Miami-Dade Commissioners Back Fines For Marijuana Possession

Miami-Dade is one step closer to allowing police to issue fines — rather than making arrests — for marijuana possession. After a hearing yesterday where residents, public defenders and commissioners mostly enthusiastically backed the idea, a panel of Miami-Dade Commissioners gave initial approval to the ordinance.

Supporters say the plan, which will head for a final vote before the full commission next month, would reduce taxpayer costs and ease a law used disproportionately against poor black defendants.

"I am fully supportive of efforts to disrupt what are truly outdated practices that cost us too much money, make us less safe and ruin livelihoods in the process," Carlos Martinez, the Miami Dade County Public Defender, told commissioners.

Commissioner Barbara Jordan told her colleagues she was moved to support the plan by an investigative report by CBS4's Jim DeFede. The series, "Race Matters," looks at allegations of racial bias in policing, including the shocking case of a blind man who says he was booked on suspicion of marijuana possession then dumped nearly a mile from home in a desolate area

Speakers echoed that point, arguing that pot arrests are overwhelmingly in poor black neighborhoods.

"White counterparts use marijuana just as much as blacks or other minority groups, yet minorities are just 27 percent of the population but 67 percent of the incarcerated population," Demetrius Walton, a Miami Gardens resident, told the panel.

The only pushback came from Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson. While MDPD actually backed the pot fines and helped craft the legislation, he took issue with DeFede's piece and denied race was a factor in his officer's actions.

"I believe officers who go to work every day do it to respond to concerns in the area, and they don't have race on their minds," Patterson argued.

In the end, commissioners voted 5-1 to back the change. The bill now heads to a vote before the full commission on June 30. 

Miami Beach Commissioners, meanwhile, passed a similar bill unanimously yesterday on a first reading, with a public hearing scheduled for next month. That bill will be a moot point if Miami-Dade's rule passes — as it would cover all cities in Miami-Dade County, including Miami Beach.