Data Doesn’t Match Rhetoric Surrounding Orlando’s Marijuana Decriminalization

Org Now Buddy Marijuana
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was joined by members of Organize Now at his City Hall press conference about decriminalizing marijuana possession. Dyer did not refute inaccurate claims made by Organize Now about the City of Orlando.

There is a lot of rhetoric and misinformation circulating around Orlando as the City Council prepares to decriminalize marijuana possession. One local organization even jumped out immediately claiming a “social justice victory” and labeling the proposed ordinance as one of the top reform issues “most affecting local families.” But Mayor Buddy Dyer’s proposed ordinance is far from any of that and actual data from the City of Orlando tells a very different tale than the one being told by some activists who joined Mayor Dyer at his press conference yesterday regarding cannabis arrests.

Immediately after news broke of the proposed ordinance, Organize Now stated: “For the past year, members of the Racial Justice Committee have worked tirelessly to identify and reform issues most affecting local families and communities of color, including the impacts of disproportionate arrests of minority youth engaged in marijuana possession.”

That’s a serious charge to make regarding “disproportionate arrests of minority youth engaged in marijuana possession” here in Orlando. Many residents may believe that claim to be true, especially since Mayor Dyer invited members of Organize Now to join him and speak at yesterday’s City Hall press conference on the issue.

However, after confirming actual data with the Orlando Police Department and Dyer’s Press Secretary Cassandra Lafser, the Organize Now soundbite is just not true. Orlando Police Chief John Mina supports the proposed marijuana decriminalization effort in part because his officers have not been targeting cannabis possession as grounds for arrest in recent years – and OPD’s numbers do back that claim up.

Below are the numbers of arrests (by year, broken down by juvenile and adult) for the last five years of people who were arrested ONLY for misdemeanor pot possession and nothing else in the City of Orlando. If there are other criminal charges, those arrested would not qualify for civil citations anyway, so in an attempt to give people real meaningful comparisons, these are the most useful numbers when examining the issue locally.

OPD cannabis arrests
Data provided by Orlando Police Department (April 2016)

In 2015, only 34 juvenile arrests in which possession of cannabis was the only charge were made in the City of Orlando. Only 293 adults were arrested when possession of cannabis was the only charge by OPD. The number of juvenile arrests in 2015 for marijuana possession was actually down from the year before, as there were 42 juvenile arrests made in which possession of cannabis was the only charge in 2014. Only 335 adults were arrested in 2014.

According to the data provided by OPD, the highest number of juvenile arrests for only marijuana possession was 63, in 2011. That same year, 397 adults were arrested for that reason. Rounding out the data, 38 juveniles and 412 adults were arrested in 2012, while 51 juveniles and 365 adults were arrested in 2013, where the only charge was for possession of cannabis.

Considering all of Orlando’s real problems, it’s not exactly the “top reform issue” locally based on the data. In other places, yes, arrests for marijuana possession are a terrible problem part of the failed war on drugs. But here in Orlando, not so much.

So why is Mayor Dyer finally decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in Orlando? Because it’s an easy political win that is not conceding much of anything.

Let’s be honest, there’s no surprise here. In fact, other cities around Florida have been leading the way on decriminalization efforts, including in South Florida, Volusia County and Tampa. This is a political wave sweeping the nation right now. Dyer and Orlando are actually behind the times on this. Local attorney and big Dyer supporter John Morgan has been pushing for marijuana reform and medical marijuana for literally years now. Orlando falling behind other cities does not line up with Dyer’s push to make Orlando a “city of the future.”

There’s nothing “new” to this issue, except maybe the news that the City of Orlando is merely voting on an ordinance to codify what was already being done by the Orlando Police Department. Based on the actual data from OPD, officers were usually just taking the marijuana and letting suspects go with a warning in most cases already. Let’s not forget, the Orlando police did not even investigate when Buddy Dyer’s son crashed into a house and a bong was found near the crash site.

The proposed ordinance is a good start, certainly. But it’s not a big deal in any way. It’s a distraction for the public. If anything, now the City of Orlando will issue a citation, meaning fines and a database logging the activity.

Organize Now is only helping Dyer selfishly turn this no-brainer into a “social justice” issue for Orlando, all while Dyer pushes the gentrification of the African-American neighborhood Parramore, while Dyer builds industrial warehouses in protected environmental space near minority neighborhoods, and while Dyer completely refuses to acknowledge the ongoing police brutality and excessive force happening in our city, among many other real serious issues impacting the minority community. Also, Dyer’s Deputy Chief of Staff Heather Fagan was unaware of details regarding meetings or discussions with Organize Now’s Racial Justice Committee, meaning the impact of their discussions on Dyer’s decision was likely limited at best.

In reality, arrests made for only cannabis possession are a non-issue in Orlando. That’s why Chief Mina is supportive, while pointing out nothing will really change except the fine. “I support the proposed ordinance as our officers can still use their discretion and make arrests in certain situations,” Chief Mina said. “For example, a person who has a recent criminal history of sale and delivery of cannabis or another controlled substance would not be issued a code violation.”

“Again, our officers will still have discretion to arrest based on the current state law,” he added. “But the proposed ordinance gives our officers another option to help modify illegal behavior without subjecting that person to an arrest and criminal history.”

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