Hutchinson: Stop 'frivolous law enforcement' against small-time pot users

Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 5:49 p.m.

Think of Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, and environmental protection comes to mind.

But now Hutchinson might become known for a different kind of green -- marijuana.

Hutchinson, who in a previous stint on the commission focused on environment issues and who has worked in land conservation, said he plans to crusade against the arrest of people for small amounts of marijuana.

“It is important that our priorities get in order with respect to small-time marijuana offenses,” Hutchinson said. “It's no longer a priority in my opinion to be spending that much money on it. I want it diverted from, in my opinion, frivolous law enforcement and put into areas where it will actually do some good.”

Hutchinson thought up a proposal that, he and others say, is unique in a Florida county.

He wants the Sheriff's Office to stop arresting people for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. As an incentive -- or punishment, depending on who is being asked -- he has proposed that the county reduce the amount of funding for the Sheriff's Office for each misdemeanor pot arrest.

It would start in a year or two, not with the current budget, Hutchinson said.

Sheriff Sadie Darnell opposes the idea, saying it oversteps the commission's authority. She added that marijuana is illegal and she cannot ignore that, nor can she ignore residents who demand the Sheriff's Office respond to complaints of drug dealing.

Hutchinson said he has no sense of what will happen with the proposal but added it is an “attention getter” that he hopes will ignite a community discussion on the topic.

Records show that the State Attorney's Office handles several hundred misdemeanor pot cases each year. Hutchinson said some of those arrested spend days, weeks or months in jail. The costs of charging, incarceration and prosecution are far too much for the offense, Hutchinson said.

And the costs to the people arrested can be equally out of proportion in terms of potential loss of a driver's license, job, school and future opportunities, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said he has heard first hand about that from people doing community service for marijuana arrests at an ecological cemetery run by the Alachua Conservation Trust.

“I spent the day with two African-Americans digging graves. One of them got stopped for suspicion of dark window tint. They busted him for a small amount of pot. The other got pulled over for stopping over the white line. They busted him for one seed and an empty bag,” Hutchinson said.

“It's just silly stuff like that. There's racial disparity. It's not right, and we need to undo the system that is making it work.”

By raising the issue, Hutchinson said he hopes deputies will think twice about arresting someone for small amounts of marijuana.

While Darnell said she has a responsibility to respond to complaints about open drug dealing, Hutchinson countered that prohibition of marijuana has created a black market for pot that leads to street dealing.

Hutchinson said the commission and sheriff negotiate over the sheriff's budget every year. He said he would be willing to negotiate giving more money for certain programs, such as catching sex offenders, if the drug enforcement unit were cut.

“It goes to the sheriff, and she has a broad range of things she can spend the money on. I believe that money should be spent on drug rehab and counseling, not on more law enforcement tools,'' he said.

“They certainly have their needs, and I certainly don't have a problem with taking money away from bad guys (through drug forfeitures), but when it comes to this drug business, there is a clear nexus between treating people and reducing the demand -- and right now, we are not doing that.

“I want to very steadily and in cooperation with the sheriff and the court system figure out ways we can make things better. I believe our sheriff is humane and interested in working with people,'' Hutchinson said.

“The war on drugs -- none of this has done any good, and as a consequence we have people now with criminal records who can't get jobs,” he continued. “No public employer will hire you if you have this on your record, and in a government town like this, it is tough.''

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