Florida could legalize marijuana, but those arrested still have a difficult road ahead

Florida could legalize marijuana, but those arrested still have a difficult road ahead

When Kim Johnson was stopped for a traffic stop in April, she wasn’t worried about the three marijuana gummy bears in her purse.

A Treasure Island police officer found her while searching Johnson’s car after issuing her a ticket for driving without a license.

The officer found the slightly melted gummy bears in a clear plastic bag and asked Johnson, 47, if she had a medical marijuana card. She didn’t. She thought she would be fined. Then the officer told her that having the gummy bears in her possession was the same as having Xanax. illegal, she said.

The officer charged her with possession of a controlled substance, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Johnson cried.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of thousands of Floridians have been arrested for possession of amounts of marijuana that could soon be legal if an amendment to the bill passes in November.

Amendment 3 would allow possession of up to three ounces of marijuana for recreational use. But even if it passes, it won’t expunge the records of those already arrested.

Under Florida law, a single constitutional amendment cannot address two different issues at once. This means that an amendment cannot simultaneously expunge past convictions and legalize recreational marijuana.

The group supporting Amendment 3 states that it would like to see such entries deleted in the future if the amendment is adopted.

But that’s little consolation for the thousands of Floridians who have already been arrested for marijuana possession.

Florida’s strict marijuana laws

Even compared to other conservative states, penalties for small amounts of marijuana in Florida are among the harshest.

Possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. Possession of more is a felony. Someone with 22 grams of marijuana and someone with 22 pounds of marijuana could both face a third degree crime Charges that can carry a prison sentence of up to five years.

Court data shows that thousands of people in Florida are charged each year with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Some jurisdictions, including Hillsborough County, are now imposing fines or other penalties rather than charging people with crimes.

But arrests are still happening. After a decline at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the number of charges filed nationally, it has actually increased in recent years. (Data does not include Duval and Flagler counties.)

Last year, Prosecutors charged more than 66,000 people with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Florida’s marijuana possession laws are “among the worst marijuana laws in the country” and are “overly punitive,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML.

Find out the most important news before rush hour

Become a Times subscriber and receive our afternoon newsletter, The Rundown

Every weekday we analyze the most important news from Tampa Bay on the topics of environment, politics, economy, education and culture.

You are signed up!

Would you like to receive more of our free weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s begin.

Discover all your possibilities

“They are not in tune with the rest of the country and not with public opinion,” he said.

In Georgia, another Republican-governed state, possession of one ounce of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor. In Florida, possession of one ounce of marijuana would be a third-degree felony.

Arrests of any kind can people’s chances of finding work, finding safe housing, and much more. Andrew Brown, a 35-year-old from Miami, was arrested for marijuana possession in his early 20s. He spent almost a month in prison in Utah for this.

Brown said he smoked marijuana in his car because he did not want the smell bothered the people in his apartment building. When a police officer stopped him for a traffic stop, they smelled marijuana, searched the car and found a small amount of weed.

The Because of his arrest, he was denied a background check and was denied financial aid when he tried to return to school.

Brown was able to keep the case under wraps after working with a nonprofit clinic, getting a job as a security guard, and eventually obtaining a commercial driver’s license.

Brown, who no longer smokes, said adults should not An arrest for marijuana use jeopardizes educational or career prospects.

“It was a huge nightmare, but I’m just glad it’s over,” Brown said.

If Florida legalizes marijuana for recreational use, arrests will likely decline. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that legalization was associated with a 40 percent drop in arrests in states that had already relaxed penalties for marijuana possession.

Delete records

In many states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, residents can seek expungement of their arrests, Armentano said.

In Illinois, where they began, For the past four years, in an effort to combat recreational marijuana use, police have automatically expunged the records of anyone arrested as an adult for possession or trafficking of 30 grams of marijuana or less, provided certain conditions are met.

Since 2018, state courts have ruled on more than 2 Millions of records for marijuana-related cases, according to a study by Armentano’s advocacy group.

“Nobody has to reinvent the wheel here,” he said.

The group supporting Florida’s marijuana constitutional amendment was unable to introduce an expungement requirement because the state limits the number of provisions that can be included in a single ballot initiative, said Morgan Hill, a spokesman for the group.

“Once adult recreational marijuana use is legal in Florida, we can work with legislators to expunge the criminal records of adults charged with simple marijuana possession,” Hill said. “Unfortunately, in Florida, you can’t do both with a single ballot bill.”

In the hands of the government

Roz McCarthy, founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said she was confident that if more than 60 percent of Florida residents vote to legalize marijuana use, lawmakers would recognize “the will of the people” and potentially take action to clean up the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana possession.

“Legalization gives us the opportunity to develop a policy to expunge criminal records,” McCarthy said. “It then opens the door to how we can repair some of the harm that occurred before legalization.”

But state lawmakers hesitated Changing Florida’s marijuana laws and expunging criminal records.

DeSantis is an opponent of recreational use and has said he will fight against it. In the past, he has vetoed bills that would have given Floridians another chance to clean up their past.

According to the Restoration of Rights Project, Florida is one of the most difficult states to obtain expungement or sealing of records.

Armentano said that although more people are calling for marijuana legalization or lighter penalties for marijuana use, Florida lawmakers have not yet taken action.

He said that was partly why groups were pushing for constitutional changes rather than waiting for lawmakers to propose them.

“Democracy is not supposed to work like this,” said Armentano.

Charges dropped

Johnson was worried for weeks that she would go to jail because of the gummy bears. But in mid-June, when she When Johnson completed her mandatory check-in with her sponsor, she learned that prosecutors had decided not to prosecute.

“You’re dropped, baby,” Johnson said the sponsor told her. “You’re free.”

Johnson does not know why prosecutors decided not to pursue the case her case. She was afraid to ask any more questions, relieved to have the whole thing behind her, and feared that it was a mistake.

She She spent $600 on bail, money she said she would have spent on school clothes for her children.

Johnson wonders what would have happened if she had been fired for her arrest – or who would have taken care of her children if she had been sent to prison. She thinks about her constant worry about getting into more trouble while the charges loomed over her.

“I feel like it’s a lot bigger than it is,” Johnson said. She added: “The money and the fear, all for gummy bears.”