Council passes ordinance to lessen penalty for simple possession of pot

By HASKEL BURNS,

It took quite a bit of work – including a public forum, two Hattiesburg City Council work sessions and discussions with police, attorneys and state officials – but Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado’s work to lessen the penalty for simple possession of marijuana in Hattiesburg has finally paid off.

Council members voted Tuesday to adopt an ordinance that prohibits jail time and sets fine amounts for the possession of up to 30 grams of the substance, in addition to a separate ordinance that tightens up paraphernalia regulations. 

“I am grateful that we are at this point,” said Delgado, who proposed the measure several months ago. “It’s been a long time coming, and I do appreciate the research, the conversations, and everything else it has taken to get us to this point.

“We need to come up with smart ways to enforce the laws, and I think this is the single step that will get us on that journey of many more miles that we have to take when it comes to drug policy. I’m just excited to have this policy adopted by the city of Hattiesburg, and I’d like to thank everybody who was involved in getting us to this point.”

With the new ordinance, marijuana will still be illegal in Hattiesburg, with fines and simple citations issued for the offense, but incarceration would not be among the penalties.

The ordinance states that although simple possession of marijuana is already illegal under Mississippi law, there is currently no city ordinance concerning simple possession or the penalty for that infraction. As such, the ordinance specifically limits the fine to no more than $100 – and no term of imprisonment – for simple possession of up to 30 grams.

“Possession of marijuana is still very much illegal in the city of Hattiesburg,” Mayor Toby Barker said. “But the real question is, what is the smartest way to deal with that, that empowers people to make better decisions and make our community safer?”

Under current Mississippi state law, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana calls for a fine of $100-$250, with increasing fines – and possible jail time – for subsequent offenses.

Currently, after a first conviction for simple possession of marijuana, subsequent convictions within a two-year period are punished with a $250 fine and between five and 60 days in jail, in addition to participation in a mandatory drug education program.

A third or subsequent conviction is punished with a fine between $250 and $500, and between five days and six months in jail. Between one and 30 grams kept in a car brings penalties of a fine up to $1,000, and up to 90 days in jail.

Possession of 30-250 grams means a fine of up to $50,000, and between two and eight years in prison. Between 250-500 grams bring a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both. Subsequent convictions may be punished with a fine of up to $3,000, up to three years in jail, or both.

An ounce of pot weighs in at 28 grams.

Hattiesburg Police Chief Anthony Parker said the ordinance coincides with what his department already does – in fact, since January, only 24 citations have been made for simple possessions. Six were arrested, but only because they had other charges in addition to the marijuana infraction.

“Some people we deal with, with marijuana, it’s their first time to try it,” Parker said. “We just don’t want to stigmatize people with that on their record.

“We don’t want to be a debtor’s prison – a lot of people cannot pay those fines to get out of jail.”

In addition to the marijuana ordinance, council members also approved an ordinance Tuesday that defines drug paraphernalia and regulate the sale of certain items in the city. The ordinance, which was proposed recently by Chief Administrative Officer Ann Jones, ensures that the items are not sold to persons under the age of 21 years old, and designates where in the stores – such as behind the counter – the products can be sold.

“This ordinance takes our most impressionable people – our children and those in recovery – and takes the paraphernalia out of sight,” Barker said. “This, and (the marijuana) ordinance, I think are two very effective approaches to make our community safer.”

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