Clearing confusion over marijuana use


Editor’s note: This commentary is provided by the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) of Florida A&M University.


Marijuana laws are changing across the country as states adopt legalization and decriminalization initiatives, many backed by voters.

Today, 36 states, including Florida, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories regulate medical marijuana as a legally prescribed drug, while 15 states now allow adult-use marijuana.

But while there’s a growing movement within Florida and other states to relax marijuana laws, the federal government still treats it — irrespective of medicinal or recreational use — as an illegal substance.

This dichotomy can cause confusion and potentially lead to problems involving employment, housing and encounters with law enforcement, among other issues.

Avoiding conflicts

A medical marijuana patient in Florida could still run afoul of federal laws in certain circumstances, such as possessing or administering the drug while employed by the federal government, on federal property or federally funded institutions, or traveling on a federally regulated transportation system.

Tampa-based criminal defense attorney Patricia Dawson offers a deeper explanation:

“You can’t use [medical marijuana] on public transportation and public parks. You can’t use it anyplace that gets federal funds. If you live in Section 8 housing, then that’s an issue because you’re going to be in violation of federal law.

There’s a whole list of places you can’t use medical marijuana, so the obvious best place to use it is in your home. You’ll be in violation of your medical marijuana card if you’re using it in places you’re not supposed to.”

But be careful of what you may call your home, advises Terence Calloway, police chief and assistant vice president of safety at Florida A&M University (FAMU).

He once had a FAMU student ask him, “Well, my dorm room is my home from September to May. Can I use medical marijuana there?” No, he replied, because FAMU receives federal funds.

Steer clear of smoking

When it comes to illegal marijuana, Dawson and Calloway strongly suggest not smoking it while riding in a car because of the risk of being pulled over by police.

The smell of burnt cannabis could lead to serious consequences, said Calloway.

“Don’t smoke and get in your car,” he warns. “You’re giving probable cause to the police. If they pull you over and they smell it … they will search your car without asking you…. Don’t argue with the police when pulled over because you are not going to win that battle.

As soon as you start arguing, they can take you to jail for disorderly conduct. As soon as they grab you and you pull back, they can charge you for resisting arrest. And it now goes from a simple misdemeanor to a felony.”

But if an officer asks to conduct a vehicle search, Dawson is adamant: “The answer is clearly, distinctly no. No, no, no. It is never yes.”

As a potentially life-saving precaution, she says African Americans should keep their driver’s license and registration over the driver side visor, not in the glove box or another place where an officer could suspect a gun is stored.

With hands on the steering wheel, “announce you’re going to flip your visor down and get your driver’s license and registration,” she says.

Enforcing the law

During an interview on MMERI Forum Radio, Tallahassee criminal defense attorney Mutaqee Akbar said, “Most of the law enforcement agencies are still making arrests. Some agencies are more likely to make an arrest than other agencies, mainly the Florida Highway Patrol.

I did not see any kind of break in their enforcement of marijuana. They’re pretty much leaving it up to the state attorney’s office to do what they have to do.”

Still, he added, “You won’t see that many people in prison simply for possessing marijuana. So, if you do see them in prison for possession of marijuana it is usually a large amount or for the sale of marijuana.”

But using marijuana while on probation could result in incarceration.

“If you get on probation for something like grand-theft or something that is a nonviolent crime, and at some point, on your probation . . . you test positive for marijuana, then that exposes you to prison.

What we’ll see mostly for prison sentences is not necessarily the underlying crime, but it’s the violation of probation. And a positive test for marijuana could be a violation of probation,” Akbar explained.

This commentary is provided by the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) of Florida A&M University. For more information on medical marijuana and to sign up for the MMERI e-newsletter, go to




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