On July 1st, Florida joined the 42 other US states that have legalized hemp and all of its byproducts. Lawmakers approved this historic act of cannabis reform in hopes of bringing a thriving new hemp and CBD industry to the Sunshine State. But the new law is also making it more difficult for local cops to enforce minor marijuana prohibition laws.
Florida's new law follows the federal classification of hemp established in the 2018 Farm Bill, which defines hemp as a cannabis plant containing a THC concentration of 0.3 percent or less. Hemp plants look, smell, and otherwise appear the same as psychoactive marijuana plants, making it difficult for anyone other than a cannabis expert to tell the difference.
Most US police departments do not even possess the means to scientifically prove whether a cannabis plant is hemp or marijuana. Standard police drug tests can detect the presence of THC, but cannot determine the concentration of this cannabinoid. Without this specific detail, police cannot prove whether a seized cannabis sample is actually hemp or marijuana. This unexpected consequence of hemp legalization has led Texas prosecutors to drop hundreds of minor pot possession cases.
The difficulty of proving the legality of seized cannabis is now hitting Florida. Last week, State Attorney Phil Archer issued a memo to Seminole and Brevard county cops, explaining that his office will not prosecute minor pot possession cases unless cops can provide lab results showing the exact THC concentration of the seized cannabis.
The Miami-Dade Police Department, Florida's largest police force, is also being forced to change the way it is handling minor pot busts. In a new memo, the department notified its officers that they “can no longer search a vehicle based solely on the odor of cannabis,” the Miami New Times reports.
In order to have probable cause to stop an individual or vehicle, cops must now demonstrate additional “odor plus” factors, including “signs of impairment, information/intelligence regarding illegal activity prior to the stop and search, admission of possessing a controlled substance, etc.”
The new policy may technically make it harder for cops to use the odor of cannabis as an excuse to make a traffic stop, but in practice, it may not change how Miami cops handle weed busts.
Miami actually decriminalized weed back in 2015, giving cops the authority to write minor pot offenders a ticket rather than arresting them. The majority of local police departments have chosen to continue arresting people rather than issuing citations, however, and Miami police actually arrested more people for pot possession after weed was decriminalized.
Miami-Dade County cops did start issuing citations, but the New Times reports that the vast majority of people who got a ticket for smoking weed were white, while the majority of people who were thrown in jail for the exact same crime were people of color.
Florida clearly still has a long way to go before the injustices of cannabis prohibition come to an end, but the legalization of hemp is at least a step in the right direction.