A recent development has validated the community, as Sarasota commissioners are considering the repeal of the cannabis civil citation program. The move is prompted by law enforcement officials citing low compliance rates. The program, initially approved unanimously by commissioners in 2019, offered individuals facing misdemeanor cannabis or paraphernalia possession a choice between a $100 citation or 10 hours of community service in lieu of arrest.

Dr. Heather Salzman, administrator of the city’s Independent Police Advisory Panel, expressed concerns about compliance with the program during a recent meeting. Captain Robert Armstrong of the Sarasota Police Department’s patrol division presented findings from a panel study, revealing that since its inception in 2020 until November 8, 427 cannabis citations were issued, with an alarming noncompliance rate of 88.75%. Armstrong highlighted that a majority of individuals were neither paying the fine nor participating in community service.

To address the challenges posed by the current program, Armstrong and city attorney Joe Polzak recommended the use of State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion (APAD) program as an alternative. The APAD program, implemented by all agencies in the 12th Judicial Circuit, including Desoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties, serves as an effective way to divert individuals caught with cannabis away from incarceration. Polzak emphasized that the APAD program achieves similar goals as the civil citation ordinance and is available for qualifying subjects with misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.

However, Commissioner Erik Arroyo, the sole dissenting vote against repealing the ordinance, expressed skepticism about relying solely on the APAD program. He raised concerns about the possibility of repealing or altering the APAD program, leaving individuals accused of possession without a safety net. Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson clarified that any changes to the APAD program would need to occur at the state level before local adjustments.

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Arroyo also pointed out a potential barrier to compliance, noting that since the citation is often issued alongside felony offenses, incarcerated individuals may be unable to pay. Polzak acknowledged the lack of data to confirm or deny this claim, emphasizing the need for a thorough examination of the program’s impact.

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert voiced her support for repealing the ordinance, citing a desire to streamline and simplify the administration of civil citations by avoiding duplicative programs. Alpert noted that the commission could revisit the issue if necessary changes arise.

The commission ultimately passed a motion with a 4-1 vote to direct the city attorney’s office to prepare an ordinance repealing the cannabis civil citation program, with Arroyo as the lone dissenting voice. With the Sarasota City Commission on the verge of repealing its cannabis civil citation program, it marks a significant turn of events and an active response to law enforcement concerns about staggering noncompliance with the program’s fines. The decision also reflects a careful consideration of the program’s efficacy and a commitment to finding alternatives that better align with law enforcement goals and community needs.

As the City Commission considers the repeal, the fate of Sarasota’s approach to cannabis-related offenses hangs in the balance. The potential shift from civil citations to a criminal offense status highlights the ongoing debate surrounding marijuana legislation and law enforcement strategies in the region.