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Leon County Sheriffs Candidates Want To Lighten Up On Non-Violent Drug Offenders

Federacion de Asociaciones Cannabicas via flickr

Thursday the US Drug Enforcement Agency decided to not loosen prohibitions against marijuana, even as the public pushes for legalization. But candidates for Leon County Sheriff say law enforcement should lighten up on non-violent drug offenders.

Across the country, there is a growing acceptance of pot. According to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University, 80% of Floridians support some form of medical marijuana, and 56% favor recreational use as well. Even in law enforcement, feelings about non-violent drug users are changing. Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood knows from personal experience the devastating effect a drug record can have. Wood was arrested for possession of marijuana as a 19 year old.

“And I had to overcome that in multiple occasions in my career, from hiring to going to the FBI national academy, backgrounds, to being appointed as the sheriff by the governor of the state of Florida. Can you imagine trying to talk to the governor about this? So my point is this: if we can defer a youth from that, from that burden on a civil citation for a misdemeanor marijuana arrest, then I’m certainly in favor of that,” Wood said.

Wood, as well as the three other contenders for Sheriff weighed in at a forum Thursday. Candidates Charlie Strickland and Walt McNeil agree with Wood: law enforcement should re-evaluate how they penalize low-level drug offenders. Strickland believes targeting pot users prevents officers from handling more important issues.

“Do I think that we spend too much time chasing non-violent, minor drug offenses? Yeah I think we probably do. We spend an inordinate amount of resources. A lot of our VICE units run around chasing college students selling weed. When we ought to be out solving burglaries and solving violent crimes and working sexual batteries and assaults, and getting in the neighborhoods more,” Strickland said.

Walt McNeil believes the department should focus their resources on drug dealers, and not users.

“But the larger issue is in terms of marijuana use, is there’s an issue of selling marijuana. Use and sale are two different things. We have to make sure that we continue to impact and deal with those persons who are selling in our community differently,” McNeil said.

All four candidates are in favor of the county’s civil citation program, which lets first time, low-level offenders receive counseling and assistance instead of a criminal record. But unlike the other candidates, Tommy Mills says lawmen are justified in cracking down on non-violent drug users. But he says he would like to see sentencing re-evaluated.

“I disagree. If you’re using drugs and it’s against the law, it’s our job to enforce the law. But because…we can come up with creative ideas like civil citation and then work on… when a person is sentenced, does a sentence have to be… impact so that it impacts our jails and it impacts our prison system?” Mills said.

A straw poll of the audience at Thursday’s forum shows Mike Wood in the lead with 61 votes, Walt McNeil with 26, Charlie Strickland with 23 and Tommy Mills with 6.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.