Marijuana reform has swept the nation, with Louisiana this week on the brink of becoming the 24th state to legalize weed for medical purposes. Florida narrowly missed joining that party last year, but some meaningful local change could be on the horizon.
The Miami-Dade Police Department has helped draft a measure in the county commission that would allow its officers leeway to issue fines and civil citations to anyone caught with small amounts of pot instead of arrest them.
The measure, which was drafted by Commissioner Sally Heyman, uses a state statute that gives local governments the option of treating misdemeanors as civil offenses.
Heyman earlier passed a similar measure allowing police to issue fines for several minor criminal offenses that mostly targeted the poor, like open container violations and possession of a shopping cart. Those moves freed up courts and saved taxpayers millions, she says.
"People make mistakes and they shouldn't have a criminal record that destroys their future possibilities for minor offenses," she says.
That should include minor marijuana crimes, she believes. Heyman says her office analyzed 245 arrests for marijuana possession in a recent month; only two convictions resulted from all those cases.
"That cost millions of dollars for taxpayers and those other 243 now have an arrest record," she says.
Advocates have long argued that small-time pot offenses clog up police and court resources and cost taxpayers millions; nationally, the cost of prosecuting pot violations has been estimated as high as $10 billion. One Harvard study found that a similar move in Massachusetts would save taxpayers nearly $30 million a year.
Throwing criminal charges at someone caught with a joint also adds nonviolent people to the criminal justice system. That's one reason MDPD says it supports the move.
The county ordinance would overrule the laws of any municipality in Dade, meaning City of Miami police and other forces would also have the option of issuing fines instead of criminal arrests, assuming the measure passes next week.
Marijuana reform advocates cautiously praised the move, though noted that full legalization would solve the same problems on a larger scale.
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"It's certainly a step in the right direction, but I don't think it goes far enough," says Steve Berke, a marijuana legalization advocate who has twice run for Miami Beach mayor. "We shouldn't be giving police the "option" to arrest someone for small amounts of possession of marijuana. It's a waste of taxpayer money and police resources. Police should instead be focusing on more violent crime and I'm afraid that giving them the discretion to arrest for marijuana possession is still a slippery slope. It enables them to target minorities and it still gives them the option of ruining people's lives. However, I am pleased that we are having this conversation right now, and if the commission passed the ordinance, it would be a step in the right direction."
Here's the full proposed ordinance: