Marijuana, In Small Amounts, Could Be Decriminalized In St. Pete

December 11th, 2015 by Staff

Some day, if you get busted a tiny bit of grass in St. Pete and can’t afford a lawyer, your life won’t be over.

At least, that’s what a St. Pete City Council committee is gunning for.

On Thursday, the council unanimously voted to move forward on the drafting of an ordinance that would decriminalize marijuana for those caught in possession of 20 grams or less, and simultaneously asked Pinellas County to do the same.

Councilman Steve Kornell, a high school guidance counselor, put the discussion on the agenda — not because of the debate over the drug itself per se, but because of the racial and economic disparities in terms of the consequences of possession of marijuana in small amounts. “To me it’s very clear. It’s not about marijuana. It’s about fairness and equality under the law,” he said.

It’s no wonder cities and counties are starting to think differently about such an inconsequential offense.

African Americans are convicted at a disproportionately high rate for small amounts of the substance. Kornell cited American Bar Association statistics suggesting they are nearly four times more likely to go to jail for misdemeanor amounts than whites, simply because they can’t afford a lawyer.

“You have two people, they do the same thing,” he said. “They have less than 20 grams of marijuana, so maybe they have a joint. And they’re caught. One can afford an attorney and one can not. You get very different outcomes from that.”

The consequences go well beyond going to jail. Someone arrested for misdemeanor possession could lose their children, their job, their access to student financial aid and even privileges more basic than that.

“I’m not sure that citizens realize how severe the consequences are for a small amount of marijuana,” said Adam Tebrugge, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The number-one consequence that I find that people aren’t familiar with is that if you are found guilty of misdemeanor possession of marijuana, there’s an automatic one-year suspension of your driver’s license, and that happens whether or not you were in a car at the time of your arrest.”

There are also consequences for law enforcement, which uses the same resources to go after people with small amounts of weed as they do people who intend to do physical harm to others.

“If a law enforcement officer makes an arrest for possession of marijuana, they’re going to have to transport that person down to the county jail, go through the booking process,” Tebrugge said. “They’re going to be off the street for a period of time. And then subsequently, they may well have to show up for depositions, court appearances, et cetera.”

St. Petersburg Police attorney Sasha McDermott said while the department isn’t opposed to decriminalizing marijuana, there should be uniformity among the Pinellas County’s some two dozen municipalities.

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