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Marijuana Possession Is a Crime That’s Forgiven in Some Cases

Editor’s note: This commentary is provided by the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) of Florida A&M University.

 While possession of marijuana is still a crime in Florida, getting caught with it does not necessarily lead to arrest and criminal prosecution in some cities and counties. Circumstances have a lot to do with how legal jurisdictions handle marijuana cases, with incarceration a likely avoidable outcome for many offenders caught with less than 20 grams.

As State Attorney Jack Campbell explains, the charge for marijuana possession ranges from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on the amount and what a person intends to do with it.

Mr. Campbell represents Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit, a jurisdiction that encompasses six North Florida counties — Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, and Wakulla.

Law enforcement officers, he says, have discretion in determining how someone possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana is processed through the justice system.

An officer “can either arrest you or issue you what’s called ‘a notice to appear,’ which has the same legal effect, but you don’t go to jail. Or he can write a report called a pre-arrest diversion, where he would refer that case to our office. That way you don’t have a criminal arrest on your record,” says Mr. Campbell.

Of the thousands of legal cases his office handled last year, he says only 82 were for marijuana crimes, and most of them were sent to a diversion program that offers low-level offenders a second chance.

“They sign a contract, pay the cost of prosecution, and for us to supervise them; our prosecutors will sometimes require them to go get a substance-abuse evaluation,” Mr. Campbell says. “We always make them do some community service, and if they don’t get into more trouble. . . in usually three to six months, we will drop the case. That allows them to not have the lasting stigma of having either an arrest or a conviction on their record.”

In some cases involving more than 20 grams of pot, a felony, Mr. Campbell says offenders may be able to plead down to a misdemeanor or go to “drug court.”

Like the diversion program, drug court (which usually takes 12-18 months to complete) sets rules that must be followed, such as taking urine tests, undergoing counseling, and appearing in court for status checks, says Shannon Cash-Russell, director of Criminal Courts with the Leon County Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller.

“Once all those conditions have been completed and they have paid a $95 monthly fee, which covers all the services, the state will go ahead and approve dismissing the charges, and we’ll get an order of dismissal,” says Ms. Cash-Russell.

Repeat marijuana offenders usually do not qualify for the more lenient options and wind up on either probation or in jail, but they are not subjected to a three-strikes law that would require more severe terms of punishment.

Interestingly, someone serving probation, regardless of the crime, may still be able to use medical marijuana in Florida, according to Anthony Washington, supervisor of Probation with Leon County Government.

The state attorney believes Florida will someday legalize adult-use marijuana, but he is concerned there will be unintended consequences from such a move.

“The greatest concern I see with legalization is on traffic safety. That’s what we’re hearing and seeing from the states that have gone legal; that you’re seeing a spike in traffic homicides,” he says.

Washington offers a different perspective on legalization, saying, “I just hope that, if we are going to take that route, that we specifically increase programs like FAMU’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative [MMERI] and we do more research to see what the economic effects, social effects, as well as the effects on some minorities are.”

Visit to watch MMERI’s Conversations on Cannabis Virtual Forum featuring State Attorney, State of Florida, Second Judicial Circuit, Jack Campbell, Supervisor of Probation, Leon County Government Anthony Washington, and Director of Criminal Courts in Leon County, Florida, Shannon Cash-Russell discuss Florida’s cannabis rules.

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