At Monday’s City Council meeting, the City of Orlando passed an ordinance that will allow Orlando Police Department officers a third option when they find someone in possession of marijuana, aside from arresting the person or giving a warning.

When they find someone with 20 grams of marijuana or more, Orlando police officers will now be allowed to issue a fine.

The ordinance’s intent is to allow officers to punish people for having marijuana – still a federal offense in the United States – without arresting them and putting a blemish on their record for the rest of their lives. Many arrested for marijuana are younger, and the offense, proponents of the ordinance say, can often be chalked up to a mere youthful mistake.

At Monday’s meeting, the city announced that it had worked with noted and vocal marijuana opponent David Siegel to come up with what they said was a “more balanced” version of the ordinance.

The version of the ordinance that passed will make marijuana possession over 20 grams a Class II violation in Orlando, which will make the first violation a $100 fine, a second violation a $200 fine and a third will result in a mandatory court appearance.

First or second-time offenders can choose to pay the fines, do eight hours community service or participate in an eight-hour course educating them on the dangers of substance abuse.

The ordinance will also go into effect Oct. 1, 2016, instead of immediately, as in the previous version.

Over a dozen people had something to say about the ordinance, whether passionately for or against it. Everyone seemed to have an anecdote to share that they felt perfectly summed up their stance. One man invoked his children, pleading that he would not be able to take them to Lake Eola if the ordinance were passed and marijuana smoke filled the air. Some talked of loved ones not able to get into jobs or schools because of youthful marijuana-related indiscretions, and others spun stories of violent, brutal crimes in the Orlando area that may or may not have been motivated by drugs and more.

Siegel, whose daughter died of an overdose last year, backed away from his company, Westgate Resorts, last year to dedicate his life to promoting drug awareness. At Monday’s meeting, he said despite him helping the city make changes, he still didn’t quite like the ordinance, saying he would like to see “a more stiff penalty” for those found with marijuana.

“I’ve traveled the country,” he said. “I’ve met with the Surgeon General in Washington D.C. I’ve visited rehab centers and visited methadone labs. I’ve basically earned a Ph.D. in drug education. I would go to rehab centers and listen to addicts tell their stories, and they said they started experimenting at age 14 or 15 with marijuana. It is a gateway drug. They go on to cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs.”

Siegel and others who opposed the ordinance said it sent the wrong message to kids – that marijuana under 20 grams was OK, and they could use it with little to no consequences.

Other opponents of the ordinance raised a common concern: despite all races using marijuana at roughly equal levels, black or Hispanic residents are arrested at disproportionately high rates for marijuana possession compared to white people. They said the ordinance would allow police officers to continue discriminating against minorities, which Police Chief John Mina assured at the last council meeting the OPD would do their best to prevent.

Still, residents like Cynthia Harris were vehemently opposed. Harris called the ordinance “a set-up against people of color.”

Proponents of the ordinance were from local activist groups like Organize Now, which focuses on racial discrimination and injustice in various areas, and ART420, an art show focusing on marijuana that “challenges the stereotype of marijuana users as lazy and unprofessional,” according to Erik Range, who represented the project at the meeting.

Organize Now Program Manager Yulissa Arce said she supported the ordinance because everyone makes mistakes and marijuana affects everyone differently – it isn’t a gateway drug for everyone, she said; not even most people.

She also raised financial concerns about the ordinance, arguing that paying for treatment and fines for having marijuana was costlier than some of the commissioners were taking into account.

“Many members of the community don’t have the money for rehab,” she said. “Who is going to pay for those services? The city? Is David Siegel going to donate more?”

District 3 Commissioner Robert Stuart, who previously had reservations about the ordinance, said that while the number of arrests for only marijuana possession was lower than they thought before, it was best to offer a method that deters illegal behavior while not leaving a lasting mark on a person’s reputation that could follow them forever.

Stuart also echoed the idea that they had to make absolutely sure that police officers weren’t arresting people by race.

“Building community trust means removing any biases in the system already,” he said.

The ordinance was passed four to three, with Stuart, Mayor Buddy Dyer, Regina Hill and Patty Sheehan voting for it and Jim Gray, Tony Ortiz and Samuel Ings voting against it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.