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Sarasota City Commission
Sarasota Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2019 1 year ago

City moves ahead with cannabis decriminalization option

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The City Commission unanimously endorsed a proposal to allow for the issuance of civil citations in lieu of criminal action for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A proposal to create a process for issuing civil citations for misdemeanor cannabis possession received the full support of the City Commission on Monday.

The discussion item, placed on the agenda by Commissioner Hagen Brody, focused on the idea of establishing a non-criminal penalty for possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis or related paraphernalia. Although the city does not have the authority to fully decriminalize possession, officials are moving forward in pursuit of an ordinance that would give law enforcement the option to issue civil citations for those violations.

The goal, Brody said, was to avoid overly punitive penalties for those in possession of the drug and to reduce the amount of time and money associated with criminal enforcement. The proposal drew support from representatives of local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, as well as Larry Eger, public defender in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

During Monday’s meeting, Eger commented on the effects a criminal charge for a nonviolent crime can affect employment and housing prospects for individuals. He also spoke to the broad range of people involved with following through on arrests, including law enforcement personnel, the state attorney's office, the public defender's office and the clerk of court.

“It’s like dropping the pebble in the pond, the impact it has on the criminal justice system,” Eger said.

Although the commission was supportive of the proposal, unanimously directing the city attorney’s ordinance to draft an ordinance allowing for civil citations for misdemeanor possession, some questions arose Monday. Mayor Liz Alpert asked about the city’s ability to put clear criteria in place dictating when civil citations should be issued.

“How do we create some criteria so that it’s not just completely discretionary?” Alpert said. “To me, that just makes me extremely uncomfortable.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier said that was a question his office would investigate following the commission’s action Monday, along with other specifics regarding implementation. Eger expressed similar concerns about ensuring equitable enforcement of the law, particularly given statistics showing historically disproportionate arrest rates for cannabis possession among people of color.

He recommended the city be dutiful about tracking enforcement once a change is made, but he said the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good in considering the proposal.

“We have to try it and see — and monitor it,” Eger said.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said she would like the city to consider pursuing civil citation options for other nonviolent misdemeanors, particularly those that also show inequitable enforcement rates within minority communities. Although she agreed to Brody’s request that the city first focus on cannabis possession, she said she would remain focused on the possible expansion of non-criminal law enforcement options.

“I’m OK if it takes two steps,” Freeland Eddie said. “I’m not OK if it stops at step one.”

The city will hold a hearing on formal adoption of any ordinance at a future meeting.

Also at Monday’s City Commission meeting:

  • The board extended its timeline for considering an agreement with The Bay Park Conservancy, the independent group formed to manage the redevelopment of more than 53 acres of city-owned bayfront land. After residents, some commissioners and Fournier expressed concern about the language of the latest draft agreement outlining the responsibilities of each party, the city agreed to continue revising the proposal. The commission intends to vote on a final draft of the conservancy agreement at its April 15 meeting.
  • The city directed staff to move forward with the drafting of new regulations prohibiting the use of polystyrene on public and city-owned property. Staff recommended against similar regulations for plastic straws, instead encouraging support for an educational campaign designed to encourage businesses to transition away from single-use plastic material.

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