Carrying a small amount of marijuana in Miami Beach may soon lead to a fine instead of an arrest under a proposed city ordinance.
Mirroring a move being considered at Miami-Dade County and backed by police leadership, the Beach’s City Commission will consider an ordinance making possession of a misdemeanor amount of pot — 20 grams or less — a civil offense punishable with a $100 fine.
Mayor Philip Levine is sponsoring the change that commissioners will weigh at Wednesday’s City Commission meeting.
“We truly don’t want to waste our police resources on these type of minor offenses, and we also don’t want to waste our taxpayers money on the cost of arrests and prosecution of these type of offenses,” he said Friday,
Under the proposed rule, officers have the option to give someone possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana a $100 citation. That’s about two-thirds of an ounce, or enough pot to fit in a sandwich bag.
The person could pay the fine or request an administrative hearing before the city’s special master to appeal the fine. The option to issue a fine does not apply if the charge is tied to other crimes like domestic violence, driving under the influence or any other felony.
Currently, misdemeanor marijuana possession carries a possible maximum one-year jail sentence. Police officers currently have the option to not arrest someone with a minor amount of pot, but the person would still be required to appear in criminal court.
The county ordinance under consideration differs in that it decriminalizes a number of different minor offenses in addition to misdemeanor marijuana possession, like stealing shopping carts and loitering. Miami Beach could choose to be bound by the county ordinance, but it would have to adopt the county’s version. The Beach plan only addresses marijuana, and it creates an appeals process for people who get cited.
Levine also said that the ordinance would change a policy he sees as “discriminatory,” pointing to reports from recent years that show black Americans are more likely to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession than whites.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that found a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite black and whites using marijuana at similar rates. The ACLU used police records from all 50 states for the report.
Commissioner Michael Grieco wanted to discuss the topic in the fall, but held off because he felt it wasn’t the right time. On Friday, he said he supports the measure with one caveat. He wants to make sure people caught in the act of smoking marijuana go to criminal court.
“If you’re walking around Ocean Drive smoking weed, I still think you should be charged criminally,” he said.
He said while he believes it’s the right thing to do, the city would save money and better use its police resources.
Advocates point to the high cost of arresting and prosecuting people for marijuana possession. According the 2013 ACLU report, states spent a combined $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.
This isn’t the first time Miami Beach has talked about decriminalization of pot.
In 2011, local production company Rakonteur sponsored a petition drive to stop police from arresting people with 20 grams of marijuana or less. The movement eventually garnered support from 8,000 registered voters. Founded by Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, Rakonteur produced the 2010 documentary “Square Grouper” about the South Florida marijuana trade in the 1970s and ’80s.
After the City Commission balked four years ago, a negotiation led to a non-binding straw poll on the November 2013 ballot. That poll, which called on the city to push for legalization of medical cannabis at the state and local level, saw 64 percent approval and revealed that medical marijuana was so popular it got about 1,000 more votes than the leading candidate for mayor that year — Mayor Levine.
Now, a mostly new commission might pass precisely what the original campaign was asking for.
On Friday, Corben said that given public support, he’s disappointed the decriminalization plan wasn’t proposed sooner.
“Talk about a no-brainer,” he said. “When more then 64 percent tells you do to do something, I don’t know why it took two years.”
If you go
What: Miami Beach City Commission meeting
When: 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 10
Where: Miami Beach City Hall, 1700 Convention Center Dr.