Marijuana, in small amounts, could be decriminalized in St. Pete

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Marijuana, in small amounts, could be decriminalized in St. Pete

Some day, if you get busted a tiny bit of grass in St. Pete and can't afford a lawyer, your life won't be over.

At least, that's what a St. Pete City Council committee is gunning for.

On Thursday, the council unanimously voted to move forward on the drafting of an ordinance that would decriminalize marijuana for those caught in possession of 20 grams or less, and simultaneously asked Pinellas County to do the same.

Councilman Steve Kornell, a high school guidance counselor, put the discussion on the agenda — not because of the debate over the drug itself per se, but because of the racial and economic disparities in terms of the consequences of possession of marijuana in small amounts.

“To me it's very clear. It's not about marijuana. It's about fairness and equality under the law,” he said.

If it passes, St. Pete's ordinance would hardly be the first on the books in Florida. So far, Miami-Dade, Broward and Leon Counties and a list of cities that includes Ferdinanda Beach and Hallandale Beach, among others, have done so, and many other places are looking into it, including Pinellas County. Each uses a different model, but typically involve a civil citation issued to the bustee on site and mandatory community service to be performed within a certain time frame.

It's no wonder cities and counties are starting to think differently about such an inconsequential offense.

African Americans are convicted at a disproportionately high rate for small amounts of the substance. Kornell cited American Bar Association statistics suggesting they are nearly four times more likely to go to jail for misdemeanor amounts than whites, simply because they can't afford a lawyer.

"You have two people, they do the same thing," he said. "They have less than 20 grams of marijuana, so maybe they have a joint. And they're caught. One can afford an attorney and one can not. You get very different outcomes from that.” The consequences go well beyond going to jail. Someone arrested for misdemeanor possession could lose their children, their job, their access to student financial aid and even privileges more basic than that.

 “I'm not sure that citizens realize how severe the consequences are for a small amount of marijuana,” said Adam Tebrugge, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The number-one consequence that I find that people aren't familiar with is that if you are found guilty of misdemeanor possession of marijuana, there's an automatic one-year suspension of your driver's license, and that happens whether or not you were in a car at the time of your arrest.”

There are also consequences for law enforcement, which uses the same resources to go after people with small amounts of weed as they do people who intend to do physical harm to others.

“If a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for possession of marijuana, they're going to have to transport that person down to the county jail, go through the booking process," Tebrugge said. "They're going to be off the street for a period of time. And then subsequently, they may well have to show up for depositions, court appearances, et cetera.”

Council members were adamant that the discussion was not about whether marijuana was bad or not.

Councilwoman Darden Rice said she agreed with decriminalization, but still wants to keep pot out of the hands of young people.

“My concern is, I just want to make sure that as we discuss this that we make the message about criminal justice fairness," she said. "I do not, in any way, shape or form, want to send the message that smoking pot is harmless. I frankly do not care what a 25 or 30-year-old does in the privacy of their living room. I do care what kids do. The teenage brain is a construction site, and I don't want to send the message that smoking marijuana is a harmless recreational activity.”

Same went for Councilwoman Amy Foster, who works with disadvantaged youth.

“This is a difficult topic for me,” Foster said. “Drugs are not a victimless crime. I see 95 percent of children that are being removed from their home are due to substance abuse issues ...I share my colleagues' concern about the disparities that we see here and I don't have large concerns about the issue of needing additional treatment as a professional in that area.”

Some council members wondered aloud whether those caught with small amounts of marijuana should be obligated to receive drug treatment in addition to the community service they would have to perform.

“I'm all in favor of decriminalizing and removing obstacles to career trajectory, all those things that we've spoken about," said Councilman Charlie Gerdes. "I'm all in favor of that. But there has to be consequences to choices. What I'm trying to figure out is, what's the most meaningful consequences that we can use short of some criminal consequence.”

Tebrugge said that could be a consideration, but it's not for everyone.

“A treatment program can be a very significant consequence for somebody who perhaps does not need treatment," Tebrugge said. “I think if somebody is a multiple offender, that that's usually indicative of a need for treatment as opposed to somebody who is a first-time offender, so that could be one of the things that you can take into consideration.”

St. Petersburg Police attorney Sasha McDermott said while the department isn't opposed to decriminalizing marijuana, there should be uniformity among the Pinellas County's some two dozen municipalities.

“We want to make sure that people in the greater Pinellas area are treated the same,” she said.

It's unclear when a fully drafted ordinance will come to the council dais, or when Pinellas County will formally talk about similar legislation, but Thursday's discussion went exactly how Kornell had wanted: not one of whether to decriminalize small amounts of pot, but how.

“The question is, what is the best way of approaching this?" he said "And harsh penalties are not always the best way of reducing something.”

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