Pot enforcement was a big ongoing story back when I landed my first newspaper job 45 years ago. Oh my, how we did love those police-combat-scourge-of-marijuana stories.
The Mississippi town where I worked suffered plenty of sure-enough serious crime, but robberies and burglaries, even the occasional Saturday night juke-joint killing, would hardly turn an editor’s head. If the local police managed a pot bust, that was front page stuff.
The stories ran alongside photographs of the police chief, the arresting officer, the mayor himself, all them stern faced, standing behind a table displaying baggies of marijuana, rolling papers, a roach clip, a bong the size of an alto saxophone.
For a small-town cop, the message was clear. Chase after actual, possibly dangerous criminals, nobody much cares. Nab a couple of potheads and shower yourself in front page glory.
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It has been tough lesson to unlearn.
All these years later, we’re still wasting time and police resources and great gobs of taxpayer money in the mindless pursuit of marijuana miscreants. As if the criminal justice system was trapped in a 1969 time warp.
The ACLU crunched police records for 2010 and found 757,969 Americans were incarcerated for marijuana law convictions. Florida alone had 57,951 clogging up state and county lock-ups.
The difference now is that the public no longer believes in marijuana prohibition. A Quinnipiac University poll released in April indicated that 55 percent of Floridians think adults should be allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, while 84 percent would legalize medical marijuana.
Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Legalization referendums will be on the ballot in at least five other states, including California, in 2016. Fifteen states have decriminalized small amounts of pot. Twenty-three states allow the use of medical marijuana. Last year, 59 percent of Florida voters favored a medical marijuana referendum (one percentage point shy of the threshold required to pass a constitutional amendment).
Another measure of the public’s flagging enthusiasm for pot prohibition has been the lack of a ruckus around Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman’s proposed ordinance that would give police the option of issuing a $100 civil citation to someone nabbed with less than 20 grams of marijuana instead of hauling them off to jail on a misdemeanor charge.
The measure, which comes up for a commission vote June 30, also has the support of the Miami-Dade Police Department. The cops know there’s no more glory in the war on pot.
Worse, enforcement in those states that haven’t decriminalized pot reeks of racial disparity. Although blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, the ACLU report found that blacks in Florida were 4.2 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than whites.
Heyman’s ordinance may be only a tepid step toward getting rid of our archaic marijuana laws. But at least it will remind police — after all these years — that they have better things to do.