The Sarasota City Commission voted 5-0 on Tuesday to decriminalize possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis. Starting on December 3, getting caught with a small amount of marijuana within city limits will result in a civil citation, something along the lines of a parking ticket or a code violation.

The Sarasota City Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to decriminalize the possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis, which will carry a $100 fine or the completion of 10 hours of community service.

“I think this is a great step in the right direction because it allows law enforcement to focus on other things, more serious crimes,” said Commissioner Hagen Brody, who pushed for decriminalization earlier this year. “And it’s not just law enforcement — it’s the public defender’s office, it’s the prosecutor’s office, it’s the judges, the juries that get called for this, it’s the bailiffs.”

The Commission’s 5-0 vote also deleted attached proposals that would have extended current misdemeanor charges to those who had been previously arrested for possession, and those who commit other criminal offenses at the time of the violation.

“It’s a big difference,” said City Attorney Joe Mladinich after the vote. “It’s a long way from potentially being arrested and having to appear in court and getting a criminal defense attorney, having to pay $353 or whatever in court costs, plus probation, plus bonding out.”

Mlandinich said decriminalization, which will go into effect in 90 days, would have a “slight impact” in jail overcrowding because “I don’t think there’s that many people in jail just for possession of marijuana.”

But when he introduced penalty reform in February, Brody produced figures showing the Sarasota Police Department had “initiated 789 criminal charges for possession” since 2016.

“Now, a portion of those charges were secondary,” he said after the meeting, “and about half of those were notices to appear, which is not the same thing as a simple ticket. So the idea that people don’t get arrested for marijuana in this city anymore is just not true.”

Brody credited Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino for supporting the nondiscretionary aspect of the ordinance.

“I hope it sends a message that we’re responsive to evolving public policy, that we’re not burying our heads in the sand,” Brody said, adding that Sarasota now joins a dozen or so Florida counties and municipalities making similar adjustments.

“The problem other places have had is, it’s up to the police department or the sheriff to enforce it, and that doesn’t always happen,” he said. “Without law enforcement on board, it does nothing. We have law enforcement on board.”

Under existing law, conviction of 20 grams or less can carry a one-year maximum jail sentence and a one year driver’s license suspension.

This article came from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and was written by Billy Cox