Cocoa Beach votes to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana

Ordinance creates citation process to punish people caught with 20 grams or less

By Rick Neale, Florida Today
WPTZ via CNN

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - By a 3-2 vote, Cocoa Beach officials have authorized police to issue civil citations — if officers deem fit — to suspects caught with 20 grams of marijuana or less.

Last week, the Cocoa Beach City Commission approved the marijuana ordinance's second, final reading before a standing-room-only crowd. This ordinance creates a citation process to punish people caught with small amounts of cannabis or drug paraphernalia, according to a report from News 6 partner Florida Today.

"This is not a radically new idea that we're proposing," Mayor Ben Malik, who proposed the marijuana ordinance, said during last Thursday's commission meeting. "This is something that, whether your personal beliefs are what they are, this is where it's heading. There are numerous other cities that have already done this."  

"We're not asking to turn a blind eye. I'm not inviting people to come and smoke cannabis in public," Malik said.

Malik, Vice Mayor Ed Martinez and Mike Miller voted yes. Skip Williams and Karalyn Woulas voted no.

Possessing 20 grams or less of cannabis and possession of drug paraphernalia are first-degree misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine per Florida statute.

For comparison's sake, Malik said battery, assault and theft are misdemeanor crimes. He also said the Satellite Beach dog groomer who was arrested Feb. 25 and accused of breaking a veteran's service dog tail so badly it had to be amputated was charged with animal cruelty — a misdemeanor.

On Thursday, the state attorney's office announced that the charge against dog groomer James Suthann had been ungraded to felony animal cruelty.

On the other hand, Police Chief Scott Rosenfeld voiced concerns about the marijuana ordinance to commissioners. He said his officers would not save time by writing civil citations, rather than making arrests.

"We're leading the public to believe that you're only going to get a ticket in the city of Cocoa Beach for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. It's not the case," Rosenfeld said.

"We already have discretion. We already have a mechanism in place for giving you a break. We already give more breaks that we do charge criminally. So to add another tier is just creating more confusion," he said.

Williams said he preferred to take up the matter with the Space Coast League of Cities, then take it up with the Florida League of Cities and wait for statewide marijuana legislation — rather than pass an ordinance "with the tail wagging the dog at the city level."

Woulas said many of her constituents oppose the marijuana ordinance, which she called "unnecessary, ineffective and counterproductive."

"I do not support it. I still say this would degrade our family-oriented resort community, as stated in our charter. It will do this by making our city more attractive to those that use this substance — and all the stigma and negative associations that come with it," Woulas said.

Miller, who voted yes, said 10 states have legalized marijuana.

"I believe — and this is very important — change in this country percolates from bottom up, not from top down. And we ought to all be thankful of that," Miller said.

"I do not believe the federal government is up to speed on the regulations on this particular drug. It's not a Schedule 1 narcotic, in my opinion. And it should not be a felony," he said.

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