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Sheriff Manfre Proposes De-Criminalizing Pot Possession; County Officials and State Attorney Open to Idea

| January 22, 2016

manfre pot possession de-criminalize

Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, seen here at an unrelated news conference earlier this month, says community standards are changing. He is proposing de-criminalizing possession of small amounts of pot. (© FlaglerLive)

Almost every day in Palm Coast and Flagler County, one or more individuals are arrested and booked at the Flagler County jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Often the charge is in addition to other charges—driving on a suspended license, drunk driving, probation violation. But frequently, the charge stands alone: A motorist is pulled over for one reason or another, the cop smells pot, the individual as often as not admits to having pot, and an arrest follows.

The individual then faces a long journey through the court system. Possession of less than 20 grams of pot (or the rough equivalent of two dozen joints) is a first-degree misdemeanor under Florida law, with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and $1,000 fine. Those penalties are rare. If convicted, individuals usually are placed on probation while some qualify for a deferred-prosecution agreement. By then they’ve already had to spend money defending themselves (if they don’t have a court-appointed public defender), and absent spending more money to expunge it (assuming they qualify), they face a permanent blot on their record.

Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre wants to change that. He is proposing to de-criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Deputies would still police marijuana possession and use. But they would issue civil citations instead of arresting users. The citation would typically amount to a fine of $100 and some community service.

There’s nothing new in that approach. Twenty states have partly or fully decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot for first-time offenders, including New York, California and most of New England’s states. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of small amounts of pot.

In Florida, three counties have decriminalized pot possession, all since last summer: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. The county commission in each case approved decriminalization either unanimously or with minor opposition. In each case, the fine for a first offense is $100, rising to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. Volusia County is also considering decriminalization.

An idea first proposed by Jimmy Carter in 1977 and since adopted by 20 states.

For decriminalization to take place in Flagler, the county commission would have to approve an ordinance to that effect, and Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach city governments would have to opt in with ordinances of their own, County Attorney Al Hadeed said.

“I think the Flagler County Commission should consider an inquiry into this law and think if it should be adopted here in Flagler County,” Manfre said. “And if they ask my opinion, I’d be in favor to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.” The sheriff said de-criminalizing would help keep people out of jail, keep people from having a record, and, especially, keep deputies from spending time processing small-possession arrests, thus being able to spend more time patrolling for more serious crimes.

“It’s time, we’ve got to move on,” Manfre said. “Community standards have changed. We’re losing a generation of people whom we’ve arrested and are having a hard enough time getting employment as it is because they now have a prior arrest. I will tell you, most of the applications I get for law enforcement positions, most people check that off that they have had prior marijuana use—I would say at least half.”

Flagler County’s Authority

County commissioners were initially concerned that the county might not have the authority to contravene state law, especially as Flagler is not a charter county. But that’s not the case, Hadeed said: whether a county is charter or not is irrelevant. Counties have the power to enact a civil fine system. “But the fine may not exceed what’s provided by state law,” Hadeed said. “So they cannot contravene the criminal code, but they can make it a civil violation, and counties have done that.”

“If Flagler County were to consider this,” Hadeed continued, “I would say to the Board of County Commissioners that they’d need to assure themselves that the Sheriff and the State Attorney’s office were supportive of this approach, and would use it. There would be little benefit in promulgating a system that the state attorney and the sheriff’s office would not be inclined to use.”

larizza decriminalization

State Attorney R.J. Larizza likes the notion of helping people avoid criminal records. (© FlaglerLive)

State Attorney R.J. Larizza, whose district includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam, said he’d want to have a look at the proposed ordinances—in Volusia and Flagler—to have something specific to discuss. But in principle, he’s behind the idea, if with several caveats and cautions.

“I keep an open mind. I believe it’s worthy of consideration,” Larizza said. He wants to have input in the process, and he wants to ensure that decriminalization doesn’t turn into a mechanism for individuals to chronically re-offend. To that end, he says a monitoring system would have to be developed (and one perhaps managed by a private firm through a database all local policing agencies would have access to, so an offender in Flagler could not get away with re-offending in Volusia).

“I’m optimistic we can figure out a way to make it work,” Larizza said, acknowledging that the decriminalization of marijuana is a national trend that includes allowances for recreational use, without any penalties. “I think you could view this as a step in that direction. I don’t know that it’ll ever get to that point but certainly we see decriminalization of marijuana over the years, it’s no mystery, it’s not random that it was marijuana that was chosen for this, because marijuana certainly doesn’t carry the serious concerns of some people that the harder drugs like heroin or cocaine or crystal meth do. But you know what, let’s not pretend that while other people reject the gateway argument, the legalization of marijuana will not be without its problems.”

Larizza said counties should be prepared to deal with those emerging problems, even if they cannot be defined ahead of time. Nevertheless, the state attorney said, he is especially in favor of reducing the burden of criminal records on small-time pot users. “It’s more giving somebody a break,” Larizza said. “That to me is the most important reason why it’s being debated and I think that notion is a worthy notion to have.”

County Commissioners’ Reactions


Barbara Revels. (© FlaglerLive)

And that’s partly why Barbara Revels, who chairs the Flagler County Commission, said she is interested in having that discussion through a workshop with her colleagues and deep analysis provided by the administration. Two other county commissioners interviewed about the notion—Frank Meeker and Charlie Ericksen– said they’d be willing to have the discussion and explore the possibilities of decriminalization. Neither was committed to an ordinance: Meeker said he’d need to research the matter thoroughly and hear from law enforcement officials, but both leaned favorably toward the concept.

“Conceptually, I can see some value,” Meeker said. “I’m certain we have better, more significant issues to be handling in front of a judge as opposed to this kind of stuff, but again it’s going to be based on the testimony we get from the experts.”

Ericksen was reserved, but still leaning in favor of the idea. “I’m 73 years old, I’m from the old school that when something is wrong, it’s wrong, but life is changing as is government as are the penalties for it,” Ericksen said. “Maybe just older people like me saying what are you guys doing, you’re going to make everybody a pot head. That’s still in the mind of us older people.”

Revels made one assurance in an interview Friday: “Between the sheriff and myself, we’ll see that it gets discussed and looked at—not dropped in other words.”

Click On:

Revels, who chairs the county’s public safety coordinating council—whose table includes the public defender, the state attorney, judges and all other members of law enforcement and the judicial system (or their representatives)—brought up the question of decriminalization at the council’s last meeting on Jan. 13. But there, too, responses around the table were non-committal as official after official spoke of wanting to see the proposed ordinances before pronouncing themselves.

Revels herself personally favors the idea, but also not without cautions. “I probably would have some very lively debates with friends who were in the law enforcement field or the court system field who might feel otherwise, that it’s a gateway drug, and anything that you do to lessen its impact encourage its use,” Revels said last week in the first of two interviews on the subject. “Myself personally I think it should be decriminalized but that’s me personally, and I’d like to hear a lot of conversations about it.”

There’s also the matter of a social service system that could intervene when the judicial system does not: just as with mental health and homelessness, Revels said, drug users should have a way to get help should they seek it, though those means may not be available. Beyond that, Revels is interested in knowing how the experience of other counties that have decriminalized pot is working out—whether it’s having an effect on jail populations, on the use of cops’ time, on the system’s finances. But those numbers may not be available for a year or two in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami Dade, where decriminalization is only a few months old—or a few weeks, in the case of Palm Beach.

The Cities’ Role

Should the county commission adopt an ordinance decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, Flagler Beach and Bunnell, which have their own police forces, would have to pass their own ordinances to give their police officers the authority to issue citations as well.

“Obviously it would be a more effective system if the incorporated areas of Flagler County would also supported it, although it is not in my opinion legally required,” Hadeed, the county attorney, said. “We could enact it for unincorporated Flagler County, leaving the options for the cities to adopt that option as well.”

