Miami-Dade County

Critics fired up after police official improperly sends email bashing Florida medical-marijuana plan

North Miami Beach became the latest flashpoint in Florida’s medical-marijuana fight when a police official broke state law by improperly emailing political talking points from opponents of the ballot initiative that voters will decide in November.

Residents, city leaders and medical-marijuana advocates were fired up that Cmdr. Tom Carney emailed the “Truth About Medical Marijuana” from his official work account — and that he then resent the "deceptive" email when city managers quickly forced him to send a follow-up explaining he did not intend to break the law.

“From the get-go it shouldn’t have been disseminated and then, when it was done wrong the first time, it didn’t need to be compounded the second time,” City Councilwoman Barbara Kramer wrote in an email to city officials Friday after a constituent complained about Carney’s politicking on the taxpayer dime.

“Guess I’m not the only one who thinks the PD shouldn’t be sending this out,” she wrote.

Under state law, non-elected public officials are generally prohibited from engaging in electoral politics by using their public office, computers or email accounts — especially when they’re supposed to be doing their public jobs.

A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a maximum year in jail and a $1,000 fine. That’s the same penalty for personal marijuana possession in Florida.

Medical-marijuana proponents say the controversy highlights the lengths to which law enforcement and some government officials will go to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment on November’s ballot.

“It is unfortunate that a member of a law-enforcement agency would break the law in the service of denying relief to suffering Floridians who could be helped by medical marijuana,” said Ben Pollara, executive director for United for Care, which is leading the effort to pass the amendment.

Polling indicates Florida’s medical-marijuana amendment enjoys widespread support that exceeds 70 percent. A constitutional amendment needs to pass with 60 percent of the vote in Florida.

If the amendment passes, Florida would become the 24th medical marijuana state. Washington, D.C., has decriminalized marijuana and the city of Miami Beach in November passed a non-binding medical-marijuana initiative.

Carney would not comment to the Miami Herald about his emails, which contained a press release from the Florida Police Chiefs Association and an Internet link to the website “Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot,” maintained by a Tallahassee-based public-relations group.

The Police Chiefs Association joined other conservative-leaning lobbies, anti-drug groups and state legislative leaders earlier this year in an unsuccessful effort to block the amendment from the November ballot on the grounds it would mislead voters.

A Florida Supreme Court majority, however, ruled that the amendment was clear. Contrary to opponents’ arguments, the court ruled, the amendment is designed to allow legal cannabis use by people who have truly “debilitating” medical conditions as determined by a licensed Florida physician.

After losing in court, the groups began using the same talking points in press releases and on the campaign trail.

In the “Truth About Medical Marijuana” press release sent by Carney, the police chiefs focus on marijuana legalization in Denver — a separate issue from Florida’s constitutional amendment.

“Isn’t this deceptive because the Florida law on the ballot is medical marijuana?” a resident, whose name was not disclosed, wrote in an email complaining to Councilwoman Kramer.

“This is a political email and should not the coming out of the city,” the constituent wrote.

Mark Herron, a top Tallahassee ethics and elections lawyer, said police and sheriff’s officials are allowed to express political opinions. But non-elected officials need to do it on their private time.

“Basically you can’t use your work computer to advocate for or against a ballot initiative or a candidate if you’re a public employee,” Herron said.

Herron pointed out that Florida statute 104.31(a) says public officials can’t use their “official authority” for “influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result” of an election.

Another state law, 112.313(6), says employees like Carney may not “corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource” for campaign purposes.

In email correspondence with Kramer, North Miami Beach’s city attorney, Jose Smith, said Carney’s email might also have broken another civil statute concerning “electioneering” by public employees.

Smith drafted Carney’s apology, which he promptly sent out Friday night.

“There was no intent to advocate for or against any issue, but rather, to provide general information from a well-respected police organization,” Carney wrote. “I will be more careful in the future to ensure that any correspondence is not viewed as political advocacy, especially prior to elections.”

Kramer’s constituent mocked the clarification in a follow-up email to city officials because, she noted, Carney repeated the talking points of the police chiefs.

“This would be so bizarre that it would be funny except it’s a little scary,” the resident wrote. “No intent? I didn’t see any intent — did you see any intent? :)”

After Kramer forwarded that email to Smith, he said he wanted the matter closed.

“Can't we just let it go?” he asked Kramer. “He made a mistake. He said he will not do it again. Why do we keep eating our own? If it will make the constituent feel better, I’m voting in favor (even though I never inhaled).”