It's a scorching late afternoon in mid-July. Strolling on the sidewalk along the west side of Flamingo Park in South Beach, Eric Stevens approaches a man holding his toddler son by the hand. The blond-haired, blue-eyed University of Miami business school graduate asks the father if he is a registered voter in Miami Beach. The man, whose name is Charlie, replies in the affirmative. "I was wondering if you would sign a petition that would allow Miami Beach police officers to issue a citation to anyone caught with 20 grams or less of marijuana instead of putting them in jail," Stevens says. The dad doesn't hesitate: "Where do I sign?"
Stevens then walks over to a thin, young man named Adrian, who's wearing a tank top and gym shorts and leaning against a pole holding a basketball hoop. "A $100 fine instead of jail?" Adrian remarks. "That's cool, man." Over the course of three hours, Stevens collects two dozen signatures from registered Miami Beach voters for a petition that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The 23-year-old Foxboro, Massachusetts, native forms half of the brain trust behind Sensible Florida, a group that earlier this year initiated a petition drive in Jacksonville that stalled before coming to South Florida to make a go of it. His counterpart is Ford Bannister, a 27-year-old who helped push medical marijuana referendums in Denver, where it is now legal. As of this past September 6, Sensible Florida has collected 2,402 signatures from registered voters in Miami Beach. Stevens and Bannister need to get another 1,800 John Hancocks to hold a special election that would let Beach residents make their city the first in Florida to legalize small amounts of reefer.
"Billions of dollars have been spent on the drug war to put countless people in jail and ruin their lives," Stevens reasons as a brunet unloading her Mini Cooper signs the petition. "But it just seems impossible to me that anyone can stop a plant from growing anywhere in the world."
Stevens' path to pro-marijuana activist began last summer when he was taking an entrepreneurial class during his junior year. "I was a naval sea cadet in high school and a straight-A student," he says. "I always thought marijuana was bad for you until I realized fellow classmates who were much smarter than me smoked pot and still excelled."
So for his class, he developed a business plan advocating for medical marijuana dispensaries in Florida, which won him a $2,500 endowment from the university's business school to further study his proposal. "Florida is an agricultural state," he says. "And marijuana is the number-one cash crop in the country, so it seemed pretty logical to me."
Stevens used the money to cover travel expenses to California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, where he visited dispensaries and Oaksterdam University in Oakland. There, he took advanced classes on the business of government-regulated pot selling. He also familiarized himself with the federal government's hypocrisy on marijuana. "I found out that the government has a patent on THC [the primary intoxicant in pot] to make marinol for medicinal purposes," he says. "Yet the same government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no medicinal value."
After his trip out West, Stevens returned home to Foxboro, where he volunteered on the ballot initiative that last year made medical marijuana legal in Massachusetts. After graduating in May, he joined Bannister to bring the reefer revolution to the Sunshine State.
"I've always been entrepreneurial," Stevens notes. "I saw a huge demand but a low supply for a safe product with significant medical benefits. Many of the arguments for keeping marijuana illegal just don't have any substance."
More on Marijuana: