Orlando City Commissioners approved 4-3 an initiative to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, giving police officers the discretion to issue civil citations instead of arresting people.
The ordinance makes possessing 20 grams or less of pot a violation of city code. The civil penalties for receiving a citation can range from $50 to a mandated court hearing, depending on how many times a person has been cited. The proposed measure was approved on first reading, but will need to be approved again at the City Council’s May 9 meeting to be adopted.
Along with Mayor Buddy Dyer, Commissioners Regina Hill, Patty Sheehan and Robert Stuart voted to approve the measure.
"How can I not vote for this ordinance, because somebody gave me a chance?" Hill says. "So it’s my duty to vote ‘yes’ for this...This would give people hope."
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Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings attended the meeting and told commissioners only about 374 people were booked into the Orange County Jail last year whose sole charge was possession of small amounts of marijuana, making up less than 1 percent of all individuals booked. Demings says he "would not be opposed" if the measure in Orlando was expanded to include the rest of Orange County.
Commissioners Jim Gray, Tony Ortiz and Sam Ings voted against the measure, with the latter arguing it would encourage "bad behavior" and allow the community to go down a "slippery slope."
"People need to know and understand that this is making it easier," Ings says. "We should want criminals to stop being criminals, not making them feel confident to use and possess marijuana."
Currently, a person caught with small amounts of marijuana can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor that can include one year of jail time, up to a $1,000 fine, probation and a criminal record. Orlando Police Chief John Mina called the measure a "de-prioritization" of marijuana not decriminalization because possessing small amounts of pot is still illegal under Florida and federal law. However, the measure gives officers another option that doesn’t burden people with an arrest. Mina has said in the past the citation program would not apply to people who’ve been arrested multiple times for this misdemeanor charge or to people committing another crime while they’re arrested for having small amounts of pot.
Mina adds that he plans to track how officers are using their discretion by requiring them to cite a reason for not giving out a civil citation.
"It’s incumbent upon me that our officers are making decisions based on legitimate reasons," he says.
Some people who spoke at the City Council meeting were supportive of the measure, but worried that officers using their discretion would disproportionately shut out black people from the citation program. Black people use marijuana at about the same rate as white people, but from 2001 to 2010, they were arrested nearly four times more for marijuana possession, according to study from the American Civil Liberties Union
Local attorney Natalie Jackson says the city should put together a database where officers’ discretions can be measured by who they're stopping and arresting.
"Sometimes as we’ve heard, there is no community trust here," she says. "So if we have something that we can measure, I think that would greatly increase community trust...I think that would solve some of the problems that we’re hearing today and concerns people have."
This post has been updated.