Palm Beach County Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana

Palm Beach County Commissioners will be holding a public hearing today to decriminalize marijuana possession. Specifically, the discussion will center around an ordinance that would make the possession of 20 grams or less of pot a civil offense rather than a criminal one, as it currently stands. The county has...
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Updated: In a 4-1 vote, the Palm Beach County Commissioners passed the ordinance that decriminalizes pot possession. The measure now gives police the option to issue a $100 citation to someone caught with 20 grams of pot or less, rather than arresting him.

Commissioner Hal Valeche had the lone dissenting vote.  

Original post:
Palm Beach County Commissioners will hold a public hearing today to decriminalize marijuana possession.

The proposed ordinance would give the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies the option of issuing a civil citation to violators or enforcing state law. The civil citation would make the possession of 20 grams or less of pot a civil offense rather than a criminal one. State law, however, states that pot possession is a crime.

Commissioners originally voted on the measure back on October 6, preliminarily approving the ordinance. But the final vote was pushed to December 15 in order to work out the ordinance's language to make it easier to pass. The measure is expected to receive final approval in today's vote. 

The county has been discussing the measure since Miami-Dade County passed a similar one this past summer. Miami-Dade was soon followed by Hallandale Beach, Key West, and, in November, Broward County.

Officers in Broward County now have the option to arrest people or just fine them $100 for possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana. Second offenses will be fined  $250, and a third offense will cost $500. After three fines, possession would be considered a crime in Broward County.

Under the ordinance proposed in Palm Beach, a $100 fine that comes with a civil citation for marijuana possession will be issued. If the fine goes unpaid, $500 more will be tacked on. Those caught will also have the option to go to court to challenge the citation but might face a $500 penalty, plus court costs. The county will also give violators the option of doing ten hours of community service instead of paying a fine. Repeat violators, meanwhile, could face arrest.

The ordinance would apply to unincorporated Palm Beach County, with cities having the option to opt in.

The measure should pass without much resistance, although Commissioner Hal Valeche voted against it during initial reviews.

"We are sending the message that we think this is less serious than we did previously," he said in October. "If you don't have the fear of having this on your record, that makes you probably more inclined to try it."

Valeche has also called marijuana a gateway drug.

“If you ask any heroin addict what was the first drug they tried, they”ll say marijuana,” he said. “I don’t think this is a good idea. It’s not what I’d like to see in Palm Beach County.”

But Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who originally proposed the measure, sides with commissioners from other counties and cities who say decriminalizing marijuana would ease overcrowding in jails and not ruin the lives of otherwise law-abiding citizens who might get caught with a little pot.

"It just elevates and elevates to something worse," she said in June.

Broward Commissioner Marty Kiar told New Times that being arrested for pot possession had become an unnecessary blight on otherwise decent people's records.

"You know, when people apply for jobs or try to buy a home, they have to answer that question: 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime?'" he said. "And so many good people's lives have been ruined because they were arrested [for marijuana]. For me, the impetus behind the measure was over giving good people a second chance and not have their lives ruined."

Hallandale Commissioner Keith London, meanwhile, argued that the measure would help police focus on bigger issues.

"It will allow police officers to focus their efforts on more serious forms of crime plaguing our streets, unclogging a criminal justice system too often bogged down with cases of minor marijuana possession," he said. 

The Palm Beach County Commission will meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Robert Weisman Governmental Center, 301 N. Olive Ave. in West Palm Beach. 
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