On Sept. 3, the Sarasota City Commission unanimously voted to decriminalize marijuana under a Cannabis Civil Citation Ordinance, joining several other Florida counties and municipalities making similar adjustments. An ordinance promoting decriminalization cannot be enforced by local legislators as it is superseded by state and federal law, so issues have arisen regarding the potential for discrimination and the privacy of residents who accept civil citations. However, New College students will not see this ordinance implemented on campus.
As marijuana possession and use is still illegal under both state and federal law, the specifics of this ordinance can get tricky. Under existing Florida law, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor offense. If convicted, penalties can range up to a year in jail and temporary suspension of a driver’s license. This ordinance is trying to change that through decriminalization—while still illegal under state and federal legislation, the local police force will have the ability to offer a civil citation, rather than a criminal charge. Taking effect 90 days post-decision (Dec. 3, 2019), a civil citation for the possession of 20 grams or less entails the option of a $100 fine or the completion of 10 hours of community service.
However, one of the main concerns surrounding this ordinance is implementation. Police officers will not be required to offer a civil citation to individuals and it is largely up to individual discretion, which raises concerns for the potential for discrimination, especially based on race. Sarasota City Commissioner Shellie Freeland Eddie has called for an annual report of the demographics of criminal charges made after Dec. 3 in an effort to track who is being offered this option, as the implications of a civil citation are vastly different from a criminal charge.
“In the end, it does keep that person from having a criminal record, it does not become a police report, it’s not reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, so it doesn’t have background check implications,” Freeland Eddie said.
Another prominent issue this ordinance brings up is the privacy of individuals who are offered a civil citation. In Florida, Sunshine Laws give residents the right to request public documents without provision of a reason.
“The commission and the city is bound by Sunshine Laws,” Freeland Eddie said. “So what that means is that anybody could make a public records request to the identity of anyone who was offered, completed, or failed a civil citation program for marijuana possession within a certain time frame.”
The presence of Sunshine Laws has far reaching consequences when it comes to civil citations, as both state and federal law dictate marijuana possession as a criminal offense.
“It could affect housing, it could affect jobs, it could affect whether or not you could live within public housing based upon the severity,” said Freeland Eddie.
Despite these potential issues, this decision has overwhelmingly been met with positive feedback by the local Sarasota community and is unanimously supported by the Sarasota commission.
“The whole point of us as a commission offering a civil citation was to give an individual a second chance,” said Freeland Eddie.
At-large City Commissioner Hagen Brody added, “[Not only is it] good for the community to know that we are really trying to respond to changing attitude on enforcement of possession [but] it allows law enforcement to focus on more critical problems.”
Campus response has largely been supportive.
“Decriminalization is definitely a great step forward,” Hannah Hoogerwood, President of New College’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), said. However, she emphasized the need for action past decriminalization.
“We should not only be decriminalizing but every single individual in Sarasota jails imprisoned [for marijuana possession] right now need their records expunged and they need to be released immediately,” stated Kendall Southworth, vice president of SSDP.
While these proposed actions may be valiant, “[Decriminalization] goes as far as we can go as a municipality,” Commissioner Brody said.
This will not affect the legality of marijuana use on campus. As New College receives state funding, it is under the jurisdiction of Florida state law, so this local ordinance is meaningless on campus property. While not affecting New College itself, the option of a civil citation will ensure that the nonviolent offense of marijuana possession will not severely impact the futures of local individuals—securing them a second chance.