Just this past week, the Governor of Vermont signed a law into effect that would decriminalize possession of marijuana up to one ounce.
Whereas before this new law possession of marijuana up to one ounce was a misdemeanor, the new law makes possession of marijuana a civil, or non-criminal, infraction. In essence, being caught with up to one ounce of marijuana on your person in Vermont is now no different than receiving a speeding ticket. And the best part is, you will not be left with a criminal record.
Vermont - a considerably more progressive state than Florida - came to this realization by utilizing common sense about all else. The truth of the matter was that it was just too costly to continue to prosecute simple possession cases when there were bigger criminal matters to deal with.
Florida, however, does not appear to be the least bit persuaded by the action taken by Vermont. In Florida, the possession of marijuana laws remain just as harsh as ever.
For first-time offenders, possession up to 20 grams, which is less than one ounce, is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail, 1 year of probation, and a $1000 fine.
Felony possession of marijuana, which is any possession amount over 20 grams but less than the trafficking amount, is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Trafficking in marijuana, cultivation of marijuana, and even owning or operating a home for the purpose of trafficking (marijuana grow house) are all serious felonies. Trafficking in marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years in state prison.
Even if no jail or prison time is imposed, all marijuana possession, sale, or trafficking charges carry a mandatory two-year driver’s license suspension if a conviction (adjudication) is imposed.
In Miami-Dade and Broward where I practice criminal defense, marijuana offenses are still taken seriously. While first-time misdemeanor possession-level offenders may be eligible for Pretrial Diversion, Drug Court, or the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, repeat offenders may be looking at convictions and jail.
And in both counties, mandatory minimums are imposed for trafficking offenses unless waived by the prosecutor.
While Vermont has not decriminalized sale or trafficking (and I don’t expect them to to), they have taken a huge step by removing the criminal stigma that comes with possessing a relatively harmless substance. At least when compared to legal drugs that are readily available for purchase, such as alcohol, nicotine, and prescriptions such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
But since court costs and fines are revenue generators for Miami-Dade, Broward, and the rest of Florida’s counties, I don’t expect our cash-strapped state to decriminalize marijuana, at least not in the near future.
What the politicians fail to realize, however, is the incredible profit potential of legalizing marijuana.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving clients in Miami and Broward who have been arrested for possession of marijuana.