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Florida Could Legalize Marijuana, But People Arrested Still Have a Hard Time

When Kim Johnson was stopped for a traffic stop in April, she wasn’t concerned about the three marijuana gummies in her purse.

They were found by a Treasure Island police officer who searched Johnson’s car after issuing her a ticket for driving with a suspended license.

The officer found slightly melted gummies in a clear plastic bag and asked Johnson, 47, if she had a medical marijuana card. She didn’t. She thought she might get a ticket. That’s when the officer told her that possessing the gummies was the same as possessing Xanax. illegally, she said.

The officer charged her with possession of a controlled substance, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Johnson cried.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of thousands of Floridians have been arrested for possession of amounts of marijuana that could become legal if a proposed amendment passes in November.

Amendment 3 would allow people to possess up to three ounces of recreational marijuana. But even if it passes, the records of people who have already been arrested would not be cleared.

Under Florida law, a single constitutional amendment cannot address two separate issues at the same time, meaning the amendment cannot simultaneously expunge prior convictions and legalize recreational marijuana.

The group sponsoring Amendment 3 says it wants to see such expungements continue into the future if the amendment passes.

But that brings little comfort to the thousands of Floridians who have already been arrested for marijuana possession.

Florida’s Tough Marijuana Laws

Even compared to other conservative states, Florida has some of the harshest penalties for small amounts of marijuana.

Possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. Possession of more than that is a felony. Someone a person with 22 grams of marijuana and a person with 22 pounds of marijuana can be convicted of a third-degree felony charges that carry a prison sentence of up to five years.

Court records show that thousands of people are charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana each year in Florida.

Some jurisdictions — including Hillsborough County — have begun issuing more civil citations with fines or other penalties instead of charging people with crimes.

But arrests are still happening. After a drop at the start of the COVID pandemic, the number of charges filed statewide, has actually increased in recent years. (The data does not include Duval and Flagler counties.)

Last year, Prosecutors have brought more than 66,000 charges against people who possessed small amounts of marijuana.

Florida’s marijuana possession laws ‘among the worst in the country’ and ‘unfairly punitive’ said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana advocacy organization NORML.

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“They are out of step with the rest of the country and out of step with public opinion,” he said.

In Georgia, another Republican-led state, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor. In Florida, possession of an ounce of marijuana would be a third-degree felony.

Arrests of any kind may affect people’s ability to get jobs, safe housing and more. Andrew Brown, a 35-year-old living in Miami, was arrested on a misdemeanor in his early 20s for possession of marijuana. He spent nearly a month in a Utah jail for it.

Brown said he smoked marijuana in his car because he didn’t want to odor that bothered people in his apartment building. When the officer pulled him over for a traffic stop, they smelled marijuana and searched the car, finding a small amount of weed.

This the arrest prevented him from passing background checks and getting financial aid when he wanted to return to school.

Brown was able to get the case closed after working at a nonprofit clinic. He managed to get a job as a security guard and eventually got his commercial driver’s license.

Brown, who no longer smokes, said adults should not an arrest for marijuana possession may jeopardize your ability to continue your education or employment prospects.

“It was a huge headache, but I’m really happy it’s over,” Brown said.

Arrests are likely to drop if Florida legalizes recreational marijuana. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that legalization was associated with a 40% drop in arrests in states that had already relaxed penalties for marijuana possession.

Clearing records

In many states where recreational marijuana is legal, residents can seek to have arrests expunged, Armentano said.

In Illinois, where they started allowing recreational use of marijuana Four years ago, police automatically expunged anyone arrested as an adult for possession or trafficking of 30 grams of marijuana or less if certain conditions were met.

Since 2018, state courts have expunged or sealed more than 2 According to a study by Armentano’s advocacy group, there are about a million records relating to marijuana cases.

“No one needs to reinvent the wheel here,” he said.

A group sponsoring a Florida marijuana amendment could not include a conviction expungement requirement because the state limits the number of provisions that can be included in one referendum initiative, said Morgan Hill, a spokesman for the group.

“Once adult recreational marijuana becomes legal in Florida, we will be able to work with legislators to expunge the criminal records of adults charged with possession of marijuana alone,” Hill said. “Unfortunately, Florida cannot do both with one vote.”

In the hands of the government

Roz McCarthy, founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said she believes if more than 60% of Floridians vote to legalize marijuana, lawmakers will see the “will of the people” and can do something to clear the records of people with marijuana convictions.

“Legalization gives us the opportunity to create a policy around expunging convictions,” McCarthy said. “That then opens the door to how to repair some of the harm that existed before legalization.”

But state lawmakers are reluctant to do so change Florida’s marijuana law and criminal record expungement.

DeSantis, who opposes recreational marijuana use and has said he will campaign against it, has in the past vetoed bills that would have given Floridians another chance to clear their records.

According to the Restoration of Rights Project, Florida is one of the most difficult states for people to seek to have records expunged or sealed.

Armentano said that while more and more people are advocating for legalizing marijuana or lighter penalties for using it, Florida lawmakers are refusing to act.

He added that this is partly why groups pushed for constitutional amendments rather than waiting for lawmakers.

“Democracy really shouldn’t work this way,” Armentano said.

Fees withdrawn

Johnson worried for weeks whether she would go to jail for those jelly beans. But in mid-June, when had a mandatory meeting with a bail bond agent, Johnson learned that the district attorney’s office had decided not to pursue criminal charges.

“They’re already abandoned, honey,” Johnson said her bailiff told her. “You’re free to go.”

Johnson doesn’t know why prosecutors decided not to pursue further prosecution her case. She was afraid to ask further questions, happy to have the whole situation over with, and worried that it had all been a mistake.

She She put up $600 for bail, money she says she would use to buy school clothes for her children.

Johnson wonders what would have happened if she had a job that had fired her because of her arrest — or who would have taken care of her children if she had gone to prison. She thinks about her constant worry as the allegations loomed over her head that she would get into even more trouble.

“I feel like it’s a lot bigger than it actually is,” Johnson said. She added, “Money and anxiety, and all this just for jelly beans.”