Orlando moved a major step closer to effectively decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana on Monday, when the City Council narrowly backed a measure that would allow officers to issue tickets to some people caught with the drug.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to approve the ordinance, which would make possession of 20 grams (about two-thirds of an ounce) or less a violation of city code carrying a $50 fine for first-time offenders.
The council plans to take a final vote on the measure on May 9. If approved then, it would take effect immediately.
Dozens of residents attended Monday’s meeting to speak about the ordinance, with supporters outnumbering opponents.
One of the three council members to vote no, Commissioner Samuel Ings, argued it would damage Orlando’s image as a family friendly tourist destination and represents a “slippery slope.”
“People need to know and understand that this is making it easier for criminals to use marijuana, with less criminal charges and punishment,” Ings said.
The other two against it were commissioners Jim Gray and Tony Ortiz.
“We don’t have to follow the trend that other cities have started just because it has become popular,” said Ortiz, who argued not enough data is yet available to determine the impact of similar policies.
Voting in favor were commissioners Regina Hill, Patty Sheehan, Robert Stuart and Mayor Buddy Dyer.
Orlando police Chief John Mina and Dyer urged approval of the ordinance, which mirrors similar pot policies other governments have adopted recently, including Tampa and Volusia County last month.
Even if it passes, marijuana possession will remain a state crime. Mina said officers may still make arrests even for small amounts in the future, depending on the circumstances including the offender’s record.
“This cannot [and] will not replace the criminal state statute … our officers will have the discretion to arrest in certain situations,” Mina said. “This just gives them another option.”
Officers already have the option to confiscate small amounts of marijuana without making an arrest. Mina presented the proposed citation as a middle ground between a verbal warning and an arrest.
Shawn Dunlap, president of Orlando’s Fraternal Order of Police, said he informally polled the rank and file and found “no opposition from the men and women on the street” for the proposed ordinance.
Supporters of the ordinance said minor pot arrests waste the time of cops and courts and leave a harmful lasting impact on the job and education prospects of those arrested, especially minorities and young people.
“I see this initiative as one step in ending the war on drugs, and thus I support it,” said Lisa Tillmann, an activist and Rollins College professor. “If we must declare war, my own drum beats for wars on addiction, poverty and racism.”
Another proponent, Angelica Brown, said that she had experienced the impact of a marijuana conviction since her own minor pot possession conviction five years ago.
“Since 2011, I have not been in any trouble, yet the [criminal case] still haunts me,” she said.
Critics of the ordinance at Monday’s meeting had a variety of objections. Some said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough, because it can’t overrule the state law making pot possession a crime. Others said it goes too far.
“We feel that marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Jim Millar, whose 15-year-old son died of a prescription drug overdose in 2010, after earlier experimenting with marijuana. “It leads to young people trying other things.”
Another critic, Benjamin Purdum, said the ordinance sends the wrong message to young people.
“I’ve got three grandchildren,” Purdum said. “I want them to grow up knowing what the boundaries are.”
Several speakers on both sides of the issue expressed concern that giving officers the discretion to either arrest or issue a citation carries the risk of the ordinance being enforced inconsistently or unfairly.
Hill said she shared that concern, but opted to support the ordinance anyway, citing her own experience overcoming drug arrests from her past to win election to the City Council in 2014.
“How can I not vote for this ordinance [after] somebody gave me a chance?” Hill said. “So it’s my duty to vote yes for this ordinance because this does help other people have a chance.”