Puff, Puff…Pass?

Miami Beach likely to be next battleground for marijuana pro-legalization effort

California voters might have rejected a statewide referendum vote this week that would have legalized rank and file recreational use of marijuana, but the battle is far from over across the United States. True to its vaunted progressive reputation, Miami Beach looks like it might be the next high-profile battleground.

“There’s going to be a referendum in Miami Beach to amend the city charter to create a $100 civil fine for 20 grams or less of marijuana,” said Eric Stevens, Miami Beach campaign manager for the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP). “We had 7,000 signatures before Election Day and we’re collecting more than what we actually need. We only need 4,200, or 10 percent of registered voters in the city.”

Once all of the signatures have been validated and submitted to the City, Stevens said, the information is transmitted to the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections and the referendum process is set in motion.

“We’re going to get a special election for it,” Stevens explained. “We couldn’t make the deadline in August for it to be on the Election Day ballot. The validation process just takes too long.”

Florida’s CSMP Campaign Director Ford Banister said that Elections would then have 120 days to craft ballot language, most likely then promoting a vote on Miami Beach sometime in the spring on 2011.

“About 80 percent of people asked in Miami Beach have signed the petition,” Banister said. “Once one state actually legalizes it, the dominoes will fall. Miami Beach would be the first to decriminalize it and I think that would be an east coast echo.”

“The argument that smoking pot makes people violent is so hysterical it is parody. That’s meant to scare people who have no experience with marijuana. Weed only makes you dangerous to Twinkies and Doritos.” — “Bill,” a South Florida smoker

Comedian, YouTube sensation and National Spokesman for Reform of Marijuana Laws Steve Berke had hoped that Proposition 19 would have passed in California. However the Miami native said he sees the initiative in Miami Beach as a good start. “It has to start somewhere,” Berke said.

Despite a host of national elections this week with weed as the theme, Miami Beach will be just that “somewhere” a few months from now.

There is certainly an image many people have of weed legalization activists. That image more than likely is of basement dwelling slackers, unrepentant hippies or annoying wanna-be anarchists who prefer to toke up while setting fire to cities where those evil, evil capitalists get together.
But if that perception isn’t changing, perhaps it should be – at least to Floridians. If Stevens, Banister and Berke are among the most visible activists in the region, they make a fine representative sample. And they don’t appear the part.

“My interest began when I was studying the medical marijuana situation at Med School at the University of Miami and I actually got a scholarship to investigate it,” Stevens said. “I was never really involved with drugs or anything. But I met all these people who were users, including some of my tutors. And it wasn’t they way I always heard it was. You hear how it burns out your brain. But that wasn’t the case. These were very smart, very active people.”
Stevens’s study also revealed the business sign of marijuana and the war on it.

“There is high demand, it’s a huge cash crop and it’s not going away,” Steven said. “Look at how dangerous it is because it is illegal. People are forced to go to drug dealers and it funds gangs and terrorists. The government continues to spend $70 billion a year on the most failed policy in U.S. history.”
Stevens also unveiled – gasp – hypocrisy on the part of the federal government.

“They assert that there is no medical value, but the U.S. government has the patent on T.H.C. (the active ingredient in marijuana)…hmmm,” Stevens said.
His academic research led Stevens, a Massachusetts native, to begin a campaign for legalization and commit to seeing it through in Florida, he said. That connected him to Banister, who was already involved in similar campaigns in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach. Thanks to the ongoing financial support of Miami-based film studio Rakontur, the Beach campaign moved on.

Banister also defies the stereotype of a legalization advocate. The law school graduate actually got involved while at Florida Coastal School of Law. He said that he and a group of friends were largely motivated by a spate of horror stories emerging from the government’s war on weed – true tales of utterly nonviolent users being beaten, prosecuted and even killed by zealous governmentistas unconcerned with the difference between a housewife who likes to spark up occasionally and a Tony Montana of toke.

“More people are arrested for marijuana than all violent crime combined – but it’s taboo to talk about,” Banister said. “The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work.”

