There’s always someone waiting around the corner to ruin a good thing, or so it seems sometimes. While we celebrated Tampa becoming yet another Florida city to decriminalize simple marijuana possession we also forgot that it is still up to the discretion of the police to uphold this new ordinance. Though it appears that maybe Tampa Police Department is on board for issuing civil citations, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department who oversees Tampa and surrounding cities is not.
With civil citations now being an option as of April 1st a meeting was called by Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE) where they would discuss the possibility of allowing juveniles to be offered a similar citation alongside a mandatory drug treatment program, rather than putting them through the criminal justice system. It was at this meeting that Sheriff Gee made it clear where he stands on decriminalization.
“Today I continue to firmly believe states that decriminalize marijuana do not improve the wellbeing of their youth,” wrote Sheriff Gee in the letter (which was in response to expanding the civil citation program). “I believe they jeopardize, increasingly, a large group of youth in ways that can’t be fully understood today.”
Within the letter he referred to studies that correlate marijuana use at a young age with mental illness and abuse of harder drugs later in life. But we’ve seen this a thousand times, it’s just another way to phrase the gateway theory – and let’s all remember that correlation and causation are not the same thing. As for mental illness, many people who use and/or abuse drugs suffer from a previously undiagnosed mental illness and they are attempting to self-medicate unknowingly.
Backtracking for a second, this was indeed only in response to the idea of offering civil citations to minors – but they have also advised their deputies to refer to state law when it comes to dealing with marijuana possession committed by anyone.
Florida Highway Patrol also intends to stick to the original script – according to Sgt. Steve Gaskins, so does the Florida Highway Patrol. In an email Sgt. Gaskins wrote, “20 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor… whether or not a notice to appear or physical arrest occurs is officer discretion.”
Even more unfortunate is the fact that all this could be put to an end if only those in charge of proceedings the after arrest would decide to drop small possession cases – but instead they are on board with the Hillsborough County Sheriff and the Florida Highway Patrol.
“If the sheriff’s office or the highway patrol or whatever agency, does issue a criminal charge on a marijuana within the city limits of Tampa and they refer it to us, we will treat it as a criminal charge just like we always have,” said Hillsborough State Attorney spokesman Mark Cox.
There is also concern that giving officers the power to decide who gets a citation and who gets cuffs could be a dangerous power to allow for reasons such as the possibility of allowing racially biased arrests – and considering marijuana arrests are already racially unbalanced throughout the state, and the country at that, (even though marijuana use is around the same percentage for every race) that is a real possibility.
Hopefully the individuals working for these departments have enough sense to know when to make an arrest and when to issue a civil citation. In almost any case, the citation is definitely the right answer as it will still be a punishment (after all, for many people a fine of $150-450 is quite a bit of money to come up with) without the criminal record hanging over the individual’s head for the rest of their life.