New Initiative to Decriminalize Marijuana Announced in Miami Beach

Activists Say They’ll Welcome Gay Support

Rachel Morningstar Hoffman was a 23-year-old FSU graduate when she was arrested in 2007 for possession of a felony amount of cannabis. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, she was given two options: rat out other marijuana users, or act as a police informant in a high-level sting. The young girl chose the latter.

Police gave her $13,000 to buy cocaine, 3,500 ecstasy pills, and a handgun from two thugs. 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.

Ford Banister II was a law student in Jacksonville as the case was unfolding in the local and national media. He never knew Hoffman, but the two had mutual friends, and he managed to get in touch with her mother. They spoke on the phone regularly for several months after her daughter’s death.


“When I talked to her mom, I felt I had a moral imperative to do something about this,” Banister says.

What he’s doing now is radical. At 7 p.m. tonight, Banister is holding a press conference outside Miami Beach's City Hall to announce an initiative that could decriminalize personal amounts of marijuana in Miami Beach.

Banister is chairman of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy. He says he’ll welcome support from the gay community, which he compliments for its zeal in fighting for civil rights. “You’re an enlightened and highly organized constituency,” he says.

Banister has drawn up a petition with SFGN’s publisher, attorney Norm Kent. With 4,500 signatures from citizens of Miami Beach, decriminalization would be put to a vote on the 2010 ballot and need only a simple majority to pass. If it passes, there would be no way to veto it. The people’s will would be final.

The initiative wouldn’t legalize marijuana outright in Miami Beach. But it would make possession of less than 20 grams a minor civil infraction, equivalent to a parking ticket and punishable by a $100 fine. Police in Miami Beach would still have the option of subjecting suspects to state law, under which possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana—even residue—is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. The initiative wouldn’t cover large amounts over 20 grams, the possession of which is a felony.

Florida, Banister says, has the harshest marijuana laws in the country, yet weed is perhaps the state’s most lucrative cash crop. His ultimate goal is the kind of full, state-wide legalization law that would have saved Rachel Hoffman, and many other victims of the drug war, from arrest and death. But he calls his effort “incrementalism”—a grass-roots campaign, no pun intended, growing out of direct democracy. He’s been joined in his efforts by Eric Stevens, a 22-year-old college graduate who has spent much of the last year traveling on scholarships to national seminars on marijuana legalization.

The two are well-spoken proponents of decriminalization. Stevens points out that Miami Beach, with its deep deficit, would make more money off fines than it does off costly prosecutions of personal possession. He argues that the city should be freeing up prison space and police officers to deal with crimes other than the victimless sort covered by vice laws.

Banister emphasizes that marijuana, in contract with alcohol, is not physically addictive and cannot lead to an overdose. He rebuts the argument that decriminalization would turn Miami Beach into a stoner ghetto. “Decriminalization does not equate with increased usage,” he says, noting that in the Netherlands, where marijuana is virtually legal, usage is below American levels.

Banister says he’s “supremely confident” their initiative will pass if the debate is had.

“We hope the citizens can use facts and reason to arrive at the right decision.”

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