Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Miami-Dade marijuana proposal a good start

This Feb. 1, 2011, photo shows medical marijuana clone plants at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif. The conversation about the decriminalization of small-time marijuana possession is evolving in South Florida.
This Feb. 1, 2011, photo shows medical marijuana clone plants at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif. The conversation about the decriminalization of small-time marijuana possession is evolving in South Florida. AP

The conversation about the decriminalization of small-time marijuana possession is evolving in South Florida, and here’s hoping that it becomes more rooted in reality, and most importantly, more non-partisan.

The medical profession has already chimed into the discussion, endorsing the use of medical marijuana to assuage the pain of certain conditions and the side effects of treatments. I know a young man in Miami with cancer who had medical marijuana prescribed to help with the nausea caused by chemotherapy and it was no more of a big deal than using pain medication for an injury. “It made such a big difference to the quality of his days,” his caretaker told me. “Nothing else we tried before worked to stop the vomiting and the nausea.”

Science and law enforcement have always been good partners, and so, it’s welcome news to learn that the criminal justice leadership in Miami-Dade, too, has taken a deeper look at how people caught in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana should be treated — and is endorsing a more sensible approach.

Instead of an arrest and a criminal charge for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana that mark a life forever, a $100 civil fine could be levied by police as an option, under a proposal sponsored by Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman to be discussed Wednesday by a County Commission committee. The Miami Beach City Commission is also considering making the same change.

Marijuana possession is the No. 1 reason “people who are poor, unlucky or disenfranchised” are imprisoned in Miami-Dade at a cost of $156 a day, clogging and taxing a criminal system that needs to focus resources on people who pose public safety and flight risks, Heyman told me Friday.

“At the end of the day, even if a marijuana possession arrest gets dismissed, they still have a criminal record and an arrest that would hurt them get into college, the military, or get a job,” perpetuating the cycle of poverty, Heyman said. “The basic inquiry is not ‘have you been convicted?’ but ‘have you been arrested?’”  

The civil fine option allows police flexibility to give people “second chances,” a strategy that has proved successful in the past with juvenile first-offenders and with other minor offenses for adults such as swimming or fishing off a bridge, panhandling, or drinking from an open container near a store, Heyman said.

My only concern: That white people will get a fine, but people of color will still be arrested.

Heyman says she trusts law enforcement to fairly exercise options and that sensitivity training has come a long way.

Her proposal also calls for the civil penalty option for petty crimes like shopping cart theft, but it’s the marijuana inclusion that’s attracting attention.

While she would’ve been grateful to be able to lessen her mother’s suffering with the use of medical marijuana during her struggle with cancer, Heyman said, this proposal didn’t come out of a desire to legalize marijuana, but from hard-nosed research about what makes sense from a community and criminal-justice perspective. The savings: $45,000 a day if you consider the number of people arrested and how long they stay in jail for lack of bond money.

Whatever the approach, let’s bring less politics and more common sense to the marijuana issue. These local proposals are a good start.

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