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Councilman Dennis Makes Case For Decriminalizing Marijuana

Abukar Adan
Jacksonville City Council Garrett Dennis Takes Questions From Reporters

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis is leading an effort to garner support for his bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Related: Council Dennis Files Bill To Decriminalize Pot In Jacksonville

Dennis was joined Thursday by Council Vice President Scott Wilson, Democratic Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, City Attorney Paige Johnston, cannabis advocate Sally Peebles, and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Chief Matt Nemeth for the first public meeting on the measure.

The measure would allow police to issue civil citations to people caught with less than 20 grams of pot. Dennis said that would free them up to focus more pressing issues.

“It’s time to decriminalize it. It’s time to focus on real police work and not drain our coffers for small amounts of marijuana,” Dennis said.

About 840 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in 2019. Each booking cost taxpayers approximately $1,000; according to Dennis.  

Under the current law, possession of less than 20 grams of pot is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Dennis’ proposal would replace that with a $100 fine or 10 hours of community service.

The legislation has an uphill battle, with some top city officials pushing back against decriminalizing marijuana.

Sheriff Mike Williams said he does not support decriminalizing marijuana. And Mayor Lenny Curry’s office said legalizing pot seems to go against state and federal state law, which prohibits recreational use.  

At Thursday’s meeting, the majority of more than a dozen attendees supported Dennis’ bill.

Community activist Denise Hunt supports the bill, which she thinks  doesn't go far enough.

“I am sick of it predominantly affecting - notably on the Northside - where people are living in poverty,” she said. “You have over policing and they’re being criminalized for something that simply should not be happening in 2019. And it’s just ridiculous.”

Political consultant Matt Killen said the bill is still a positive step forward. 

“Eating an elephant you gotta take it one bite at a time,” he said.  I want to see it go further, but I understand that in the current political atmosphere in Jacksonville that it’s going to take a lot longer before something like that were to pass.”   

Killen said medical marijuana has helped with his Crohn’s Disease and has not negatively impacted his cognitive abilities.

Hunt and Killen are not alone in their desire to legalize pot. A March UNF poll found that 62 percent of Florida voters support legalizing marijuana. The breakdown by party was 65% of Democrats favoring legalization and 51% of Republicans in favor of making pot legal.

Related: DeSantis In Voter Honeymoon Period; Major Legalization Support Strong

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan said she’s not ruling out sponsoring the legislation.

“I am pretty excited about this bill,” said Morgan. “I believe having a second chance is paramount.”  

Several communities across the state including Volusia, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties already issue civil citations instead of jail time.

Dennis’ bill is set to go before the Neighborhood, Community Services, Public Health and Safety Committee next week, followed by the Rules Committee.

Contact Abukar Adan at 904-358-6319, or on Twitter at @abukaradan17

Abukar Adan is a former WJCT reporter who left the station for other pursuits in August 2019.