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Florida lawmaker refiles statewide marijuana decriminalization bill

Currently, the unlawful or unprescribed possession of marijuana in the State of Florida is considered a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
A man smokes a joint (Photo credit should read Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Following an unsuccessful attempt last session, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando refiled legislation this week to decriminalize the unlawful possession of “personal use” quantities of cannabis statewide, an initiative that has gained traction with the rise of medical marijuana.

If passed, House Bill 1203 would reclassify misdemeanor criminal offenses for the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana as noncriminal civil violations. More importantly, citizens would no longer face the possibility of arrest for possessing what is now widely regarded as a form of medicine.

Adults would instead be assessed civil fines of no more than $100 or up to 15 hours of community service. Those under the age of 18 would automatically be ordered to complete community service, a drug awareness program or potentially both.

The term “personal use quantity of cannabis,” as read in the bill, is defined as 20 grams or less of cannabis. However, no more than five grams of the cannabis in question may be resin “extracted from or concentrates derived from cannabis.”

The term does not pertain to cannabis that is being grown, according to the bill, nor any estimated weight of legal substances combined with cannabis and used in the preparation of food or drink.

If enacted, all state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies would issue noncriminal citation forms to its officers for use in implementing the legislation.

Smith, who has been a proponent of legislation that allows for the smoking of medical marijuana, hopes to build off the success cities and counties around the state have had in enacting local ordinances that decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana.

“2018 must be the year for cannabis reform in Florida,” Smith said. “Not only must we fix the many problems with the implementation of our medical cannabis law, but we need to quit throwing Floridians in jail for simple possession.”

Some of Florida's most populated counties including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Volusia and Alachua have enacted a marijuana citation system with varying fines for each. Both the City of Tampa and the City of Orlando have also implemented similar systems which allow law enforcement officers to issue civil citations for possession.

According to records obtained by First Coast News, the Orlando Police Department has issued over 100 marijuana civil citations since the city-wide ordinance was implemented in October of 2016.

“We want to reduce crime,” said Orlando Police Chief John Mina. “We want to make safe and livable neighborhoods and going out there and making a bunch of low-level misdemeanor drug arrests is really not going to accomplish that goal.”

READ MORE: Movement to decriminalize marijuana gains traction in Northeast Florida

Currently, the unlawful or unprescribed possession of marijuana in the State of Florida is considered a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine.

According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, 44,033 individuals were arrested in 2016 for misdemeanor drug possession. Approximately 39,700 of those arrests were for marijuana.

“It makes absolutely zero sense for law enforcement to waste their time and valuable taxpayer resources arresting 39,706 Floridians per year for smoking weed,” Smith said. “I've filed serious legislation to address this injustice and move Florida out of the stone ages on this important issue. Time to get it done.”

All revenue from marijuana-related civil fines would be collected by the clerk of court and evenly split between the municipality or county where the violation occurred and the County Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Trust Fund or the Grants and Donations Trust Fund of the Department of Children and Families.

Smith's newest piece of legislation regarding the decriminalization of marijuana remains mostly unchanged from his previous version, which died in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee during the 2017 legislative session.

A Senate companion bill is expected to be introduced by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Ocoee. However, a prior companion bill filed by former state Sen. Jeff Clemens could provide insight on how far this legislation may go in the upcoming legislative session.

After being introduced, Clemens' bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, where it was postponed before a vote was recorded. While Clemens' legislation eventually suffered the same fate as its companion in the House, the bill was analyzed by the staff of the Committee on Criminal Justice prior to the meeting.

The staff determined that the creation of new noncriminal civil violations could have a financial impact due to the increase in clerical casework.

Moreover, Smith's bill calls for recordkeeping of such marijuana violations, but not in any current database of criminal offenders, as these civil infractions would be considered noncriminal in nature. The staff of the Committee on Criminal Justice previously found this to be problematic.

“If the clerk or law enforcement cannot maintain a record of the civil violation, then it would be difficult for them to enforce the civil violation,” said Lauren Jones, staff director for the Committee on Criminal Justice. “On the other hand, if they can maintain the records, but cannot use an existing criminal offender database they may incur significant costs to create suitable databases.”

The 2018 regular legislative session is slated to commence on January 9. Both the House and the Senate will convene that morning.