April 5, 2016. Tampa Bay Times.
Hundreds of people crowded an event room Monday night at St. Lawrence Catholic Church’s Higgins Hall to demand social change from their elected leaders.
The Nehemiah Action, a community event put together by a coalition of local religious groups known as the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality — HOPE — sought to have a new Tampa civil citation program for adults caught with small amounts of marijuana extended to juveniles.
They also called on Hillsborough County government to establish a $10 million affordable housing trust fund and to examine whether the county is doing enough to help the poorest of the poor find housing.
But the civil citation program — and the exclusion of young people from it — provoked the most emotion.
Organizers put forth a variety of assertions, including that a large number of juveniles arrested last year in Hillsborough were charged with marijuana possession. Such a criminal violation at a young age makes it difficult for kids to later find jobs and do well in life, they argued.
Attendees were encouraged to cheer when one of the officials in attendance expressed support for expanding civil citations. But an answer of “no” was met with silence.
“I can assure you, our judges will bend over backward to make sure these kids succeed,” Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said when asked about juvenile civil citations for marijuana. He alluded to a memorandum of understanding among judges, soon to go into effect, permitting kids who get caught with small amounts of marijuana to receive drug treatment and a fine in lieu of a criminal conviction.
The whole room applauded. The reaction was the same when Paul Figueroa, who represented the Public Defender’s Office, also expressed support for the measure.
Only when attention turned to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did things become discordant.
Hillsborough sheriff’s Maj. Willie Parker read a lengthy letter from Sheriff David Gee, who said he opposed the measure. He referenced studies that show marijuana can cause brain damage in young people, and that high schoolers are more likely to drop out if they smoke pot, among other negative effects.
Murmurs arose before Parker could finish reading.
“I think you owe it to the sheriff … to hear what he has to say,” Parker said.
“No, we don’t,” came a voice from the crowd.
Asked if the sheriff would meet to discuss the issue with members of HOPE, Parker said no.
Last month, the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance that effectively decriminalized possession of up to 20 grams — or about three-quarters of an ounce — of marijuana. But the ordinance didn’t apply to juveniles. Under the new ordinance, adults caught with small amounts of pot receive citations with fines ranging from $75 to $450.
The issue has been discussed in St. Petersburg. Other local governments that have enacted similar ordinances include Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach.
During the affordable housing discussion, Hillsborough County Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Victor Crist, the only ones present, both pledged to support the allocation of $10 million to address the issue.