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Hillsborough County marijuana decriminalization is a good first step

The new ordinance helps mitigate harmful drug policies, but more needs to be done. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

On Feb. 19, the Hillsborough County Commission unanimously approved a new ordinance to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Previously in Hillsborough, marijuana possession for 20 grams or less carried a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison. The new law downgrades a person’s first three marijuana offenses to a civil citation and a fine of up to $500, with education and treatment options. On the fourth offense, however, a person would face criminal penalties.

Because the ordinance was passed by the county, the new rule applies to all jurisdictions including Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and USF. University Police (UP) spokesperson Audrey Clarke said in an email to The Oracle that UP is waiting on guidance from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to implement the policy change.

This move is a common-sense step. Far too many Americans are caught up with police, courts and prisons for the victimless crime of using cannabis.

U.S. drug laws ensnare huge numbers of people in the criminal justice system each year. In 2018 alone, about 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession, making up nearly half of all drug possession arrests for that year, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

These arrests fall particularly hard on black Americans, who face racist biases in the criminal justice system. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates between black and white people.

While not as damaging as jail time, arrests can lead to adverse impacts down the line.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for instance, says in their official guidance that employers can deny someone a job based on their arrest record so long as “the conduct underlying an arrest… makes an individual unfit for the position in question.”

Similarly, courts impose hefty fines and fees on defendants facing arrest, trial and conviction, according to an investigation by legal experts with the prison reform group Justice Collaborative. If those penalties aren’t paid off, they can face jail time, suspended driver’s licenses and other harmful sanctions. In effect, these practices criminalize low-income people simply for their inability to pay.

The sum total of these issues is a cycle of stifled opportunity and widening inequality across class and race.

By decriminalizing marijuana, Hillsborough County is taking a positive step toward stopping this cycle before it begins.

However, this policy change should only be seen as a first step. Marijuana offenders still need to pay a potentially hefty fine under the new ordinance, and on the fourth offense they still face criminal charges. Only total legalization at the state level can stop these impacts in full.

At the same time, the new ordinance offers no restitution for people who’ve been harmed by marijuana arrests in the past. The county should take this as an opportunity to reflect on the damage that the War on Drugs has done to marginalized communities in Tampa Bay and move forward with a bold strategy to invest in those underserved locales.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.