Last month, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office ceremoniously announced it would no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana cases. The problem, according to top prosecutor Kathy Fernandez Rundle, is Florida recently legalized the possession of hemp, a substance nearly indistinguishable from marijuana.
"Because hemp and cannabis both come from the same plant, they look, smell and feel the same," she wrote in an August 9 memo. As a result, Rundle explained that her office would stop pursuing charges for minor marijuana offenses throughout the county.
Nevertheless, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber is now trying to pass a city ordinance that would make it illegal to smoke weed on public property. The proposed regulations, which will be discussed during a first reading before city commissioners today, would make it a criminal offense to smoke cannabis, marijuana, or hemp on any public beach, park, playground, street, road, alley, or sidewalk. A violation of the ordinance would be punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a fine as high as $500.
"Cannabis and marijuana are both illegal substances under federal and State law; and the public usage of illegal substances negatively impacts the City's residents and visitors," a memo from City Attorney Raul Aguila states. "It tarnishes the City's image."
Gelber did not respond to a phone message from New Times seeking comment.
So how can Miami Beach get away with making its own laws on marijuana? Last year, the city hired a special municipal prosecutor to file cases against people who violate local ordinances. Aguila's memo says the new marijuana ordinance, if passed, would be enforced by Miami Beach Police and prosecuted by the municipal prosecutor in Miami-Dade County Court — bypassing the State Attorney's Office altogether.
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The Miami Beach city prosecutor's office was formed in January 2018 amid complaints from a vocal group of crime-fighting vigilantes who said repeat offenders of low-level crimes were not being punished severely enough by the State Attorney's Office. On its own authority, the city began arresting people for small-time crimes, such as drinking in public, although Miami Herald reporter Kyra Gurney found that the majority of cases were filed against homeless people. Homeless advocates and civil rights activists would be right to worry that the marijuana ordinance could disproportionately affect the homeless and people of color too.
Confusingly, Aguila's memo states the city has a "progressive stance" that marijuana possession should be decriminalized at the state level. But, he says, cannabis smoke is "distinctive and pungent" and can be "unhealthy and displeasing to many people, including many children and families."
Says the memo: "The City of Miami Beach is the State of Florida's progressive mecca, leading the charge with progressive legislation in diverse arenas ranging from LGBTQ rights to climate change to marijuana decriminalization. However, the City's interest in maintaining a pleasant and healthful atmosphere for our tourists and residents requires the ability to prohibit noxious hemp and cannabis/marijuana smoke in public spaces frequented by children and families."
The ordinance will be read at the city commission meeting today, but it must pass a second reading at a future commission meeting before becoming law.