“Marijuana never killed anyone,” Banister said. “My dad had a funeral parlor in north Georgia. There were so many alcohol related deaths that just destroyed families.”

The hypocrisy struck Banister and energized some of his core principles.
“I want to see this through,” he said. “I’m sure people will say that I’m ahead of my time. I’m a starry eyed liberal.”

Banister’s commitment comes despite his having passed the Bar Exam, opening the door to far more economically beneficial endeavors.

The commitment of Stevens and Banister warrants high praise – pun intended – from North Miami Beach high School graduate Steve Berke. Berke has burst onto the pro-legalization scene and become a national face for the movement, based on his wildly popular YouTube song parody videos (www.youtube.com/steveberkecomedy). Berke launched an online political campaign in support of Proposition 19 in California with the recent release of his latest music video, “Should Be Legalized,” a political commentary on Eminem’s music video “Love The Way You Lie.” The campaign, supported by NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) was generating huge internet buzz, and had amassed 108,000 views within 2 days, when YouTube flagged it for being offensive, thus requiring users to login to view the video, killing the video’s chance at becoming viral.

“There is no real recourse,” Berke said. “I don’t think YouTube did it on purpose because it is political commentary. It’s their system. I think they did it because opponents flagged it and that’s just how it works. The problem is that if YouTube can pick and choose based on being flagged by users then they can sway elections in the future. YouTube is more censored than television. YouTube is the largest video source on the Internet. Their policies are also inconsistent. If you are a YouTube partner like Ludacris, then you won’t get censored. There is a Ludacris video on YouTube now called Blueberry Yum-Yum in which all he does is smoke.”

The YouTube censorship sparked response from significant figures in the legalization movement. NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre quickly released a statement asserting, “YouTube’s building a wall around Steve Berke’s video makes no sense in light of dozens of other videos that depict normal cannabis use. YouTube, whether it means to or not, is stifling legitimate political discourse…”

Berke himself also defies the stereotype of the marijuana activist, despite his parody videos and his penchant for posing with bongs. Berke, a Yale graduate and two- time All-American tennis player, was never a smoker himself, but supports the health, social, and economic benefits of legalization/decriminalization. A former professional tennis player, Berke was consistently drug tested throughout his career.  After a back injury ended his tennis career, Berke appeared on the entrepreneurial reality show, The Rebel Billionaire with Sir Richard Branson.  The FOX show is where Berke founded the widely popular Moosh Pillow, and became the first ever reality contestant to launch a company on a television show. Berke traveled the world with Branson for two months competing in entrepreneurial adventure challenges and was undeniably the show’s most popular character, being featured in both People and Star magazines after the show aired.

“People owe all of their entertainment to marijuana!” – Steve Berke, comedian, YouTube sensation and National Spokesman for Reform of Marijuana Laws

Berke’s activism was inspired by the host of entertainers he has met in his career who are recreational marijuana users.

“It’s kind of an accident,” Berke said. “I’m a comedian; I don’t know if I even consider myself a political activist. In my circles, so many artists, so many entertainers or all sorts are smokers. Look at any great television show and behind the scenes, the people making it great are smoking weed. That’s just the way it is. People owe all of their entertainment to marijuana!”

In the sunny and upbeat parody of Eminem’s much-darker original video, Berke lists myriad entertainment figures and national political leaders who have admitted to toking up.

“The point is that no one makes a judgment about them,” Berke said. “No one cares if they smoke. No one cares if Brad Pitt smokes weed. If no one is making a judgment or persecuting them, why are they incarcerating so many other people?”

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana generally cite several reasons for their position. Marijuana is considerably less hazardous than alcohol, and even arguably less a public health risk than sugar and processed foods given the nation’s expensive epidemic of diabetes and heart disease. Marijuana is easily grown virtually anywhere and despite billions spent to stem its use, it is as easy to acquire today as it was before the war against it was launched. Marijuana is easier than cigarettes for children to acquire, specifically because it is peddled by drug dealers as opposed to licensed and monitored providers. The war on marijuana is costly, makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens, and costs resource better spent on other efforts.

