Cashed

Labors to legalize bud in Florida have gone as sour as week-old bong water

"Huh-lo?" mumbles Alvin Midas when he answers the phone on a recent sunny afternoon at the statewide headquarters of the group that aims to legalize pot. Midas isn't the leader of Florida Cannabis Action Network (FLCAN). In fact, he's just the web administrator at the office in Melbourne. But he explains that director Kevin Aplin isn't available. "Well, he's sleeping."

Though legalizing weed was on the ballot in three states this month, there's not much going on right now at FLCAN or any of the other half-dozen Florida groups fighting The Man for the right to smoke in peace, Midas says. Even the Fort Lauderdale-based Coalition Advocating Medical Marijuana (CAMM), once the most active pro-pot organization in the state, seems to have flamed out like a spent roach. "Officially, the group is still together," Midas says. "But they don't have any money or anyone doing much for them."

Midas says he'll leave a message for his boss and refers New Times to Anthony Lorenzo, a statewide FLCAN recruiter and community college student in Tampa. Lorenzo's mom answers and calls him to the phone. "Yeah, we've just sort of lost our momentum," Lorenzo admits. He says funding from the millionaires who bankrolled measures in Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio never came through like Florida organizers hoped. Florida's pro-pot lobby talked about fundraisers, but that never got far. "Yeah, we probably should have done that."

The big problem, Lorenzo confesses, is that ganja freedom fighters in the Sunshine State can't seem to agree on how to wage the war. Some want to lobby Tallahassee for change, while others dream of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. "There's kind of a division in this effort," he says. "It's really weird. It's silly is what it is." If there's anyone who has an idea on what's next, Lorenzo says, it's Fort Lauderdale's Toni Latino, co-founder of CAMM.

Back in 1997, Latino held news conferences before television cameras to announce a two-pronged plan to amend the Florida constitution. First, the pot backers targeted the Constitutional Revision Commission, which was meeting that year to mull over proposed changes to the state's most sacred document. AIDS patients and others testified about the medicinal benefits of a nurse named Mary Jane. But the impassioned speeches failed to convince the commission to put its stamp on an amendment that would still have had to go before voters.

Then, Latino and others began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative (not unlike the one voters approved this year to free pregnant pigs). The proposal would have allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana to glaucoma patients and others, and Latino needed nearly a half-million signatures to get it on the ballot.

Last week, Latino met with New Times to discuss her progress in pro-pot politicking. She sat at a plastic table in a commons room of Nova Southeastern University, where she's a first-year law student and can often be found pulling around a stack of books in a rolling suitcase. The 40-something Latino has short-cropped brown hair and red-framed glasses and wears a straight-laced sweater over a flowered blouse. She doesn't look the part, she says, because she's not some clichéd, earthy-crunchy pothead with magic brownies in a hemp-sewn handbag. Sure, Latino has smoked pot in the past, she says, but only to help ease the pain of stomach ailments.

The ballot-initiative drive started out strong, she says, with a pool of about 100 volunteers working throughout the state. Oddly, the elderly were the most receptive to the idea, she says. Many old-timers remember more carefree days when pot was legal or troubled times when alcohol was not. Some complained that prescription drugs are too expensive and called pot a cheap alternative to popping pills. "I met one guy -- oh, he had to be 90 -- who used to be a pharmacist and [said he] prescribed pot to people when it was legal."

But amassing signatures turned out to be as tough as getting off the couch when you're stoned out of your gourd. Elections of 1998, 2000, and 2002 passed without a mention of marijuana on the ballot. In five years, the group has managed only a tenth of the goal, about 50,000 signatures. What's worse, the statewide pro-bud ballot initiatives this year bombed. Though local measures in Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., did better and the issue was on the cover of Timemagazine, the more prominent failures may mean that money to fund future ballot initiatives may dry up.

It's not clear how much has been spent in Florida during the past five years to legalize pot. Latino's group collected just $3,530 in those five years. Organizers of FLCAN say the group raises about $100,000 a year, but it does not have tax forms available to detail its collections and expenditures.

Latino now has nebulous ideas about how to legalize pot in Florida. Some pro-weed types will try to collect signatures for a ballot initiative; others will lobby state lawmakers; and a few will petition local leaders to ease off drug arrests. "In drug-law reform, there is no blueprint," she says. "This is just a continuous effort."

The pro-pot groups do plan to hold a fifth-annual marijuana benefit in January, with four stages and 20 bands, at Miami's Tobacco Road. About 800 people showed last year. The legalizers once talked about doing outdoor smoke-outs like those that have been held in Boston and elsewhere, but the plans burned out. "The logistics are terrible," Latino says.

After talking pot for an hour, Latino referred New Timesto another local activist and perhaps Florida's best-known herb smoker (no, it's not you), Irvin Rosenfeld. A stockbroker in Tamarac, he is one of a handful of people nationwide that the U.S. government allows to toke up for medicinal reasons. In fact, Rosenfeld gets 11 ounces about once a month from Uncle Sam's personal stash to ease what would otherwise be debilitating pain from ulcers throughout his body. This past November 20 marked the 20th anniversary of the first time he toked up legally.

Rosenfeld has long been an active proselytizer. But he says he understands that organizers can't dedicate their lives to the cause. "I know if we get it on the ballot, they're going to want me to talk all over the state," he says in a hurried voice that sounds nothing like the stoner stereotype you might associate with someone who has smoked a joint every two hours for two decades. "I've got a business to run. I mean, I handle millions of dollars of peoples' money a day."

A week after leaving our first message, we again tried calling the Melbourne headquarters of FLCAN. Midas, the web administrator, again answered. No one else could come to the phone, he said, admitting that he might have lost our number. "Things are still such a mess around here," he confesses. "We're still recovering from the election. Yeah, why don't you give it to me again?"

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