Miami-Dade County

Trump’s immigration policies help convince the city of Miami to decriminalize pot

Miami police officers will now the discretion to issue fines — instead of making an arrest — for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.
Miami police officers will now the discretion to issue fines — instead of making an arrest — for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. AP

Update: Miami Commissioners voted 3 - 0 Thursday evening to adopt the county’s civil citation program after removing the option for officers to issue fines for trespassing, and for loitering and prowling. Commissioners Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez were absent during the vote.

As governments around South Florida have moved over the last two years to decriminalize marijuana, one very large player has been conspicuously absent from the discussion: the city of Miami.

A number of municipalities have joined Miami-Dade and Broward counties since 2015 in giving their police officers the discretion to issue citations for small-time pot possession. But in the region’s largest city, some 1,300 cops have only two choices — make an arrest or look the other way if they catch someone with less than 20 grams of marijuana, a substance 70 percent of voters in the state believe has medicinal value.

Internal discussions about whether to change that have apparently been ongoing for months. But in public, Miami’s elected officials have been mostly mum on the issue.

That, at least, should change Thursday, when commissioners are scheduled to discuss a civil citation agreement that if signed would adopt a county policy granting police the ability to issue fines instead of arrests for seven misdemeanor offenses, including marijuana possession. The county sent over a proposed agreement four months ago, but it hasn’t been signed or publicly discussed.

“This would be a great program that can help put less people in jail,” said Commissioner Ken Russell, who placed the topic on Thursday’s agenda as a last-minute “pocket item.”

I don’t want to sign a cookie-cutter agreement

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes

So, why the rush?

Russell’s sudden desire to discuss the agreement comes out of a controversy regarding the county’s decision to once again detain jailed inmates sought for deportation by the federal government following threats that funding could be cut off to sanctuary cities.

During a hearing Friday in which county commissioners voted to endorse an executive order on the issue by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the county mayor chastised the city for failing to create a civil citation program. Though he didn’t specifically say it, Gimenez — who has been criticized by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado for bowing to pressure from President Donald Trump’s administration — suggested that city leaders were hypocritically and needlessly putting people at risk of being jailed and deported for harmless offenses.

“Unfortunately, the city of Miami hasn’t signed that [agreement] yet,” Gimenez said, urging Russell, who’d spoken during the hearing, to get the city to sign the document.

Miami-Dade commissioners on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, backed Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s controversial decision to detain jailed inmates sought for deportation by the federal government, citing funding threats by President Donald Trump and ignoring hours

When it comes to marijuana policies, the city has been somewhat regressive. Miami’s legal department, for instance, told the Miami Herald in November that medicinal dispensaries are not legal in the city because marijuana remains an illicit substance under federal law.

But the inaction isn’t actually related to marijuana, said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, who has no qualms with decriminalizing pot. Rather, Llanes said the hang-up over the county’s proposed agreement has been related to potentially decriminalized offenses that he doesn’t believe should be left up to an officer’s discretion: trespassing, and loitering or prowling.

Anyone suspected of committing those crimes, Llanes said, should be taken to jail rather than issued a citation and allowed to stay on scene and potentially continue on with a burglary.

“I don’t want to sign a cookie-cutter agreement,” Llanes said Wednesday. “I’m fine with the civil citation program as a concept. It’s just those two crimes” that are problematic.

Llanes said he hasn’t been contacted by county officials about the issue, but the department’s legal advisers have handled the agreement.

Russell said he didn’t place the agreement itself on Thursday’s agenda because the document has been under review by Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon’s office. But he felt Gimenez’s point about the urgency of the issue in the face of new federal and county administrative policies was poignant.

“It’s more urgent now than it was before, based on the county’s decision Friday,” Russell said.