Marathon lessens pot penalty, county appears to be next in line

The trend is to make small amounts of marijuana a non-criminal offense with no court date required.
The trend is to make small amounts of marijuana a non-criminal offense with no court date required.

Having a small amount of marijuana for personal use can now be treated as no worse than a parking ticket in the Florida Keys' three largest municipalities.

Tuesday, the Marathon City Council voted 4-1 to approve the second reading of an ordinance allowing police officers to issue non-criminal citations for possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. The law, which imposes a $100 civil fine for the violation, took effect Wednesday.

Key West city commissioners passed a similar ordinance in September and Islamorada's law took effect Feb. 25.

Monroe County government is the last big entity in the Keys to take it up and while it's taking awhile, the county attorney says he's getting closer to bringing something to the County Commission for consideration.

In Key West so far, "there have not been a lot of citations issued," said Alyson Crean, spokeswoman for the city and Key West Police Department.

Police officers "have always had the discretion to issue warnings for having small amounts, or file criminal charges if the circumstances warrant," she said.

In Islamorada, the law says filing "criminal charges for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana for personal use is expensive and time-consuming for law enforcement officers who could otherwise be spending their time addressing more serious crime."

Local supporters of such laws say having a small amount of a substance that can be purchased legally in several states should not lead to an arrest and criminal record.

County commissioners govern the unincorporated county including Key Largo and the Lower Keys. A draft of the county ordinance "is still in the works," County Attorney Bob Shillinger said this week. "I'm still trying to nail down one last piece of information on process before I bring a draft forward."

Several counties - including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- have enacted non-criminal options for possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana (less than three-quarters of an ounce).

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said as long as his deputies can make an arrest in serious cases, he has no objections to the civil fines.

"It's another tool in our toolkit," Ramsay said Wednesday. "If a person has just a small amount for personal use, isn't causing trouble and has a positive attitude, we would support giving them a break and not putting a mark on their record."

"You have to use common sense on things like how much [marijuana] they have," Ramsay said. "If somebody is looking to sell marijuana or has come into contact with our officers on prior occasions, that's another situation. So we want the discretion to make arrests."

Marathon Mayor Mark Senmartin voted against the city's new law at both public hearings.

"It sends the wrong messages to kids, and I'm probably the only [council member] with school-age children," Senmartin said Friday. "The School Board is talking about drug-testing athletes so they don't smoke pot, but now the law is saying it's not a big deal if you only do a little bit."

"A dozen people I don't even know have walked up and thanked me for not voting in favor" of Marathon's ordinance, Senmartin said.

The laws enacted so far in Monroe County allow those receiving civil citations to pay a $100 fine with no court appearance or criminal record. The issue of pursuing ticketed violators who refuse to pay the fine appears to be an unanswered question in unincorporated Monroe County.

Mainland Florida counties generally intend to pursue delinquent fines through their code enforcement departments and civil magistrates. Monroe County and Keys communities do not have that kind of staffing in code enforcement.

"There's no mechanism in place to enforce being able to collect on the fines," Senmartin said. "It's a mess, a terrible idea."

Ramsay said the Sheriff's Office role "is not to track whether people pay the fine or not. That's something [local governments] have to figure out."

Crean noted that few citations in Key West have been written in part because it took a few months to have forms for a new civil citation approved and printed.

"When you completely change a law, there may have to be changes in the infrastructure," she said.

Shillinger noted the question of processing violations from a civil violation for minimal marijuana possession is one of the sticking points in a possible county ordinance.

"The cities have code hearing officers or boards to hear such cases within their jurisdictional limits," he said in an e-mail. "The county code hearing officer holds hearings in Marathon. We didn't want to force a violator to drive [about] 50 miles to contest the citation."