Florida’s likely recreational marijuana ballot vote gives hope to people in prison on marijuana charges
A voter petition sponsored by Smart & Safe Florida, a marijuana-policy reform campaign, had as of June 1 gathered enough signatures to put forth a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in the state.
Before that happens, all signatures must be officially verified by the Secretary of State.
Lead petitioners from the Smart & Safe Florida campaign are finalizing their initial brief in response to State Attorney Ashley Moody’s advisory opinion. The brief, a statement supporting the legal grounds of their petition, was originally due on June 12 but was granted a merit-based extension and has a new deadline of June 26.
The served petitioners must present their case before the State Attorney, who must, in turn, respond within a month to be approved for an oral argument before the state Supreme Court.
The Court will then decide whether an oral argument will be required before granting the initiative’s ballot number.
Since 2016, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has reported 7,305 misdemeanor dispositions for individuals who violated Florida statute §893.13, which prohibits the selling and possession of controlled substances.
This statute includes cocaine, opium, amphetamines, marijuana and other Schedule I narcotics. But marijuana-related charges have made up 63% of misdemeanors under this statute in the seven years since medical marijuana became legalized.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union study, marijuana reports accounted for more drug arrests than any other drug nationwide in 2020.
Due to increasing lenient attitudes about marijuana use across the U.S., Alachua County criminal trial attorney Ben Hutson said he will often discourage clients from sealing a minor marijuana charge. The misdemeanor record may pale in comparison down the line, Hutson said, in the event his client is convicted of a more serious crime.
“People don't have the same attitude toward it," Hutson said. "I tell people, you know, I just don't think it's going to hurt them in the future.”
According to Hutson, a Floridian possessing up to 20 grams of cannabis could be charged with a one-year prison sentence, a maximum fine of $1,000, or a misdemeanor. Most cases will either end in a dismissal of charges, a plea or a trial.
Most counties offer pre-trial intervention programs within local courts, and some cases may be diverted to "drug court," where rehabilitation, drug education courses and sobriety are required for month-long periods before clearing the records of first-time, non-violent offenders.
In Alachua County, first-time non-violent drug offenders not on probation can partake in a 70-day-long rehabilitation program with proven sobriety throughout and may have their felony possession charges dropped after approval from their assigned Assistant State Attorney. The program is limited to those without prior history of felony violence or a high number of violent misdemeanor convictions.
Some first-time offenders don’t have access to legal help or financial security to make the payments required for a pretrial intervention program. The Clean Slate Project, founded by the national nonprofit Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), is one example of the expungement and wraparound services that have been enacted in recent years to help these individuals.
Founder and CEO of M4MM Roz McCarthy said to begin national social justice prison reform, states must make more localized efforts before conversations about expungement laws make their way to the federal level.
“We’re looking at how we can have an impact on those people that are either still incarcerated or are still also feeling the reverberation of being incarcerated for cannabis-related charges,” McCarthy said.
M4MM funds the program which assists convicted individuals in sealing arrest records, restoring voting rights, and applications for clemency. The organization also has a network of lawyers who can assist with settling civil legal issues that may arise after conviction, such as evictions, child custody and government benefits.
According to state law, a Floridian may only have one record sealed or expunged in their lifetime. In other states that have legalized marijuana for personal use, such as California, ensuing bills granted automatic expungement to individuals charged with specific, marijuana-related offenses, such as non-violent, first-time misdemeanors.
Stacy Scott, the Public Defender for the 8 th Judicial Circuit, said she would like to see a push for Florida to join the 23 states that have automatic expungement laws in place for those convicted of minor marijuana offenses. Without language in place, she said, it would be up to the state legislature to decide how to move forward.
“If [recreational] marijuana is put on the ballot for voters to decide in Florida, it would be important to include in that language provisions that provide a mechanism for clearing up the prior record,” Scott said. “An automatic expungement process would probably be the most efficient way.”
Attempts at automatic expungement were made in the Florida state legislature when two companion bills proposed by Senator Randolph Bracy (D), H.189 and S.468, called for the creation of a new statute, 943.0586. The bills would allow those with a misdemeanor cannabis charge, without conviction of another crime, to qualify for expungement.
House Bill 189 died in the House’s Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee three months after it was filed and so did the accompanying S.468 in the Senate’s Messages.
State arrest reports for marijuana possession and sales have increased steadily since 2019. The largest increase in 2022 reported that convictions jumped 36% from the year before.
Opponents of recreational legalization argue that recreational use may increase the number of impaired drivers on the road. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, marijuana prevails as the most common drug present in 32% of drug-related crashes, according to data updated in January 2023.
Florida must ultimately cast its vote in November 2024. A poll from the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab reported that 70% of Floridian respondents said they somewhat or strongly supported a proposed amendment allowing the recreational use of marijuana by adults.