A new ordinance passed Tuesday by Hattiesburg City Council gives a break to first-time offenders who are caught with an ounce of marijuana or less.
Possession of marijuana is illegal in Mississippi, but state law allows officers to use their discretion in whether to give a citation or take a person to jail if they are charged with simple possession, meaning less than 30 grams. An ounce is 28 grams.
“Marijuana is very much illegal in Hattiesburg, but the real question is, what is the smartest way to deal with that — that empowers people to make better decisions,” Mayor Toby Barker said.
Barker said giving first-time offenders a citation gives them the opportunity to seek help and not be stigmatized by being taken to jail.
It also will save the city the cost of incarceration.
Jackson City Council passed a similar ordinance in 2018. In an earlier story, Councilman De’Keither Stamps called the amendment a first step in dealing with “a system that turns a user into a criminal.”
The ordinance, which takes effect mid-July, says first-time offenders will receive a citation, unless there are other circumstances or charges in addition to possession.
But it’s already a practice used by Hattiesburg police, Chief Anthony Parker said, and council’s vote is more or less an affirmation of policy.
Parker said of the 24 instances so far in 2019, 18 were given citations. The remaining six were arrested because they were facing other charges or situations in addition to the simple possession.
Officers must justify taking offenders to jail
An officer making an arrest will be held accountable, too, as the new ordinance says an officer who feels he or she needs to take a first-time offender to jail must make a statement in writing to the police chief citing the reasons for the detainment.
If determined guilty, an offender will have to pay a fine of up to $100. One of the clauses in the ordinance says the offender “will be fast-tracked through the court process” and be given the opportunity to have the charge non-adjudicated.
In addition, first-time offenders will be able to seek counseling and treatment if deemed necessary.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado had been on a quest to decriminalize marijuana. She said the new ordinance is not exactly what she had hoped for, but it is a step in the right direction.
“I am grateful that we are at this point,” she said Monday. “It’s been a long time coming. I appreciate the research and the conversations and everything that it has taken to get us to this point.
“While it is not what I originally proposed, I am glad to see Hattiesburg step into the 21st century. I appreciate the mayor’s comments that we need to come up with smart ways to enforce the law. I think this approach is the single step that will get us on that journey of many more miles that we have to take.”
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