The Palm Coast City Council would have to adopt its own ordinance giving the sheriff, who is under contract to provide police protection in Palm Coast, the authority to issue civil citations in the city.

jon netts regional council award

Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts. (© FlaglerLive)

Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said he was in favor of holding a workshop and exploring the issue witrh his colleagues. “On first glance it sounds to me like a reasonable approach to take,” Netts said of civil citations. “I’d really love to sit down with somebody in law enforcement here to hear what the other side of the story is.” He, too, had caveats, such as when someone is pulled over, is caught smoking pot, and is actually impaired (in which case, DUI laws kick in). But, he said, the discussion is key. “I’d be more than happy to engage in that conversation. I think that’s a worthwhile approach,” Netts said.

The decriminalization of marijuana may appear to be a relatively recent national trend. In fact, President Carter asked Congress to abolish all federal criminal penalties for small amounts of pot possession on Aug. 2, 1977, following through on a campaign pledge to do so. Carter was proposing to replace criminal penalties—up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine—with a civil fine. The proposal would have applied to possession of less than an ounce of pot, and would have been coupled with a broad treatment program for addicts. “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself,” he wrote Congress in a message. “And where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal.” At the time California and Oregon had decriminalized possession of small amounts and not seen an increase in pot smoking, he said.

Carter’s initiative was derailed after his drug policy adviser, P:etger Bourne, had to resign after admitting that he’d prescribed a sedative to a White House staffer, drawing congressional calls for an inquiry into drug use by White House staffers. The matter was vastly overblown: there was no widespread drug use at the White House, but the outcry killed the marijuana initiative.

Manfre’s call echoes the same reasoning behind the Carter initiative, which has made a comeback in the form of state, county and municipal policies in the last few years. “Not everyone needs to be arrested, not everyone needs to be given a ticket, not everyone needs to be in jail. Some people do,” Sheriff Manfre said. “But there’s a whole range of people who can be dealt with differently.”

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29 Responses for “Sheriff Manfre Proposes De-Criminalizing Pot Possession; County Officials and State Attorney Open to Idea”

  1. Gee eye says:


  2. Glooby Gloob says:

    “A motorist is pulled over for one reason or another, the cop smells pot, the individual as often as not admits to having pot, and an arrest follows.”

    And the smell of pot is evident because why? Because the driver was getting high while driving! If you’re driving while intoxicated and you get off with < 20 grams, you have nothing to complain about. Pot is already decriminalized enough.

  3. Anonymous says:

    We need to get rid of him. We have bigger problems in our community such as the death of two beautiful woman.

  4. Larry Bell says:

    Agreed, if you drive under the influence of alcohol or pot you should be treated accordingly.

    However, when so many young people have been arrested for pot possession and this goes on their records. This is a major problem. They will have great difficulty getting a job in the helping professions, such as Nursing, Nurse Practitioner, Police officer, Fireman, Teacher and many other professions that don’t accept anyone that has a drug possession on their record. Watch the nightly news it’s full of crime most of which involves ‘alcohol’, car accidents, domestic violence etc. You just don’t see that with marijuana, it’s definitely no where near the problem that alcohol consumption presents. So decriminalization is necessary.

  5. Bc says:

    It’s about time now there might be more room in the jail for the repet offenders that our judges keep letting out to walk our community. I don’t think anyone cares that someone uses pot recreational big deal. But driving under the influence all bets are off

  6. Gee eye says:

    Manfre you have my vote. Too many lives ruined just because of simple marijuana possession charges. Pot now has a strong aroma so that does not mean they are intoxicated or getting high. save tax payers dollars and sheriffs time and give them more time to investigate real crimes… It’s a win win situation

  7. Up in Smoke says:

    Yo, this dude will do anything to stay in office. I’m waiting for him to hire Al Sharpton as his media spokes person.

  8. Up in Smoke says:

    One more thing! The lawmakers and their muscle (cops) used those minor possession charges to make money off of pumping a person through the system. Federal, State, County and so on. Now that they’ve cluttered their jails and can’t make the money they once did now they want to decriminalize it not because they care but because of the same reason they did it to begin with. MONEY!

  9. Anonymous says:

    And all the pot smoking people approve this message…. Get high Palm coast. Because it will only be a small fine and a slap on the wrist. It’s like high school influence all over again. Other states are doing it so should we.

