Pot smokers busted by cops in Broward County with a joint or a baggy of marijuana could walk away with a civil fine and a clean criminal record.
Broward commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to create a lighter penalty for small-time possessors of marijuana. The county can't decriminalize an illegal drug, and police officers still have the option to treat the offense as a misdemeanor crime.
But commissioners lamented the lives they say have been ruined by arrest or jailing on what they consider a minor infraction. Twenty states have decriminalized marijuana under certain circumstances, and voters in Broward overwhelmingly supported legalization of medical marijuana when it hit the Florida ballot, but failed, last year.
Broward Commissioner Marty Kiar, who sponsored the legal change, said he's never smoked pot in his life, and doesn't think anyone should. But he said the civil citation option would save money by keeping people out of jails, and allow struggling people to avoid the complications that accompany an arrest record.
"It will change people's lives,'' agreed Bernard Cantor, a retired doctor who said he's seen "many who suffered consequences of the war on drugs.''
"I don't think this is a crime that should ever end up with somebody in jail,'' Commissioner Beam Furr said. "I just think we've been on the wrong track for a long time.''
Under what was approved Tuesday, a person would be eligible for a civil citation instead of a misdemeanor arrest if the amount of drug is 20 grams or less, and the person didn't also commit a crime of domestic or other violence, driving under the influence, or a felony.
The pot-ticket option would be available to a person only three times; after that, it could only be treated as a crime. Fines would escalate from $100, to $250, to $500. On the third offense, the person would be screened for a drug problem and treated or educated if necessary.
Discretion on how to handle offenders will remain with law enforcement, and a person could still be arrested for possessing a joint. Also, any Broward city could vote to opt out.
Miami-Dade County commissioners have already passed a similar law. Palm Beach County commissioners put a vote on hold until December, after the sheriff there raised concerns.
In Broward, the sheriff and the state attorney endorse this route, to keep small-time pot smokers out of jail and allow them to fill out job applications for the rest of their lives without telling anyone they were caught with an illegal drug. The civil citation would not be an "arrest' — it would be more like a speeding ticket.
Still, a lineup of speakers in the substance abuse field urged caution and successfully argued for the drug-addiction assessment and subsequent drug education and treatment.
Garry Smyth, who deals with drug and alcohol addicts, was among those worried about the message that would be sent to young people, who are taught to reject illegal drugs. Smyth held up a doctored version of the Sun Sentinel, with a photo of the County Commission and the headline "County Commission says it's OK to smoke pot.''