All forms of marijuana are illegal in Florida under state and federal law, but starting in the summer of 2015, a handful of South Florida cities and counties acted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, making possession a civil — instead of a criminal — offense.
Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous county with 2.7 million residents, was the first Florida municipality to decriminalize possession of small amounts (defined as 20 grams or less) of marijuana, followed by the cities of Miami Beach and Key West.
Hallandale Beach, a city of about 40,000 residents in Broward County that shares a border with Miami-Dade, was the first city in its county to approve decriminalization and was followed by West Palm Beach, the largest city in Palm Beach County with about 100,000 residents.
Both Palm Beach County and Broward County (with about 3.25 million residents combined) are poised to join this growing list before the end of 2015 after preliminary approval of decriminalization. Several other Florida jurisdictions are considering similar measures.
In West Palm Beach, the new law (Ordinance No. 4590-15) would give law enforcement officers the option of issuing citations to people in possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana (or possession of drug paraphernalia), which imposes a fine of $100 with no arrest, no jail time, no court appearance, and no permanent criminal record — a civil penalty akin to a traffic ticket.
The police have wide discretion under the new laws, but a person suspected of a felony, driving while impaired, a violent crime, domestic violence, or a person with an unpaid citation won’t catch a break under the new law, and will most likely be arrested on a misdemeanor for possession.
Under state law, a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana up to 20 grams may result in up to 12 months one year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. Possession of more than 20 grams is a felony in Florida, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment, a $5,000 fine, or both (Florida Statutes 775.082 and 776.083).
Issuing citations instead of making arrests for marijuana possession frees law enforcement to concentrate on serious crimes and helps to unclog court dockets, advocates for the reforms say.
Attorney for Marijuana Possession Charges in West Palm BeachIf you have been arrested or received a citation for possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach or Broward counties, or anywhere in South Florida, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the local laws to discuss your options and help you make the right decision in your case.
Shift in AttitudesAs national attitudes toward marijuana use evolve and more states, counties, and cities enact laws to decriminalize marijuana, fewer people will face arrest and the consequences of a criminal record, which may adversely affect education and employment opportunities in their future. Some people with a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana have experienced difficulty in obtaining a loan or finding a place to live.
About half of the states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for varying degrees of medical use. The states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have legalized the possession of small amounts of weed for recreational use, as has the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
A national survey by the Pew Research Center in March 2015 found that 53 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal (both recreationally and medically), while 44 percent said it should remain illegal. The survey also found that 76 percent said there should be no jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, while 22 percent favored jail time. Forty-nine percent said they tried marijuana at least once, while 51 percent said they had not.
A Palm Beach Post editorial in July 2015 called the ongoing policy shift toward greater acknowledgement of marijuana use by authorities a “wave of sanity.”
Many legal issues arise with the adoption of these new laws that downgrade marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a civil infraction.
Cities within a county may also opt out if the county adopts decriminalization, meaning that the law on one side of a Florida street may be different than the law in another municipality just across the road, creating a patchwork of laws.
Will state agencies, such as the Florida Highway Patrol, apply state law instead of the local law during a traffic stop in a city that has decriminalized possession of 20 grams or less?
And of course, the law is blind to the “black market” — not everyone grows their own pot; marijuana originated from somewhere and was delivered to an individual somehow. The sale of 20 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor and the sale of more than 20 grams of marijuana is a felony under state law.
West Palm Beach Ordinance No. 4590-15On Sept. 13, 2015, the West Palm Beach City Commission unanimously approved Ordinance No. 4590-15 after granting preliminary approval two weeks earlier. The exact text of the new law is reprinted below from pages 11-12 of the minutes of the commission meeting:
Public Hearing and Second Reading of Ordinance No. 4590-15 (APPROVED) amending Chapter 54 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of West Palm Beach to provide civil penalties for the possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis and for possession of drug paraphernalia.
AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY COMMISSION OF THE CITY OF WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA, AMENDING THE CODE OF ORDINANCES AT CHAPTER 54 (OFFENSES) ARTICLE I, (IN GENERAL) SECTION 54-1 (ADOPTION OF STATE LAWS RELATING TO MISDEMEANORS), PROVIDE CIVIL PENALTIES FOR THE POSSESSION OF 20 GRAMS OR LESS OF CANNABIS (MARIJUANA) AND POSSESSION OF DRUG PARAPHERNALIA; SETTING FORTH PENALTIES AND ENFORCEMENT RESPONSIBILITES; PROVIDING A CONFLICTS CLAUSE, A CODIFICATION CLAUSE AND A SEVERABILITY CLAUSE; PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE DATE; AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES. Agenda Cover Memorandum No.: 20534 (attached).
Staff Recommended Motion: Approve Ordinance No. 4590-15.
Background: The American Civil Liberties Union reports that when people are arrested for possessing miniscule amounts of marijuana that may have dire collateral consequences that affect their eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations and immigration status.
Further, the Federal Bureau of Investigation/Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data regarding misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests indicates that in 2010, 77 (percent) of marijuana arrests were of people 29 or younger, 62 (percent) were of people younger than 25, and more than one-third were of teenagers and pre-teens.
Currently, City of West Palm Beach law enforcement officers may either arrest or not arrest a person for the commission of a misdemeanor. This Ordinance will provide an alternative and additional mechanism under the City’s Code to enforce violations that are based upon the commission of certain enumerated misdemeanors.
Law enforcement officers may: (1) issue a civil citation pursuant to this ordinance; (2) arrest; or (3) not arrest a person for the commission of a misdemeanor offense of possession of marijuana and/or possession of drug paraphernalia.
Fiscal Note: No fiscal impact to budget.
West Palm Beach’s marijuana decriminalization law is similar to the others enacted in Florida in 2015, but it is indicative of the change in attitudes about marijuana that the ordinance received widespread support, even from law enforcement.
Find an Attorney for Marijuana Possession in Broward & Palm Beach countiesIf you have been arrested or received a citation for possession of marijuana anywhere in South Florida, including Broward County, Florida or Palm Beach County, Florida, contact a local criminal defense attorney at Meltzer & Bell, P.A.. The attorneys at Meltzer & Bell, P.A. have more than two decades of experience defending clients on criminal charges.
Lawrence Meltzer and Steven Bell are qualified lawyers who know the nuances of the local laws and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call Meltzer & Bell, P.A. at (954) 716-8538 to set up a free consultation.