Florida Keys

Marijuana possession may have lighter penalties in Keys

Possessing a bag of marijuana described as being 5 grams could be treated as a civil violation under a proposed Monroe County ordinance.
Possessing a bag of marijuana described as being 5 grams could be treated as a civil violation under a proposed Monroe County ordinance. Amsterdam Coffee Shops

Monroe County may make the move to lighten penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

A draft ordinance going to the Monroe County Commission at its Tuesday meeting in Key West proposes to allow law-enforcement officers to issue a civil citation, similar to a parking ticket, for possessing no more than 5 grams of marijuana.

Key West, Marathon and Islamorada all have similar laws but set the maximum amount of marijuana carried for personal use at 20 grams — about three-quarters of an ounce. The county’s proposed 5-gram maximum is less than a fifth of an ounce.

“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,” Commissioner George Neugent said in raising the topic in July 2015. “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.”

Other South Florida counties, including Miami Dade, have adopted similar measures that avoid filing misdemeanor charges over possession of small amounts with no intent to sell. Charges essentially are treated as code violations.

Key West police have issued nine civil violations for marijuana possession in 2016, the last two in late October.

“It’s not a lot,” city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said. None were issued in the months after the ordinance took effect in September 2015 while procedures were finalized.

Under the proposed ordinance for unincorporated Monroe County, the sheriff’s office serves as the primary enforcement agency. Sheriff Rick Ramsay has said that as long as his deputies can make an arrest in serious drug cases, he has no objections to the civil fines.

“It's another tool in our tool kit,” Ramsay said. “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.”

Fines for violating the county’s ordinance would cost $100, possibly increasing to $500 if the violator demands a court hearing or fails to pay the $100 penalty in a timely fashion.

The county’s “draft ordinance places the violations under the jurisdiction of County Court judges who have the power to issue arrest warrants and contempt citations for those who do not comply,” County Attorney Bob Shillinger said Friday.

Key Colony Beach has no proposals pending to revise marijuana rules, Mayor Jerry Ellis said. “We rarely have that sort of problem in Key Colony Beach,” Ellis said. “It’s more about improper parking or speeding.”

“But I understand the intent,” he said. “There’s no need to fill up the jails with people convicted on non-violent misdemeanors.”

The Monroe County Commission meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Harvey Government Center on Key West’s Truman Avenue.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206