JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One day after Councilman Garrett Dennis introduced legislation to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana in Jacksonville, he hosted a meeting to discuss the proposal with two other council members and the public.
Two other council members attended Thursday's meeting. Members Scott Wilson and Joyce Morgan heard Dennis make it clear he is not trying to legalize marijuana, he just wants it decriminalized.
He said the difference is how police would handle people found with amounts less than 20 grams -- about three-quarters of an ounce. The proposed legislation would call for the person caught with pot to be cited and not arrested, and fined $100.
Attorneys at the meeting pointed out the law against marijuana possession is a state statute and the city can’t change that. Dennis had expected that response.
“I am not surprised him coming out to say that," Dennis said, adding other Florida communites have decriminalized pot possession. "Why is it always a pushback and why is it that we can’t be a progressive, forward-moving, thinking city. It’s always we can’t do it."
Orlando has decriminalized 20 grams or less or have marijuana paraphernalia, allowing officers to give a $100 fine to first offenders; $200 for second offenders. Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach have done the same over the past two months.
Several people on hand supported the legislation, with some saying it's a racial issue because most people arrested on marijuana charges are African Americans.
Denise Hunt said it's a health care issue and would lower the crime rate.
“I think it would bring down a lot of the violent murders,“ Hunt said.
Dennis cited figures that he says show 840 people are in the jail and court system in Jacksonville on pot charges since January of 2018. He believes that averages to two arrests a day and adds to city cost in booking them. He said the citations would save the city money.
“It is time to decriminalize it.” Dennis said adding “Do the math. Fine them and then we can use that money for treatment and counseling. Now is the time to have that conversation, and we shouldn’t be caught up in petty political differences and not push this forward.”
Another member of the audience said it's time to change the image of pot smokers.
Matthew Luis Killen, who said he's a veteran and college graduate, told the council members he smokes pot daily. He joked about it because there was an officer in the room and added it’s because he suffers from Crohn's disease.
“I think it’s very important not only to decriminalize marijuana but to destigmatize marijuana," Killen said. "A lot of people who use marijuana or smoke marijuana get labeled as losers or dumb.”
Dennis said he hopes to have more meetings with the public and other council members as he works to get the legislation passed through committees and then the full council over the next couple of months.