Tampa council OKs fines for pot possession
Tampa is easing the penalties for pot.
The ordinance change could save taxpayers money, but critics worry at what cost to the community.
"We're giving the key to our city to pot smokers and drug dealers," worries Teresa Miller.
The ordinance allows some people who are busted with less than 20 grams of marijuana to pay a fine and avoid jail time. The City Council hopes the change will ease the stress on the court system and save some from a life-long criminal record.
Tampa police arrested 1,882 people in 2015 for possession of marijuana under 20 grams. Police say some of those people arrested were charged with additional crimes, and wouldn’t qualify for a citation under the new ordinance.
“This is not legalizing marijuana," says Tampa police spokesperson Andrea Davis, who insist this isn’t a free pass to possess pot.
“I lost my military career behind a marijuana cigarette,” says Laroi Jackson. Jackson knows the painful punishment from smoking pot, after he says being locked up in Korea and kicked out of the Air Force more than two decades ago.
“There's young kids who could make mistakes, and you don't want to ruin someone's whole life over a marijuana cigarette,” says Jackson.
That's the hope from the Tampa City Council. “We’re not talking about legalizing marijuana, we’re talking about decriminalizing certain amounts of marijuana,” says member Lisa Montelione.
Members voted 5-1 to allow police to cite someone caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana, instead of charging them with a misdemeanor crime. The first time it's a $75 fine. The second offense is $150, $300 for the third violation and $450 for subsequent offenses.
“It's illegal. You shouldn't have it,” says Frank Price.
Critics say there's no mandatory drug counseling in the ordinance and worry money won't be a big enough deterrent. “After four arrests, clearly a person is heading down the wrong path and not towards the path of employment,” says Miller.
“If an officer sees a pattern, they can and most likely will go to jail,” says Davis. “If you don't pay it within the allotted time, now you're ineligible for this program. The next time you will be going to jail.” And an outstanding warrant or other crime along with the pot possession will also land an offender in lockup.
“Bottom line, is it is still illegal,” says Davis.
The change will potentially cut down on hundreds of cases that the state attorney’s office says won't have to be handled by the clerk’s office, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and jail staff. Exactly how much money this will save taxpayers is yet to be seen.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn supports the ordinance and now has to sign off on the change.
Tampa police will roll out the policy change to officers and be ready to enforce it in the coming week or two.
The St. Petersburg City Council is considering similar changes, but is waiting to see if Pinellas County takes action first.