Hemp Confusion Forces Miami & Other Counties To Halt Minor Marijuana Arrests

By Paul Gaita 08/19/19

Police will be required to submit marijuana to state labs for testing in cases that would warrant felony charges.

man being arrested for minor marijuana possession
ID 136921486 © Chernetskaya | Dreamstime.com

A new Florida law that legalized hemp has spurred police and prosecutors in Miami-Dade and other counties in the Sunshine State to halt arrests and cases for minor marijuana possession.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's office announced the decision on August 9, and added that police will be required to submit marijuana to state labs for testing in cases that would warrant felony charges.

The county's new position echoes similar stances taken throughout Florida, and as the Miami Herald noted, highlights the challenges faced by law enforcement and lawyers in a state where both hemp and medical marijuana are legal, but recreational marijuana use remains a prosecutable offense.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle outlined the county's new measures in a three-page memo sent to its police departments, which put a halt on marijuana prosecutions in Miami, as the city's WFOR noted in its coverage.

Hemp VS Marijuana

"Since hemp and cannabis both come from the same plant, they look, smell and feel the same," wrote Rundle in her memo. "There is no way to visually or microscopically distinguish hemp from marijuana."

Rundle's comments address the "odor plus" policy that some police departments employ as a go-ahead for officers to conduct probable cause searches on potential possession suspects. It also underscores another major hurdle for South Florida police: currently, none of the region's police crime labs are equipped to test for THC, which will require law enforcement to submit cannabis samples to "another DEA-licensed facility for quantitative testing," as Rundle wrote in the memo.

Faced with the twin roadblocks, Rundle advised law enforcement agencies, "Since every marijuana case will now require an expert, and necessitate a significant expenditure by the State of Florida, barring exceptional circumstance on a particular case, we will not be prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases."

For many counties and cities in South Florida, this was already the case. As the Miami Herald noted, Miami-Dade and several other cities stopped aggressive prosecution of possession cases several years ago, and have instead implemented "civil citation" programs which levies a fine for minor possession charges.

Even cases that have been spawned from arrests have been dropped in Miami-Dade if the defendant did not generate any additional charges for a period of at least 60 days.

Additional counties and cities, including Seminole and Brevard counties and the city of Tallahassee, have adopted similar positions in regard to minor possession charges, and state Rep. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) hopes to make that stance a statewide law.

The Miami Herald detailed a proposal filed by his office on August 7 that would reduce penalties for possession charges involving 20 grams or less of cannabis and products that contain 600 mg or less of THC.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.