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Garrett's Ganja Gambit

Last year's move to decriminalize failed. But this year?

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This week's Garrett Dennis profile touched on a number of topics, but our meeting ended with a discussion of the councilmember’s efforts to decriminalize cannabis in Jacksonville. “I don’t participate in marijuana,” he said, but he sees no value in locking up those who do. Bill 2019-0330 would have reduced the penalty for possession of 20 grams of cannabis or less to a $100 fine or 10 hours of community service. A UNF PORL poll from June 2019 puts local support for decriminalization at 84 percent, making it about the lowest-hanging fruit you can find in this city. In theory, it should have been easy. But contrary to the slogans, not everything is easier here.

Besides the usual civil libertarian appeal of such legislation, there is a practical financial benefit for cities, as Dennis told Florida Politics at the time. According to Dennis, it costs about $864 to process an inmate and an additional $60 per day to house them, which comes to about $22,000 over the course of a year. This is money that can be put to much better use, such as overpaying for The Jacksonville Landing or paying ransom to Shad Khan so he doesn’t move the Jaguars to London. That, in addition to the windfall profits seen around the country by cities and states that have already moved in that direction, creates a strong, compelling argument for increasing appeal to free-market, small “c” conservatives.

The bill was introduced mid-May, and the councilmember pushed his proposal through a series of four town hall meetings held during July and August. On the Northside, Southside, Westside and the Beaches, the rooms were always full, and the audience spoke mostly in favor of the bill. Hardly a representative sample, but with nearly 70 percent of Floridians favoring outright legalization of recreational marijuana, according to recent polls, there is clearly a consensus already in place.

But all that was ultimately irrelevant, and the initiative became collateral damage in a broader conflict. Bill 2019-0330 was thus given the ooh-la-la by a five-to-two vote of the Neighborhoods, Public Health and Safety Committee in August 2019. Dennis claims that several colleagues expressed support in private but refused to do so publicly, fearing blowback from the mayor’s office. Had someone else introduced the bill, Dennis thinks it stood a good chance of a narrow passage by the full council.

“Everybody supported it,” he said, “even the sheriff, but he was squeezed, politically. He knew about it before I went public, and he said, ‘I’m already working on something like that. I think it’s the right thing to do.’ He shared stories with me about how it ticks police officers off. But as soon as Garrett Dennis introduced the bill, it became a target. I even had council members say to me, after the fact, ‘I got worked on it.’ I’m going to reintroduce it, after the 12 months are up.”

As a FAMU grad, Dennis took note of Tallahassee’s recent decision to decriminalize: an evolution of policy quite similar to what he proposed last year. As noted above, Dennis plans to reboot the bill later this year, like Charlie Brown kicking the football, but he is open to passing the ball to a colleague, which frankly would be ideal. If that happens, it might actually get over. Otherwise, nope.

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