“More people are arrested for marijuana than all violent crime combined – but it’s taboo to talk about,” Banister said. He added that he is unapologetically in favor of all out legalization, despite the coming Miami Beach referendum being a stepping-stone. “The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work.”

Advocated also cite the massive financial boon that legalization and taxation would provide.

“Here we are in the worst financial crisis of our lifetime and government can’t see the advantage of legalizing and taxing it? The laws are puritanical and ridiculous,” Berke said.

Stevens said that legalization would permit the government to re-assign “highly trained people to go combat more serious problems.”
Some rank and file marijuana users have an even more libertarian position on getting high.

“I don’t think the government has any right to dictate what I do alone in the privacy of my own house that has no impact on anyone else,” said Dwight Overhouse, a Miami resident and smoking enthusiast. “If I go out and am so impaired that I can’t drive and I cause trouble – then that should be punished. Just like alcohol. Up until the point I endanger someone else, it isn’t anyone’s business but my own. And for the government to cite health related issues is incredibly hypocrisy considering its own bogus food pyramid tells people to fill up on yummy, yummy starches. How’s that diabetes rate coming along for them?”

Overhouse and others like to point out that even before the global warming controversy revealed that scientists tend to shade findings to support the government that funds them, the jury was very much out on just how dangerous marijuana was to user’s health. Studies vary; some claiming weed usage causes a number of potential health problems and others citing its potential benefits. Whether or not marijuana is more technically addictive than caffeine and sugar is also debatable.

“The argument that smoking pot makes people violent is so hysterical it is parody,” said “Bill,” a South Florida municipal employee who privately enjoys smoking regularly. “That’s meant to scare people who have no experience with marijuana. Weed only makes you dangerous to Twinkies and Doritos.”

The ambiguity of arguments in opposition to marijuana – as well as the nature of the political hot potato – is demonstrated in a statement released when news of California’s Proposition 19 reached Gil Kerlikowske, the White House’s drug policy director.

“Today, Californians recognized that legalizing marijuana will not make our citizens healthier, solve California’s budget crisis, or reduce drug related violence in Mexico,” Kerlikowske asserted in the statement. “The Obama Administration has been clear in its opposition to marijuana legalization because research shows that marijuana use is associated with voluntary treatment admissions for addiction, fatal drugged driving accidents, mental illness, and emergency room admissions.”

Of course, opposition to marijuana use has long been driven by dubious factors. Many historians have pointed out that it was the use of hemp – the plant from which marijuana is derived – that was really the target of anti-marijuana laws. Hemp threatened industries such as cotton and paper – and when William Randolph Hearst wanted something made illegal, he could easily get his way. It was only after the industrial threat of hemp and after opponents of marijuana noted its prevalence of use by Mexican-Americans and African-Americans that it started to become taboo. Federal and state governments soon thereafter launched campaigns essentially asserting that marijuana would create dark-skinned sex-crazed predators and along came acknowledged propaganda like Reefer Madness and its ilk.

Today, though, support for legalization of marijuana is at 46 percent nationally and outright opposition at 50 percent, according to a Gallup poll released last week. Support for legalization has grown tremendously in just a few short years.

Around the country, various laws are being looked at. Voters in Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota weighed in on medical marijuana ballot measures Tuesday, and more than 70 Massachusetts municipalities voted on resolutions calling for that state’s government to back medical marijuana or end prohibition altogether.

“For things like this to happen, it always has to be voters to get it started,” Banister said.
Miami Beach voters appear poised to have just that chance next year. Stevens, though, points out that a change in local law won’t supercede state and federal drug laws.

“The police could still enforce the state law if they choose to,” Stevens said. “But if local people have spoken the police do not have to.”
Count Dwight Overhouse as one regional resident who would consider moving to Miami Beach is they city were to adopt the decriminalization policy.
“Hey, South Beach would be fun again,” he said.

For more information on the Miami Beach campaign, here.

About Michael W Sasser

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