Small amounts could mean ticket instead of arrest

Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent wants to discuss the legality of possessing small amounts of marijuana, similar to a recent ordinance passed in Miami-Dade County on July 3. It gives law enforcement the discretion to either write a civil citation or arrest the offender on a criminal misdemeanor.

“I want to talk about creating a county ordinance that would allow the arresting officer to make a decision whether to arrest a person or give them a ticket, similar to a parking ticket,” Neugent said.

Already similar laws have been passed in 20 states.

Neugent said he believes the public perception of pot is changing. He said many young people believe it to be no worse, in fact less intoxicating or dangerous, than alcohol.

“This law would not be an endorsement of marijuana smoking,” he said, “but it would do two things. It would protect young adults from having a black mark on their permanent record, something that could affect future job prospects, and it could also reduce government spending on prosecuting this type of misdemeanor.”

Neugent said the cost of the civil citation will also be debated. In Miami-Dade County the fine is $100.

State Attorney Katherine Vogel said if such a law passed, it won’t make marijuana legal to possess, or legal to smoke in public. She said it’s not advisable to spark up in front of a police officer.

“It’s still an illegal drug. Don’t smoke a joint in front of a police officer and count on them giving you a ticket,” Vogel said.

Similar laws in other counties and states rely on a host of factors in determining whether a ticket or arrest is warranted. Some laws put the threshold at possessing 10 grams of marijuana, others at 20 grams. Some ordinances make it an arrestable offense if the marijuana is discovered at an automobile accident, or if the person has a past record or intends to sell the marijuana. Many of the ordinances also have special considerations for possession by juveniles.

Vogel cites studies that show a difference in how drugs affect an adult versus a developing brain.

“We know that substance abuse has more of an affect on the juvenile brain,” she said. “Whatever we do, I want to tell the Monroe County Board of Commissioners that I do not want this ordinance to apply to juveniles.”

Vogel said there are already two juvenile programs in place — a teen court and also the IDDS (Intensive Deliquency Diversion Services) which is administered by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. “They are working,” she said.

From Jan.1 to June 30 of 2015, the State’s Attorney office has accumulated 53 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession. (That doesn’t count cases where there were other charges, such as driving under the influence.) Vogel said she would expect to see a decrease in cases passing through her office.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said he sees both the positive and negative effects of such a law.

“It takes a lot of manpower to process a misdemeanor marijuana charge. There’s the arrest, transport, paperwork, and care and custody of the offender, ” Ramsay said, “not to mention the cost of moving the case through the judicial system.” Ramsay said he’s open to the discussion but, “it’s our job to enforce the laws, not write the laws.”

If there’s a downside to an ordinance that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Ramsay said it’s in the realm of public perception.

“I think it would lessen the fear factor, because it would seem like less of a risk,” he said.

And while marijuana is rarely associated with violent crime, it can have an affect on traffic safety. According to a 2014 report by the  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, marijuana usage behind the wheel is up 50 percent since 2007. A second survey about marijuana usage and crashes was less conclusive; those who smoke and drive are already at high risk for accidents.

“Studies show there’s an increase of crashes, injuries and fatalities that involve marijuana use,” Ramsay said. “It’s also difficult to determine on the scene. A breathalyzer would be of no use; there would have to be a blood test and that’s more invasive.”

Although Monroe County might pass the ordinance for a civil citation, if other Keys cities don’t follow suit it will mean location is very important to those caught with a small amount of marijuana.

“The City of Key West would need to pass its own ordinance, pretty quickly or simultaneously,” said city spokesperson Alyson Crean. “We follow the lead of our county, but we need to have a city law. Key West Police Chief Donie Lee is in support of the ordinance. He sees it as another tool of discretion the officers can use. It’s cost-efficient, saves the taxpayers money, and in the right circumstances can keep from tying up the court with small infractions.”

Crean said that passing such a law wouldn’t be a drastic departure from the way it currently handles possession of small amounts of marijuana. Key West Police officers have the ability to issue a notice to appear.

“You don’t get arrested and get booked, but you do have to appear before a judge and pay a fine and it is part of your record,” Crean said.

The Monroe County Commission will discuss the matter at its meeting on Wednesday, July 15 at the Harvey Government Center in Key West.

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