By a 3-2 vote, the Palm Bay City Council has moved closer to decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia offenses.
“People make mistakes. People deserve second chances — sometimes even third chances,” Councilman Kenny Johnson said during Tuesday’s regular meeting.
“And a misdemeanor shouldn’t dictate whether they can get into the military, or whether they qualify for grants or funding in regards to college,” Johnson said.
Possessing up to 20 grams of marijuana and drug paraphernalia are first-degree misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine plus court costs. Palm Bay stands poised to create civil citations that police could issue in lieu of criminal charges. A standard paper clip weighs about 0.5 gram.
Palm Bay’s proposed civil penalties:
- First violation: $150 fine or 15 hours of community service with Habitat for Humanity of Brevard County.
- Second violation: $300 fine or 30 hours of community service with Habitat for Humanity of Brevard County.
- Third violation: $500 fine and an outpatient treatment program at Specialized Treatment, Education and Prevention Services of Brevard County.
Johnson, Mayor William Capote, and Harry Santiago voted yes on Tuesday’s first reading of the marijuana ordinance. Deputy Mayor Brian Anderson and Jeff Bailey voted no. The second, final reading will likely occur July 18.
Council members previously discussed decriminalizing marijuana in April and May, helping shape Tuesday’s ordinance. Brevard/Seminole State Attorney Phil Archer backs the move.
We support the use of civil citations in circumstances similar to those being considered by the Palm Bay City Council, as they provide law enforcement additional tools to address the possession of misdemeanor amounts of cannabis and paraphernalia,” said Todd Brown, spokesman for Archer’s office.
“Given the limitations of presumptive testing in distinguishing between low THC and Schedule 1 cannabis, civil citations also afford local governments and law enforcement a non-criminal option to address those situations,” Brown said.
Florida marijuana civil ordinances have been adopted in Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Palm Beach and Volusia counties, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reports. Cities include Cocoa Beach, Hallandale Beach, Key West, Miami Beach, Orlando, Port Richey, Tampa and West Palm Beach.
Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik, who successfully pushed for a similar marijuana ordinance in March in his beachside city, spoke at the public-comment podium.
“Anecdotally, it hasn’t created pandemonium and chaos in our town. We still have 2.5 million visitors a year. And looking at the arrest reports for the last several months, the primary problems that we have are with overconsumption of alcohol — certainly not cannabis,” Malik told Palm Bay leaders.
“I commend you for bringing this up. We’re, by far, not very progressive here in Brevard County. You have other cities and counties throughout the state that have already taken this step,” Malik said.
Since 2018, Palm Bay officers have handled 780 incidents involving possession of fewer than 20 grams of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, Interim Police Chief Nelson Moya said. Those incidents resulted in 334 arrests (43 percent of the time) and 446 non-arrests (57 percent of the time).
Of those arrested, leading age groups were 25 to 34 (112 arrests) and 18 to 24 (111 arrests), followed by ages 35 to 44 (54 arrests), 17 and under (24 arrests), 45 to 54 (23 arrests) and 55 and older (10 arrests).
If the ordinance is adopted, Palm Bay City Hall staffers will deliver semi-annual statistical reviews.
Santiago said low-level marijuana suspects who were previously let off the hook by Palm Bay police may think, “I was let go. I can probably get away with it again.” With civil citations, they would have to pay a fine and perform community service, with escalating penalties for future offenses.
But Deputy Mayor Brian Anderson said police are likely telling suspects, “This is your one free pass – and it ain’t never gonna happen again.”
“I think if you’re getting let go by a police officer, it is not a happy experience. I don’t think you’re like, ‘Oh, cool, I’m going to go do this tomorrow night,’ ” Anderson said.
Calling the ordinance “a solution looking for a problem,” Bailey asked for more information on how to handle suspects who would fail to pay fines or perform community service.
“I do not think taking them to collections is the way to enforce it. The way to enforce it is that you’re going to get a criminal citation. Because if they know that you’re going to get a criminal citation, they’re going to find a way to pay it,” Bailey said.
Capote said alcohol has a bigger impact on the community, especially among teenagers.
“Culturally, we’re changing. We’re evolving. So if we are evolving, this is one of those tools that helps into the future. We enact this, and we evaluate this as we go,” Capote said of the ordinance.