We’ve just reached the end of this year’s local election cycle, and we’re already beginning to get glimpses of how the next four years are going to pan out. Those men and women who have secured re-election have started jockeying for position on a city council that, in certain key ways, is looking to be quite different from the preceding one. And one of those legislators, an elected official who long ago defined himself as a prominent critic of Mayor Lenny Curry’s political machine, is making power moves of his own by latching on to one of the nation’s most popular issues.
On May 9, District 9 councilmember Garrett Dennis, who cruised to re-election in March by a 60-to-40 margin, filed a bill titled “Jacksonville Civil Citation for Small Quantity Marijuana Possession Ordinance.” Its utilitarian name tells the story in a sentence: If it’s passed, those caught in possession of 20 or fewer grams of leafy green would be subject to a simple $100 fine, which could be obviated if the offender chose 10 hours of community service. Will the bill pass? Probably not. Will the mayor sign it into law, if it does? Again, probably not—but this is a good bit more speculative than it was just a year ago.
Most councilmembers are Republican, largely derided for being rubber-stampers of the mayor’s agenda. In fairness to all involved, though, it’s not like there’s much of an alternative. During this year’s elections, the local Democratic Party, in a manner unseen since NORAD on 9/11, did a stand-down, and Dennis is even more isolated. Bill advocates (count me among them) can take heart from a brief reading of recent history.
The state legislature—also majority Republican—passed the smokable marijuana bill in shockingly bipartisan style. Similar measures have passed all over the nation, and some major cities (New York, Washington, D.C.) have begun to embrace an underlying logic: As violent crime surges nationwide, and city leaders seem powerless to stop it, the massive outlay of resources required to arrest and prosecute pot-smokers can be put to much better use. The argument may resonate here at home, where the homicide rate is now at a 13-year high—with a hot, bloody summer still ahead.
Given Dennis’ volatile relationship with the mayor (whose Twitter game is on fleek, and getting fleeker by the day), it’s likely his bill will be rejected, maybe just for spite. Even if hearts and minds are on his side, mouths may not be. To say Dennis is in the wilderness is an understatement. At this point, dude’s eating a tree bark breakfast and drinking his own tears through a LifeStraw, trying to find his way out using the sun, because he dropped his compass fishing bare-handed. It’s an awkward metaphor, sure, but everything’s awkward about local politics these days.
Could cannabis be the beacon of light the councilmember needs to reassert his political relevance? Maybe. Whatever next happens to the bill, the mere introduction of it indicates that even if Garrett Dennis can’t see the sun, at least he knows which way the wind blows.