Orlando on Monday became the latest Florida municipality and the first city in Central Florida to effectively decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, passing an ordinance that will allow officers to issue citations rather than make arrests.
The controversial measure, which was supported by Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orlando police Chief John Mina, was approved by the City Council on a 4-3 vote.
It will take effect Oct. 1.
The measure was opposed by the two former police officers on the council, Tony Ortiz and Samuel Ings, as well as Commissioner Jim Gray. The ordinance passed both public readings by the same slim margin.
Added Gray: “Like it or not, agree or disagree, marijuana is against federal law and it’s not the purview of this council to try to modify that, in my opinion. … We can’t change the law, so we’re trying to change the penalty.”
Commissioners Patty Sheehan and Regina Hill supported the measure at both public hearings. Sheehan said voting yes was “the right thing to do, because it helps people get their lives back together. … Drug charges stay with people forever.”
Said Hill: “This is not just an issue for the city of Orlando but, hopefully, this will be implemented throughout the nation.”
In the month between the two votes, the ordinance was changed by city staff in order to answer concerns of some skeptics, including Commissioner Robert Stuart, before the first vote in April.
The ordinance would give Orlando officers the option to issue citations, akin to a ticket, rather than make arrests. Despite his reservations, Stuart voted yes both times, but argued the originally proposed $50 fine for first offenders was too low.
The revised version of the ordinance calls for a $100 fine for first-time offenders and a $200 fine for a second offense. Any subsequent offenses would require a court appearance, as well as a possible fine as high as $500.
Also new: The city plans to create a diversion program, similar to the one that exists in criminal courts, which would allow those ticketed to opt for eight hours of community service or substance-abuse education, rather than a fine.
Dyer revealed Monday that timeshare mogul David Siegel offered to help fund the substance-abuse program. Siegel became a prominent voice on drug abuse after his daughter’s June 6 death from a mix of prescription medicines.
However, Siegel remains critical of Orlando’s ordinance. He argued that even a $100 fine isn’t enough of a deterrent. Offenders will opt to pay that, rather than submit to treatment, he said.
“I would prefer [it] to be a much stiffer fine,” Siegel said. “These kids are walking around with a lot of money in their pockets.”
In studying the issue since his daughter’s death, Siegel said he’s been convinced that marijuana is a gateway drug for many young people.
“We’ve got to send a message to these kids that marijuana is a terrible thing for them to use,” he said.
Revenue from those who opt to pay the fine would also be used to fund substance-abuse education, Assistant City Attorney Kyle Shephard said.
The ordinance only applies to minor possession cases: 20 grams (about two thirds of an ounce) or less. It also applies to marijuana paraphernalia cases.
Decriminalization advocates say arrests for minor pot possession waste the time of police and courts and brand low-level offenders with a permanent record, with minorities and young people disproportionately affected.
“By freeing up the criminal justice system, we are able to address our real public safety challenges in Orlando … and reinvest into public-health programs,” said Korey Wheeler of Organize Now, an activist group that pushed for the ordinance.
Said Chardo Richardson, president of the ACLU of Central Florida: “Our drug laws and policies need to be significantly reworked and this ordinance is a step in that direction.”
Though few spoke at Monday’s meeting, critics say decriminalization is a slippery slope toward full legalization and sends the wrong message to young people. Some also argue that Orlando’s ordinance gives officers too much discretion.
Orlando joins a growing list of cities and counties across the state, including Tampa and Volusia County in March, to approve similar measures. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs recently asked the county’s public-safety council to study the issue.
Mina has stressed that possession remains a misdemeanor under state law. Officers will still have the option to arrest, for example, if a more serious crime is suspected or if the suspect has a history with narcotics or dealing drugs, he said.