Keys might follow Miami-Dade with citations for minor pot offenses

Recreational marijuana is legal in some states. Others, including Florida, allow it for some medicinal uses.
Recreational marijuana is legal in some states. Others, including Florida, allow it for some medicinal uses. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Possessing small amounts of marijuana largely becomes a civil infraction -- basically a traffic ticket -- in Miami-Dade County by this weekend.

On July 15, Monroe County commissioners will discuss whether to follow Miami-Dade's lead.

Commissioner George Neugent put the question on the board's agenda for its Key West meeting at the Harvey Government Center on Truman Avenue.

He forwarded an ordinance passed on a 10-3 vote by Miami-Dade commissioners June 30 that apparently will result in $100 civil fines for most minor cases of marijuana possession.

Changing the local law would allow law enforcement officers to decide whether to make an arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession or simply write a citation, similar to a traffic ticket or littering violation, for having less than 20 grams (less than three-quarters of an ounce).

"This approach could help reduce the cost of operating the jail and other costs associated with operating the criminal justice system," says a summary of the agenda item.

"This is not an endorsement for marijuana, just a different way of handling it," Neugent said Tuesday. 

"I know some young people and even older adults who got involved in a situation where they wound up being arrested and facing possible criminal prosecution for a relatively minor offense," Neugent said.

"Especially for younger adults, I'm not sure we need to create a criminal record that could scar or mar their background and affect their job prospects in the future," he said.

"I have no objection to the proposed ordinance except in cases of juveniles," Monroe County State Attorney Catherine Vogel said. " We already have civil citations for juveniles which do not involve fines but do require supervision which is more appropriate."

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said he sees advantages in changing the law, specifically in terms of reducing time spent by deputies, detention officers, prosecutors and judges on small-amount marijuana cases.

"I'm open to hearing more about it," the sheriff said. "I am in favor of giving officers more discretion, especially for first-time offenders."

"This does not decriminalize marijuana," Ramsay said Tuesday. "Our officers could still make arrests if people are lying to us, try to conceal anything or are people who are in trouble with the law all the time."

Neugent said, "If Sheriff Ramsay wasn't willing to consider this, I wouldn't be running it up the flag pole."

Key West Police Chief Donie Lee said, "I support Commissioner Neugent's initiative. It's a good tool for police officers, providing the discretion to write a civil citation."

"I think it's a cost-effective way to deal with small amounts of marijuana and it promises to be cost-efficient to the taxpayer and for the criminal justice system," Lee said Tuesday.

Adopting a similar ordinance for marijuana possession would be up to the Key West City Commission.

"I have yet to hear from any folks fired up in opposition," Neugent said. "We'll have to see what my fellow commissioners have to say."

Neugent said he decided to submit the proposal since he does not expect to seek re-election after his term ends. "There's less risk for me," he said.

Miami Beach, Broward County and Palm Beach County reportedly are considering ordinances similar to the Miami-Dade law.