Tampa City Council considers plan to reduce pot penalties

- Miami does it, St. Petersburg has discussed it, and now Tampa is looking into it too: easing the penalty for those caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Currently, anyone found possessing 20 grams or less of pot can face incarceration, steep fines and a misdemeanor charge. A minor marijuana charge can even mean losing your driver's license, regardless of whether or not you were busted with pot while driving.

A new ordinance proposed by Councilman Harry Cohen (District 4) would change the penalty, reducing it to a civil citation, payable online - similar to an open container ticket. Cohen spoke to FOX 13 about his motivation for proposing the change.

"It's really not fair to have a system in this country where we are taking an entire generation of people and giving them criminal records and large financial obligations for behavior that, in many cases and other places, either goes ignored or has just a slap on the wrist," he explained.

In 2015, Tampa Police made 1,882 arrests for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana. Though not every arrest results in a misdemeanor charge, many arrested for a minor pot violation spend thousands of dollars in resulting court and legal fees.

Advocates for decriminalization point out many people don't have the resources to pay for attorneys, and often end up with a permanent mark on their record.

"Many minorities, African-Americans, Latinos, especially young people are seeing their futures ruined with a criminal record, preventing them from going on to higher education, preventing them from getting financial aid, preventing them from going into the military and preventing them from getting a good job," said Christopher Cano, executive director of CFL Norml, a Bay-area advocacy group that seeks to change the legal status of marijuana. 

Additionally, expensive legal counsel doesn't guarantee a defendant will walk away with a clean record.

City Councilman Guido Maniscalco said he watched a college friend struggle to finish school and find work after his life was permanently altered by an arrest for possession of a small amount of pot.

"I went on to graduate on time and he had to drop out and finish college later," recalled Maniscalco. "Why? Because he had to come up with the money for the attorney. Keeping in touch with him, he's like 'I applied for this job and I have to answer this question and explain why.' He gets the job but it's always a setback. They say, 'we're gonna have to review this. We'll see.' He's never been arrested since, but that one mistake over 10 years ago follows him."

Tampa's Chief of Police agrees: one mistake with marijuana shouldn't permanently hold a person back forever.

"You make that mistake, whether it be at a party or walking down the street. I don't think that should condemn you for the rest of your life," said Chief Eric Ward.

The proposed ordinance would mean anyone caught with 20 grams or less of marijuana would face a ticket, $75 for a first offender, and doubling for each repeat offense. Paying the fine within 30 days would mean no court appearances and no costly legal fees.

The council will vote on the ordinance on March 3.  

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