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Lessening penalties for people caught with marijuana moves forward in Leon County

Posted at 6:33 PM, Sep 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-20 07:40:28-04

LEON COUNTY, Fla. (WTXL) — Changes to the way law enforcement handles some marijuana cases are coming to Leon County.

Earlier this month, the subject made its way to the Public Safety Coordinating Council. Tuesday, Leon County Commissioners weighed in.

After almost an hour of discussion, a four to three vote to draft an ordinance involving marijuana cases passes.

"They're not decriminalizing it," said Herbert Thiele, the county's attorney. "They're adding a civil citation option for the law enforcement folks to use if they want."

The ordinance hopes to end criminal penalties if someone is stopped with 20 grams or less.

"I don't want any of this discussion to downplay the importance of the Adult Civil Citation Program," said Kristin Dozier, the county commissioner of district 5.

Leon County was the first in the state to create a diversion program that could keep someone from having a criminal record for some marijuana, alcohol, and theft cases.

"You would go through that process and if completed successfully, no charges are filed against you," said Thiele.

But not everyone qualifies. You're only eligible for the Adult Civil Citation Diversion Program if you have a clean record.

Since 2017, 283 people have qualified. Only 62 were referred because of marijuana possession.

That's why some of the commissioner said the ordinance is important.

"It rests on the discretion of a law officer to deem who he thinks is worthy of a civil citation," said Bill Proctor, the county commissioner of district 1.

But the County Attorney says that no matter what, the ordinance may not change much.

"We don't have the authority to direct any law enforcement agency to do anything," said Thiele.

Now the county commission will work with the State Attorney, law enforcement, and the colleges around the county to draft an ordinance that works.

Law enforcement agencies around Leon County will also have to discuss their interpretation of the ordinance.

Marijuana is once again at the center of debate for commissioners in Leon County.

By the end of a lengthy discussion, four commissioners voted for a motion to follow other counties in the state and make possession charges of 20 grams or less a civil penalty instead of criminal.

Commissioners Jackson, Lindley, and Desloge said the change would be too risky because at the end of the day, the county can't make law enforcement agencies do anything. Right now, the county has a program in place called the Adult Civil Citation program.

It's a program for someone without a record who is caught with 20 grams or less. 283 people have gone through the program since 2017.

Some commissioners say that the program is unfair because it's essentially at the discretion of the arresting agency and isn't an option for anyone with a record.

"This is what we can do. Given the conditions that exist state and nationally, I think we owe it to citizens of Leon to have that option," said Kristin Dozier, Leon County Commissioner.

"Sheriff McNeil's view has been progressive. This ordinance would not get in front of him, but catch up to where his mind is about it and our state attorney as well," said Bill Proctor, Leon County Commissioner.

The Commission will now work to draft that ordinance to change those penalties.

It'll follow suit with counties like Dade, Broward, Orange, and Alachua.