It’s High Time

New Petition Drive to Amend Miami Beach Marijuana Laws

Picture this: You’re a 46-year-old father of three living in suburban South Florida. Well aware of the dangers that lurk about and wanting to protect your family, you apply for a gun permit. It’s approved. And why wouldn’t it be? You have no criminal record, and you’ve lived in this city, in this home, for 14 years.

You arm yourself.

Then early one summer morning you’re awakened by a loud crash. It sounds as if your front door is being kicked in. Still half asleep, you grab your shotgun and go to confront whatever’s coming. As you turn the corner from your bedroom and start down the hallway you see large dark shadows in the pre-dawn light. You’re scared; in fact, you’re shaking so much you can barely even raise your weapon. Yet you think of nothing but protecting your family.

You duck into the bathroom and wait for the intruders to approach. You hold your gun on the doorway. You want to yell “stop!” You want to scream “get out!” For a moment you may even close your eyes, because more than anything else you don’t want this to be happening. Then at once a mass of masked men are upon you. You jack a shell into the chamber of the shotgun. You try to squeeze the trigger. But before you can blink let alone fire, a fusillade of bullets erupts and strikes you down dead.

Such was the case of one Vincent Hodgkiss, a 46-year-old father of three who was killed in his home back in 2008 by a Pembroke Pines Police Department Special Response Team. We don’t know if the specifics mentioned above are completely accurate. Hodgkiss of course isn’t here to testify and the authorities aren’t telling. But we can imagine the fear this man must’ve gone through in the pre-dawn hours of that summer morning. And we’re not surprised he reached for a weapon.

From the evidence collected by the police after his death we’re not even certain that Hodgkiss was completely innocent. As Michal Mayo reported in the Sun-Sentinel, the warrant was issued after “An anonymous complaint, surveillance of high-turnover visitors and two searches of Hodgkiss’ trash, which yielded scraps of paper with numbers and trace amounts of “green, leafy substance” that tested positive for marijuana.” So he may well indeed have been a low level pot dealer.

What’s most alarming about all this is a man died and an officer was traumatized all because of what many consider to be draconian drug laws.

Hodgkiss was one of three names mentioned this past Wednesday by Ford Banister of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy. Banister, backed by a good few handfuls of supporters, held a press conference in front of Miami Beach City Hall to announce the mounting of a petition drive that would amend the Miami Beach city charter. The goal is to allow police to issue a $100 civil fine for individuals caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana, instead of being hit with criminal misdemeanor charges that could result in jail time and fines of up to $1000.

Banister had cited Hodgkiss as an example of what can go horribly wrong with the enforcement of Florida’s current marijuana laws, which are among the harshest in the nation. It’s an extreme example, to be sure. But unfortunately, it isn’t one without precedence.

As the Sun-Sentinel’s Michael Mayo also pointed out, a similar incident occurred back in August 2005 when “Sunrise police used a SWAT team for a lethal pre-dawn raid on suspected drug dealer Anthony Diotaiuto, [who] was shot 10 times. Police found a little more than an ounce of pot in the home.”

More recently a 51-year-old Pompano Beach grandmother “was gunned down in her home of 24 years during a SWAT raid after an earlier street arrest of two suspects who said they bought marijuana and oxycodone from her.”

When asked about the raids of both Hodgkiss and Diotaiuto, Jack Cole, a former New Jersey narcotics detective who now serves as the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told Mayo “[t]his is just insanity.” And he isn’t at all surprised by the way the purported suspects responded either.

“Put yourself in the occupant’s position,” said Cole. “You’re asleep and you’re woken up by a huge crash at the door. I know if it was my house and I had a gun, I’d probably go for it, too.”

Banister himself was galvanized in part by another tragedy, that of 23-year-old FSU graduate Rachel Morningstar Hoffman. In 2007 Hoffman had been persuaded to help Tallahassee cops in order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for felony possession of marijuana. But Hoffman’s case went well beyond simple snitching. Instead, law enforcement put her out on the street as a quasi undercover operative, giving her $13,000 to buy cocaine, 3,500 ecstasy pills, and a handgun from two very dangerous men.

According to reports “Hoffman had never been trained to work undercover, and police dispatched only two officers to trail her. They lost contact with Hoffman’s wire when the location of the deal changed twice – and they never regained contact. The two dealers kidnapped her and shot her dead.”

Banister told SunPost Weekly that he and Hoffman “had mutual friends,” all of whom were devastated by the case. And he’s been in pretty much constant contact with the victim’s mother ever since.

Another egregious example of Florida’s rigid marijuana laws is that of Robert Platshorn, who served nearly 30 years for smuggling marijuana and remains the nation’s longest-serving cannabis offender. Platshorn, who was a member of what the Feds christened “the Black Tuna Gang,” is the subject of Rakontur’s next feature, Square Grouper, which takes its title from the countless bales of pot that used to wash up on South Florida shores back in the ‘70s.

“It’s a prequel to Cocaine Cowboys, another time of high adventure and high prestige,” said Rakontur’s Alfred Spellman. “And Platshorn was one of Miami’s major pot players.”

It was the cats at Rakontur who reached out to Banister and bankrolled his petition drive. And it is the cats at Rakontur who’ve given this mission a visibility it might not otherwise have had.

But beyond the blood and guts and glamour, there’s also a practical side to this drive, especially as it concerns economics.

According to a study called “The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition” by Jeffrey A. Miron of the Department of Economics at Harvard, in 2008 the United Stated spent some $1.9 billion in the prohibition on drugs, $573,366 million of that to combat marijuana.

As the study also indicates, if Florida were to tax that marijuana it spends so much to eradicate, not only would we be spared the previous expenditure, we’d raise just over $129 million. And that’s certainly something to think about as Broward, the nation’s sixth largest school district, lays off 568 teachers and 737 other workers, and Miami City Manager Carlos Migoya says the only way our books could be balanced was if the city laid off nearly a third of its workforce (or 1,128 employees).

“Marijuana is the largest cash drop in the United States,” said Banister, “and the second largest in the State of Florida. Marijuana prohibition has now been in place for more than 72 years.” And despite “the expenditures of billions of dollars and over 20 million arrests since 1965, marijuana is more available and more prevalent than ever.”

Furthermore, and this is where a certain industry takes issue, “[b]y every measure, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol,” he says. “It’s time we stop driving people to drink.”

Banister also notes that “44% of those surveyed favor outright legalization; when the question comes to decriminalization, it’s above 70%. And every place we get on the ballot we win.”

So far the wins have come in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach. If Banister and his team get a mere 4240 ballot signatures by the end of August, the initiative will be placed on the ballot for general election and he can rack up a win here too. Banister isn’t at all worried.

“We will win Miami Beach,” he told the assembled. And we’ve no choice but to believe him.

California legalized medical-marijuana way back in 1996, and 13 more states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. Isn’t it, er, high time, we also joined the ranks of the civilized?

About John Hood

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