Prosecutors and law enforcement are on differing sides of a possible ordinance that would make minor possession of marijuana a civil offense, a move the Leon County Commission is being urged not to make.
Commissioners will consider whether to move ahead with an ordinance during a workshop Tuesday focused on alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, less than 20 grams.
Commissioners meet at 9 a.m. at the Leon County Courthouse. Leon County staff are recommending against the civil citation ordinance.
The issue lies in the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level, despite it being approved for medical purposes and available recreationally in dozens of states.
At least 15 communities around Florida have adopted ordinances, none of which have been challenged legally, that allow law enforcement to issue civil citations that have been developed with the support of the local state attorney.
But State Attorney Jack Campbell “maintains his opposition to any ordinance that attempts to decriminalize marijuana possession by characterizing the offense as a civil infraction and imposing a civil fine,” according to agenda materials.
Campbell, however, has worked through the years to bolster diversionary programs which have been in place for the last 20 years across the six-county 2nd Judicial Circuit. The program gives first-time offenders the opportunity to avoid jail time or other punishment given they complete the requirements.
Both the Tallahassee Police Department and Leon County Sheriff’s Office have policies that allow officers discretion in alternatives to arrest, including diversion programing or issuing a notice to appear.
Sheriff Walt McNeil is open to exploring a local civil ordinance, according to agenda materials, based on the decision of the County Commission.
They voted 4-3 in September 2019 to move forward with the ordinance discussion set to come before them next week. The considered an ordinance a month later, but voted to take no action.
That same year, Campbell paused prosecuting some marijuana cases because there was no valid test that could differentiate it from hemp, a non-euphoric cannabis plant that was legalized by the federal government and Florida in 2018.
There are concerns over what continuing to arrest people for minor marijuana possession could do to a ballooning jail population, another issue set for a workshop Tuesday.
However, county officials reviewed the Leon County Detention Facility population between 2019 and 2022 and found no inmates were being detained on only charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Commissioners have already signaled they are willing to create a civil ordinance, which would be largely ceremonial because they have little power to direct law enforcement or circumvent state and federal law where recreational marijuana possession remains illegal.
“If challenged, an ordinance adopted by a local government to decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana possession by reducing the offense to a civil penalty may be ruled invalid,” staff wrote in agenda materials. “In jurisdictions that have adopted ordinances providing for civil fines in lieu of a criminal charge, the respective State Attorney still has the authority to prosecute persons charged with marijuana possession.”
Contact Karl Etters at email@example.com or @KarlEtters on Twitter.
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