and Port Richey, have also passed similar ordinances in the last few years.
Many pot-possession charges in Central Florida are added to other charges that require a physical arrest and leave little opportunity for tickets. In Orlando, 408 such cases were filed in court, included with other criminal charges, since police have had the ability to write citations, records show.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has only issued nine tickets since the decriminalization policy took effect in April 2016 out of 345 arrests that carried a minor pot-possession charge. The county’s beach rescue issued another 43 citations during that period.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which does not allow citations, made 2,268 arrests last year that include a charge of marijuana possession under 20 grams. Lake County deputies, who also don’t have that discretion, made 320 arrests last year that included a possession charge. Of those, only 47 arrests were a marijuana charge alone.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said the city’s ordinance gives officers another option for enforcing the law. The ticket works “without subjecting that person to an arrest and criminal history,” he said in a statement.
For Mascotte, the new ordinance is a common-sense measure for law enforcement. An arrest can reduce the city’s on-duty police force by as much as 50 percent for the maximum three hours it takes for booking.
“It allows us to keep our officers available in the town versus depleting them to complete paperwork,” said Mascotte Police Chief Eric Pedersen, who came to the city last year following a 28-year career with the Orlando Police Department. “It’s a snowball effect as far as cost is concerned.”
Lake, Seminole and Orange counties have no plans to decriminalize marijuana for unincorporated jurisdictions.
“Our agency is focused on public safety and enforcing current state law,” Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell said in a statement. “It would be up to the State Legislature to determine if certain offenses should be decriminalized.”
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, citing Florida Department of Law Enforcement data, said last month that 39,706 Floridians were arrested for low-level cannabis possession in 2016. He and state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, have filed bills in the Legislature calling for statewide marijuana decriminalization.
Alex Kreit, a law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego who has written a textbook on drug regulations and policies, said marijuana arrests have little influence in discouraging the use of what President Ronald Reagan once called “probably the most dangerous drug” in the U.S.
But today, he said, “Marijuana cases are made basically because an officer is deciding how vigorously they’re going to look for the marijuana at a car stop.”
Source: Orlando Sentinel