In a significant policy change spurred by new Florida law, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office announced it will no longer prosecute minor cannabis cases. And for amounts large enough for felony charges, police will now be required to get lab tests to confirm that marijuana is, well, actually marijuana.
Prosecutors announced the decisions on Friday in response to a new Florida law that legalized hemp, a plant very similar to marijuana but with only trace amounts of the cannabis chemical that gets users high. The decision was outlined in a three-page memo sent this week to police agencies in Miami-Dade County that also mandates more than just a funny smell for cops to stop suspects.
“Because hemp and cannabis both come from the same plant, they look, smell and feel the same,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote in explaining the decision. “There is no way to visually or microscopically distinguish hemp from marijuana.”
Law enforcement agencies across Florida have struggled to navigate the gray area created by the new law. Late last month, Tallahassee-based State Attorney Jack Campbell instructed staff to put a pause on prosecuting marijuana possession, citing the state’s new hemp law and claiming labs can’t detect the difference between marijuana and hemp.
The high cost of making cases for minor amounts of pot is also an emerging concern for prosecutors beyond Miami-Dade. In Seminole and Brevard counties, the Orlando Sentinel reported, prosecutors say the added expense of sending marijuana to labs outside of Florida and obtaining expert witnesses to testify in court makes those options “prohibitive in all except the most serious of cases.”
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder told West Palm Beach TV station WPTV his agency “will not be making marijuana arrests,” and said efforts to pursue marijuana cases are “dead in the water” because of the inability to test for THC, the euphoria-inducing chemical in marijuana.
The issue has even popped up in states such as Ohio, where prosecutors have faced similar challenges after the state decriminalized hemp.
States began approving medical marijuana laws in the mid-1990s, and today 33 — including Florida — have approved such programs. In addition, 10 states have ushered in recreational marijuana, even though federal law still forbids the drug.
Even before this week’s memo, misdemeanor marijuana cases in Miami were not being prosecuted as aggressively as in years past as public attitudes about marijuana have softened in recent years.
Miami-Dade County and cities across South Florida have instead created “civil citation” programs that dole out fines for minor marijuana possession.
Even people arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges over the past couple of years haven’t had the book thrown at them. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office had a program in which the charges were dropped if a defendant stayed trouble-free for at least 60 days.