Looser city pot laws may complicate county arrests

The city of Tampa is moving toward loosening its laws on marijuana. The proposed plan could soon treat pot violations the same as violators of the state's open container law.

No jail. Just pay a fine, and you're on your way.

However, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said it is concerned that the city could inadvertently close off drug treatment programs to people who may need them, because offenders are often required to go after a court appearance.

"We think that if they are in the court system, they are supervised by a judge, that they can get the drug education, get the drug treatment, to stop that cycle," said Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough Co. Sheriff's Office.

Further, the sheriff's office says most who are caught with marijuana are part of investigations into other drugs, burglaries or violence.

The difference in being charged with a misdemeanor or a criminal offense could also be determined by where one is arrested - in Tampa or in greater Hillsborough County. McKinnon said The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office will continue to treat marijuana offenses as it has in the past.

As Tampa joins cities like St. Pete, Miami and West Palm Beach in lessening penalties, defense lawyers say it would be wrong to think police would have less power to search.

"Could this law be potentially used to lull people into a false sense of confidence?" asked defense attorney Anthony Rickman. "If it's just a civil infraction, you're still potentially subject to searches because under state law, marijuana is still illegal."