  10. GoodFella says:

    Here is some food for thought. Don’t smoke weed and be a loser. Raise your kids right and they wont have to worry about having a record.

  11. Dontworryaboutit says:

    You don’t have to be smoking pot to have it be smelled…

  12. Right in the middle says:

    Once you get a pot possession charge, and goes on your background, and can no longer get accepted for 90% of jobs/careers, since Taco Bell is not a career nor Burger King, these kids lives are ruined for the rest of there life. It is a major problem. In fact leads majority to depression and suicide as well from feeling hopeless. Trust me when I say this. I’ve seen stupid charges like this ruin kids lives, and yes, leads the hopeless to suicide. Want to help with suicide? That’s a great start. While we are at it, the rest of them who no longer are eligible for jobs… Guess what they end up doing? Hmmm. Turning to crime to pay bills and get to get money that they could have with a real job. Whether it is selling drugs, robbing, stealing, burglarizing, or even prostituing. This is what they resort to when they have a criminal charge and no hope. The list goes on. This is what happens. I’ve seen it far too many times, every single day. In decriminalizing marijuana, the crime rate would drop dramatically, and our kids and the youth of today will have hope and won’t have to resort to crime for income. Think about it. Those who oppose obviously live under a shell and need to see the light. Kids make dumb choices, but they learn from the mistakes. Punishing them for the rest of their lives is not fair. I can go into so many examples but il let you do that if you have any sense at all. Smartest thing manfre has proposed out of all the sheriffs, and I am not a big fan of him, but this proposal only makes sense, and for that, i have gained much respect for him.

  13. Glooby Gloob says:

    Juvenile criminal records are kept confidential for that very reason. They are not accessible in employment background checks like the records of adults. So this notion of a pot charge in someone’s youth preventing them from obtaining gainful employment is a canard. Unless by “youth” you mean a 21-year-old adult who should have known that having pot in his car was against the law. Hmm, maybe there’s some wisdom to not having potheads doing policework, putting out fires, caring for medical patients, and teaching children.

  14. Anonymous says:

    @glooby gloob,

    Good observation. seems the good Sheriff missed that point.

  15. getagrip says:

    I don’t buy the “gateway” argument at all. Chances are anybody who has tried pot has had a beer first. Alcohol is EVERYWHERE and has a great detrimental effect on society.

  16. fredrick says:

    Finally something smart from our Sheriff.

  17. Steve says:

    Larry, if they are so worried that they can’t get a job in the helping profession, then there is a very easy solution. Don’t smoke pot and drive, same as alcohol, People must take responsibility for their actions. I don’t know why laws have to be changed because people have no self control. Isn’t that enabling?

  18. Jose Caniusi says:

    The anti pot mentality is that pot is a gateway drug. This is true in one sense:it makes the smoker a criminal. Once that line is crossed,the user may be more inclined to experiment with harder drugs.
    Many studies now suggest that pot is far,far less harmful than alcohol and does not in most cases
    lead to violent behavior or addiction.
    It seems the legislators and the public in general have forgotten the fiasco of Prohibition and the lawlessness it created which exists to this day.
    It’s refreshing to see that more officials are in favor of decriminalization or outright legalization. Both options have merit,but structured legalization would remove the profit motive from the likes of El Chapo and other drug smugglers. Pot can and is grown here,but heroin and cocaine are from plants in other countries.
    Thank you Sheriff Manfre,you will have my vote next election.

  19. Dave says:

    I’m more worried about that “person” driving while testing than a person with pot in their car.

  20. Downtown says:

    A recent study by the Univ. of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator carried out a study, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that there was little or no effect on a persons driving ability after smoking cannabis. In fact the study showed that most drivers slowed down and operated the vehicle safer after smoking cannabis.

  21. Instigator says:

    It’s either that or lower the BAC to .05

    Wait…they are already suggesting that….

  22. tulip says:

    So, if there is no “penalty” for possession of 20 grams (24 joints) then what is to prevent more and more people from getting 24 joints and selling them one by one to people in parking lots, gas stations,etc. as they do now. Heck, no jail only a civil citation, that’s a small price to pay for the ability to make lots of money selling to others.

