Bold Moves in the Bold City

Activists around the state are working to get a constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot that would legalize marijuana for recreational purposes—”responsible adult use,” in industry parlance. But it’s an uphill climb, and a steep one, so steep that it’s almost fully vertical, for several reasons. While that goes on, municipalities are making efforts to evolve the law in piecemeal fashion, on a city-by-city basis. In Jacksonville, those efforts are currently led by City Councilmember Garrett Dennis, who has begun his second term in that office by pushing Bill 2019-0330. If passed, the ordinance would greatly reduce criminal penalties for possession of marijuana. Persons caught with 20 grams or fewer would be issued civil citations, instead of being arrested.

The bill enjoys solid support among voters, but—alas!—voters don’t get to decide this one. That task is left to Garrett’s fellow council-folk, the majority of whom seem unsympathetic, so far, in part because of the merits of the bill, and in part because of its sponsor’s notoriously contentious relationship with the mayor. Dennis is looking to do a sort of end-run around his colleagues by holding a series of public meetings on the subject, with the intent of spreading the word about the legislation and, he hopes, building up a critical mass of support there and around the city that might influence the council enough to generate the 10 votes (out of a possible 19) necessary for passage.

Dennis is casting a wide net, holding his meetings at locations around the city, targeting diverse audiences, not limited to just his own constituents. The first meeting is on Saturday, July 27 at 10:30 a.m. at South Mandarin Library, 12125 San Jose Blvd. The second is at 6 p.m. on Monday, July 29, at the Bennie Furlong Senior Center, 281 19th Ave. S., Jacksonville Beach. The third follows the very next day, Tuesday, July 30, also at 6 p.m., at the Legends Center, 5130 Soutel Dr., Southside. The fourth is to be held nearly a week later, on Monday, Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m., at Webb Wesconnett Library, 6887 103rd St. (Oddly enough, I moderated a panel discussion on medical marijuana at that same library just last year, so I expect he’ll definitely have a lively crowd there.)

In terms of demographics, Dennis is the perfect person to push this bill, and his district is the perfect one in which to begin the discussion. District 9 is one of the city’s several majority-black districts, and those have always been the ones traditionally hit hardest by Drug War protocols. African Americans rack up a vastly disproportionate share of marijuana arrests and convictions; indeed, many of the former felons who regained their right to vote when Amendment 4 was passed last year were given their felonies for nonviolent drug possession cases.

Even if the bill does pass, it cannot become law without the signature of Mayor Lenny Curry, and odds are better of marijuana being legalized on the federal level than of Curry handing his foe (who is himself on the short list to succeed him in the open-seat campaign of 2023) any kind of major victory. That said, national trends are moving in favor of Garrett’s initiative, which has analogues working through the system in both houses of Congress and most state legislatures in the country right now. It seems unlikely Jacksonville will be decriminalizing marijuana anytime soon, but the publicity attendant to Dennis’ bill shows that the matter has already gotten more traction in this city than ever before, and in today’s political climate, anything is possible.