When I first wrote a Viewpoint article for the Miami Herald calling for legalization of recreational marijuana, I had no idea that 40 years later, we would be closer, but not yet there. Legalization seemed inevitable to me in 1981, but the wheels of government and social acceptance grind especially slow when it comes to illegal substances that many see as a “cultural” issue.
Today, marijuana legalization, both medicinal and recreational, is a bipartisan issue. Current polls show that Floridians support recreational marijuana by a large margin. Nonetheless, our Republican legislature still dragged its feet implementing the Florida constitutional amendment approving medical marijuana. Even now, there are politicians who want the government — and not the people — to decide the kind of society we want.
We have, however, come a long way since the article was published in 1981. At that time, being in favor of legalized pot was not a popular opinion. I had groups such as Informed Parents of Dade (actually, not so well informed) writing how wrong and naive I was. Letters to the Editor included “A convict’s view of marijuana,” in which a state prisoner said all of his fellow inmates smoked pot, so he concluded that this was the source of all crime. Others wrote that the reason I felt this way was because I was young and had no children. Now, with three grown sons and two granddaughters, I guess that argument is moot.
Lives changed forever
We must also recognize that the issue of marijuana prohibition is not just an academic exercise. Otherwise law-abiding citizens (very often people of color) have had their lives forever changed because their intoxicant of choice was marijuana and not alcohol, and they got caught. The discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws no longer appears in dispute.
Many determined people have spent much of their lives and a great deal of money pursuing marijuana legalization, and I commend them for it. I have not been one of them. I did not want to define my life or career by this issue, but I am grateful that many others have chosen to do so.
Recreational marijuana is working. The sky has not fallen in the 18 states that have instituted recreational marijuana. In fact, the economic benefits of legalization are now well established. Not only are states receiving significant tax revenue, but also jobs have been created and local, state, and federal authorities are saving the cost of ineffective enforcement. And to many thousands of patients suffering from a variety of ailments, legalization (both medical and recreational) has been a godsend.
Of course, legalization presents challenges in terms of children, teenagers and intoxicated drivers. However, have we shown over 40 years that prohibition keeps pot away from those who should not have access? Clearly, no.
I thought that the criminalization of marijuana was wrong in 1981, and I certainly do not think that continued prohibition makes any sense now. Over the decades, some have advocated decriminalization, but decriminalization does not address many of the issues created by criminalization. It still keeps the production and distribution of marijuana in the hands of the criminals. They will benefit financially instead of the state.
Prohibition feeds crime
When I was a young lawyer in the early ‘80’s, I worked with attorneys who represented large-scale marijuana smugglers. That experience taught me that those defendants were not crusaders for free choice when it came to intoxicating substances. They were people who made money by exploiting the free market given to them by criminalization, sometimes using violence to maintain their business and territory. The fact that marijuana prohibition feeds organized crime is not an argument for prohibition; it is an argument for legalization!
Forty years is a long time. So much has happened in our community (and in my life); yet recreational marijuana remains illegal in Florida. Nevertheless, I remain an optimist and we can certainly celebrate how far we have come.
However, for those whose lives have been forever traumatized by the unjust and unnecessary enforcement of marijuana prohibition, these 40 years and counting must seem endless.
Joseph H. Serota is an attorney and a founding partner of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman. He has lived in Miami for over 45 years.