    It was mentioned that a person gets stopped for a traffic violation and the cop smells pot and the person is arrested. So what if they get arrested. If a person is stopped for a traffic violation and there is an open container of booze or beer, that person also gets arrested. Both substances make a person dysfunctional, and should be treated the same.

    It seems possible that a lot of these people want pot de-criminalized so if they them selves get caught with some, no problem. Either that or Manfre is using the subject to his political election advantage.

    Whatever the reason, to me it’s the first step to legalization of recreational marijuana which will cause Palm Coast and Flagler county to have even more morons walking about, driving, working, flying planes, day care and many other occupations,. with their judgement clouded up and rendered dysfunctional.

    Parents of young children, your child could eventually have the right to smoke any substance he or she wants. I know alcohol can also be a dangerous substance and if the cities and towns made barrooms close at 11 pm instead of 1 a.m there would be a few less drunk drivers out there. Or, have the sheriff do a checkpoint in the parking lots. And if the city council okays a bottle bar, shame on them.

  23. Wshful Thinking says:

    Never heard of anyone ‘O Ding’ on pot…. Never heard of anyone who had to go to drug rehab for just pot ( usually BOOOOZE not pot)… Never heard of anyone being arrested for ‘speeding ‘ – in fact one Hollywood star admitted being stopped on the freeway because he was driving UNDER the speed limit – road speed not the drug speed….
    Wanna bet that if every public official and non official were given a polygraph as to whether they have done, did, or still ‘do’ I bet eyes would pop out to see how many ex or current even quasi pot heads would emerge..
    Sheriff Jim Manfre is using a great campaign tactic let’s not kid ourselves one bit however this tactic is and would be a blessing for many, including those officers of the law who can spend all their time on ‘r e a l crimes’ not punishing otherwise decent human beings… The Law should have the same ability to test for impaired driving for being stoned with pot the same as they do for alcohol and no legislator with any common sense would pass any legislation which did not provide for that.

  24. Native brian says:

    Smart move by the sheriff. Their are more Marijuana users than not these days!For the people saying its the same as alcohol,your wrong.Its a total opposite. Alcohol makes people crazy and do stupid things they wouldn’t usually do sober.Marijuana makes you very mellow and relaxed.Instead of wanting to go out and party like drunks pot heads usually just want to stay home with a nice movie.Also if i was driving id rather be on the road with pot users than drunk people!I’m not sure why its like the same dui?Its funny something that grows in the ground is so hated by many people!

  25. layla says:

    I have been at the library here when 1/2 the cars in the parking lot were stoners and some had small children with them. It is most definitely time to replace Sheriff Manfre and the choices are numerous.

    If the job is too much effort for you and your men, Sheriff, give the job to somebody else. You are supposed to be protecting the families in this town. It never ends with just a little bit of pot.

  26. Anonymous says:

    just looking for votes in the next election….

  27. Robin Summer says:

    This county decriminalizes even the criminals. I sat in a courtroom for 4 hours watching EVERY SINGLE person charged with battery, armed robbery, home invasions, drug charges, etc. walk away with probation and a slap on the wrist. Not ONE SINGLE person went to jail. What kind of a message is this giving the criminal? Where is the incentive to not commit crimes? It’s time to take back our county and get rid of the Good Ol’ Boy system and Manfre should be the first to be rid of! This sheriff is to soft on crime. Time for new judges also. We need to get tougher on crime and criminals and this sheriff and these judges need to be rid of.

  28. Glooby Gloob says:

    The county jail has been overcrowded for many years, but everyone wants low taxes so a lot of ppl who should be going to jail get let off with probation.

  29. PJ says:

    What a stupid idea!

    Manfre you need to do something more about the drug problem in Flagler not take a softer stand on it. Soon we will be just like Putnam County that allows indiscretions and brings the drug culture in to play there.

    “The equivalent of 2 dozen joints” Think about this 2 dozen joints what is that worth to a low level dealer?

    You are not a good cop, I’m worried with your thinking as Sheriff.

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