Sarasota commissioners move to repeal cannabis civil citation program

SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) — Sarasota’s cannabis civil citation program may soon go up in smoke.

City commissioners took the initial steps to repeal the ordinance during Monday’s meeting at the behest law enforcement officials, who say very few people pay the citation.

The program, unanimously approved by commissioners in 2019, offers a $100 citation or 10 hours of community service in lieu of arrest for misdemeanor cannabis or paraphernalia possession.

Dr. Heather Salzman, administrator of the city’s Independent Police Advisory Panel, cited concerns over compliance with the program. She introduced Robert Armstrong, captain of the Sarasota Police Department’s patrol division, to elaborate on the findings of a recent study from the panel.

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“Since 2020, its inception, until November 8, very recently, we have issued 427 cannabis citations. The noncompliance percentage is 88.75,” Armstrong told city commissioners. “Basically, most folks are not paying the fine and not doing anything as a result of the program.”

Armstrong and city attorney Joe Polzak pointed to the State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion (APAD) program as an alternate way to keep those caught with cannabis out of jail. The program was implemented by all agencies in the 12th Judicial Circuit (Desoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties) following the civil citation ordinance.

“It essentially accomplishes the same thing as the civil citation ordinance,” Polzak said. “It’s available to qualifying subjects and misdemeanor marijuana possession is an eligible offense for pre-arrest diversion.”

If Sarasota police determine a subject qualifies for APAD, their case is “referred to the state attorney’s office for follow-up and completion of the program,” Polzak said.

Erik Arroyo, the only commissioner to vote against taking steps to repeal the ordinance, expressed skepticism over the decision to rely on APAD for those caught with marijuana. He asked if the APAD program could also be repealed or changed, potentially leaving those accused of possession without a safety net.

“It would have to change at the state level before, I think, Mr. Brodsky would change here locally,” Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson said.

Arroyo pointed out that since the citation is often issued in conjunction with felony offenses, many of those cited could be unable to pay because they are incarcerated. Polzak said the city did not have the data to confirm or deny that claim.

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert spoke in support of the city commission repealing the ordinance.

“I think it makes it more difficult for our SPD to administer a program when there’s duplicative programs for the same issue,” Alpert said. “I think it streamlines and makes it a lot simpler for our officers to do civil citations and do the procedure without having our program.”

Alpert added that the commission “can always bring it back if there’s some change.”

A motion to direct the city attorney’s office to prepare an ordinance repealing the cannabis civil citation passed 4-1, with Arroyo as the only dissenting vote.

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