Jacksonville Councilman Garrett Dennis held the first meeting at City Hall Thursday morning for public and other elected officials to discuss his bill that, if passed, would decriminalize marijuana.
The bill hopes it would allow police officers in Duval County to offer a $100 civil citation instead of being arrested for possession, or they can spend 10 hours doing community service.
The bill addresses possible offenders 18 years and older, not youth.
“I filed this bill because of the conversations I had with the citizens of Jacksonville," Dennis said. "While I believe this is the right thing to do, I don’t want to move forward without having more conversations on this issue. I really want an opportunity to hear from my colleagues as well and answer any questions they may have. This will be the first opportunity [for] many to do this.”
Only two other council members attended this meeting, but Dennis said he is not discouraged by that as this is only the first meeting of many.
A Jacksonville Sheriff's Office chief representing the police department said Sheriff Mike Williams does not support this decriminalization. He deferred to the sheriff to give any statements as to why.
Dennis stressed that there are several cities and counties in Florida that already passed ordinances and resolutions similar to his bill. He said its modeled after a similar measure passed in Palm Beach County.
Last January, there have been an estimated 843 cases where a person was charged with possession of fewer than 20 grams of marijuana in Jacksonville. It costs $864 just to process one person into jail and $22,000 to house an inmate per year, Dennis said. He also said the taxpayers are responsible for paying these costs.
Dennis made clear he is not saying marijuana should be legal, but that the punishment could be different and less costly.
"It costs us almost $100 just to book one individual in jail, so do the math," Dennis said. "It just makes sense. Fine them, we can use that money for treatment, for counseling. Now is the time to have that conversation."
Dennis also calls the criminalization of possession of fewer than 20 grams of marijuana a vicious cycle: He said those who are arrested can't always pay bond, so they end up in jail and wind up missing work. This could cause them to lose their jobs. He also said if they drive themselves, they could face another charge of driving on a suspended license.
Overall, Dennis said this can derail a person's life for the same drug that is legal in Florida with a doctor's prescription.
He also added that the bill won't pardon anybody who has already been arrested on these charges, and it does not give police any guidelines as to when to give a citation or arrest. That would be up to the officers' discretion.