Attorneys: Hemp law makes prosecuting marijuana cases difficult

A new Florida law legalizing hemp is making it harder for law enforcement to arrest someone for marijuana possession because hemp and marijuana plants are difficult to distinguish.

Historically, the smell of marijuana provided police with enough probable cause to search a car and arrest someone for marijuana possession, but that's no longer the case. As a result, law enforcement agencies across the state are changing how they police pot.

Hemp and marijuana plants are both species of cannabis plants. Recreational marijuana is still illegal in the sunshine state, but now, possessing hemp is not. Attorney Hunter Chamberlin says field tests used by law enforcement detect cannabis, but does not narrow down the species.

"Even if they smell what they believe to be marijuana and they test it and it comes out positive for marijuana that is not necessarily going to be as efficient to establish that a crime has been committed," Chamberlin said.

Wednesday, Tallahassee State Attorney Jack Campbell released a letter to law enforcement agencies in his area, explaining he would no longer pursue marijuana cases until a test is adopted to determine the difference between hemp and marijuana. Currently, such a test doesn't exist.

"It does make things more complicated. Our legal advisor has made it clear that smell can still be factor. If we pull over a car and it smells like pot, that can be a factor, but we should look for other signs as well before we feel we have probable cause to search the car," Tampa Police Department Public Information Officer Stephen Hegarty said.

In other words, the new law is making it more difficult to prosecute pot cases.

"I envision that the state attorney's offices around the state are going to have far fewer possession of marijuana prosecutions," Chamberlin said.

In a statement released Thursday, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren's office said, "We are working with our law enforcement partners to adapt to the changing legal landscape. In the meantime, our office will continue to divert low-level marijuana cases while prioritizing the prosecution of violent crimes and drug traffickers who pose the greatest safety threat to our community."

A number of cities in Florida have taken steps to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. In Tampa, if you're caught with under 20 grams police can issue a citation instead of making an arrest.