Floridians are embracing medical marijuana. Since 71 percent of voters in 2016 approved legalizing pot for medical conditions, more than 100,000 prescriptions have been written, and the rate has been growing at close to 3 percent a week.
At the same time, however, arrests for recreational usage (under 20 grams) have soared in Sarasota County, up nearly 35 percent last year compared to 2010. And so far this year, arrest rates are still rising. What gives?
“The numbers are misleading,” says Major Paul Richard, who leads the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office law enforcement division. “In almost all those cases, marijuana was a secondary offense. There are 9,000 other reasons people are arrested and, if they are found to also have marijuana, that becomes a secondary charge. But we are definitely not targeting recreational marijuana use.”
Local criminal defense attorney D. Scott Rieth, who has handled numerous marijuana cases, says the increase in recreational arrests, “is not a surprise. Law enforcement has a job to do, and despite the fact that marijuana is legal in a certain sense, it is still illegal to have a joint. In places such as Tampa and Orlando, they’ve made it more of a civil infraction, with a $100 fine. But Manatee and Sarasota counties have not been as progressive.”
First-time recreational marijuana offenders can avoid a criminal record or jail, but often must go through a diversion program that includes hundreds of dollars in fines and other costs, probation, substance counseling and 25 hours of public service. Repeated offenses can result in losing a driver’s license and even jail.
“Getting arrested for marijuana is expensive, time-consuming and just not a good thing,” Rieth says.
But Rieth says making recreational marijuana legal in Florida could take another decade. Efforts to put an amendment on the 2018 ballot decriminalizing marijuana failed badly, and a bill in this year’s legislative session to regulate pot similarly to alcohol failed to get out of committee.
“Florida is still a long way away from becoming Colorado [which has legalized recreational marijuana],” Rieth says.
Marijuana by the Numbers, Legal and Illegal
Patients in Florida's Medical Marijuana Registry as of May 11, according to the state Department of Health.
Florida doctors qualified to dispense medical marijuana
Dispensaries now open in Florida, where patients can buy oil, vapes and pills, but not smokable marijuana, which is still outlawed even for medical use. Dispensaries are open in Bradenton and North Port, and others have been approved for Sarasota and Venice.
Days on average to get an online application for medical marijuana approved by the state.
Arrests recorded by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 for possession of marijuana under 20 grams. That compares to 327 in 2010 and 344 in 2016. Through the first four months of 2018, the SCSO has recorded 156 arrests, putting it on pace to finish the year with 468 arrests. Manatee County officials said they do not have data on marijuana arrests.
The number of Caucasians arrested for under 20 grams of marijuana this year. Twenty-eight African-Americans were arrested. The total numbers include 144 adults and 12 juveniles.
The number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Twenty-nine states have legalized medical marijuana.
The number of signatures required to put a proposed amendment on the ballot this year to decriminalize recreational marijuana in Florida. Two separate efforts fell well short, each getting fewer than 50,000 signatures.