Snuff marijuana arrests


Government should not be in the business of ruining people’s lives for making ill-considered mistakes and minor infractions — especially if such residents don’t have a lot going for them in the first place.

That’s why approving Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman’s proposal to give police the discretion to give people a $100 fine instead of arresting them for carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana is the next step her colleagues should take to decriminalize violations.

Such infractions, barring a complicating factor, shouldn’t not clog up our courtrooms, drain county revenue and leave someone with an unwarranted criminal record. That one slip can become a roadblock to getting a job, joining the military or getting a scholarship — in short, getting on the right track.

Ms. Heyman’s proposal comes before the commission’s Metropolitan Services Committee on Wednesday. Committee members should agree to pass it on to the full commission.

Right now, misdemeanor marijuana possession brings a possible one-year jail sentence. Police officers currently can decline to arrest someone for minor-marijuana possession, but the charge still requires the person to appear in criminal court. With a civil citation, the case never enters the criminal system.

It should come as no surprise that low-income minority communities, where higher crime rates bring greater police presence, bear the brunt of arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession. And that’s one of the reasons that Ms. Heyman rightly believes change is needed.

“For God sakes, you’re destroying lives before they realize they made a mistake. An arrest could chill opportunities,” she told the Editorial Board. “Our jails need to hold the worst, those who threaten public safety or are a flight risk, that’s it! A guy smoking a joint at Ultra should not be held with a rape suspect.” Well said.

According to Jim DeFede, of Herald news partner CBS 4, whose series Race Matters: Policing by the Numbers, has thrown a harsh and effective spotlight on how police can move in over-aggressively on African-American communities — alienating law-abiding residents who might otherwise be on their side — an ACLU study found that even though blacks and whites use pot at the same rate, blacks are more like to be arrested. Which brings us back to that “guy smoking a joint” at Ultra. The music events draws a not-very-African-American crowd of revelers, and police, no matter the jurisdiction, likely will be more inclined to cut them a break. Racism? Not necessarily. Bias toward someone most like the cop? Definitely.

As Ms. Heyman’s proposal moves forward — as it should — it is imperative that it include the requirement to collect data about who gets a citation and who gets arrested and why. Sad to say, few would be surprised that the “good kid” with a joint in King’s Bay gets the fine and the low-income kid walking down the street in Goulds — who similarly might not have a criminal record — gets the handcuffs.

Given that the police department is on board with this initiative, it should be just as willing to be held accountable. Already as a result of the DeFede series, Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson has pledged to sharpen the department’s focus on the correlation — and disparities — of race and arrests.

Marijuana has been called a gateway drug. Unfortunately, for too many African-Americans, it’s been a gateway drug to the criminal justice system, often unfairly.