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Bringing Hemp Into Florida Prisons, Jails Could Become Felony Under Bill Now On Gov. DeSantis' Desk

Steve Helber
AP Photo

Bringing hemp into a state prison or county jail could soon be a felony offense in Florida, under a bill that’s on its way to the governor’s desk. The legislation revises the list of contraband in facilities statewide.

“Because hemp is indistinguishable, it will prohibit hemp, and therefore prohibit more weed in our facilities,” House sponsor Scott Plakon said, before his chamber passed the Senate’s version of the bill Tuesday.

The measure would make bringing hemp and medical marijuana into prison, jail or juvenile detention facility a third degree felony. That’s punishable by up to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

“The kind of determination, or definition of what’s contraband under current law, is if it has the potential to threaten the security of a facility or negatively impact the security of the people within,” Plakon told his colleagues.

Growing and using hemp was legalized by the Florida legislature last year. Since then, local law enforcement have grappled with the change, as hemp is identical to marijuana in smell and appearance. Some state attorneys stopped prosecuting small pot possession cases. Plakon and proponents of the bill say banning hemp as contraband will eliminate any such confusion.

“A yes vote on this today will do just that. It will prevent marijuana from coming into our facilties, thereby helping the safety of the people within it. And think about how that can be traded for other things as well, which can be unhealthy … A no vote, seriously, will result in more marijuana in our facilities,” Plakon said.

The bill ultimately passed with a 71-43, largely party-line vote. It also adds vaping devices to the list of banned items in any facility, county or state. The measure adds cell phones to the list of contraband items banned in facilities run by the Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Each of those would be a first degree misdemeanor if Governor Ron DeSantis signs the measure into law.

House Democrats like Joe Geller put up a last stand fight, arguing the bill would keep people in a corrections system already fraught with problems.

“People get on the wrong end of the law, they go into jail,” Geller said on the House floor. “We shouldn’t be all about finding ways to keep them thee indefinitely, and extend their sentences.”

Dems tried to tack on an eleventh-hour amendment that would require a search of everyone who enters a state prison, including wardens and all correctional officers, but it was withdrawn.

Rep. Dianne Hart was among those who pushed for the nixed amendment.

“Not only do the inmates plant contraband, but so do our officers,” Hart said.

Even though the proposed amendment didn’t make it into the bill, Plakon addressed his Democratic colleagues concerns, saying there are penalties in place for officers who smuggle contraband.

“Several members have talked about contraband from officers being perhaps a bigger problem than coming in from the outside,” Plakon said. “I don’t know that, but even if that is so, this legislature took steps last year, in 2019, with Rep. Drake’s bill, HB 41, which provides enhanced penalties for correctional officers that would do bad things within the facilities of our correctional institutions.”

The bill will go into effect in October of this year, if it gets a signature from the governor.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.