By Norm Kent, Esq., NORML Board member
On July 1st of 2008, Florida enacted a new law which enhanced penalties for marijuana grow houses. Authorities heralded it as the ‘Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act.’ It is just another excuse to lock decent people up for longer times.
There are some provisions of the act which bring back the dark days of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in New York, legislation which sent small marijuana growers to jail for thirty years. Some might first be getting out today.
Law enforcement argued that they needed the new law because of the increasing number of grow houses operating in the state and violent crime which tend to be associated with these operations. Sure they did.
“Grow houses are not only furthering this dangerous drug trade within our state, they are bringing violent crime into our neighborhoods,” said Attorney General McCollum. “This new law will help protect our families and communities.” No, it won’t.
There was no accompanying empirical or independent study or statistical backup to lend truth to the public statements of Mr. McCollum. Nor was there any journalist anywhere in the state that took him to task or asked for documentation to sustain his claims. They just regurgitated and repeated the pablum they were fed by law enforcement.
The new law makes it a second-degree felony to grow 25 or more plants, no matter how small or large those plants are. Baby seedlings or mature daddies, 25 plants can get you 15 years. It used to take 300 plants to reach that harsh a penalty. Put it in perspective. If you lived in California, and you were given a medical marijuana card, you would be allowed to grow up to six plants of your own. Thus, if the cast of Real World was growing its own medicine in San Francisco they could film some great episodes. If they were doing it in St. Pete, Florida, they could be doing those episodes for the next 25 years from the State Penitentiary.
The Florida law also changed to make it a first-degree felony to grow 25 or more plants in a home with children present. That penalty is now 30 years. Already, I am representing a 50 year old gentleman, who was a schoolteacher in Miami for 20 years; who retired because of a disability. He grew his own pot in an outdoor shed behind the garage, apart from his children, used it for himself, and knew nothing about the law. He is now facing the rest of his life in jail.
“Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in America and we must take a stand against the for-profit growers who were previously exploiting higher thresholds,” said one of the bill’s sponsors. “By lowering the number of plants necessary for criminal charges, we’ve given Florida’s authorities valuable tools in the fight against these criminal operations,” he foolishly added. No, they have not given law enforcement any more tools. They have just given decent people longer sentences for essentially innocent conduct.
Many of the larger grow houses I have seen over the past 30 years as a criminal defense lawyer are truly marijuana cultivation operations designed solely for entrepreneurial reasons and major marketing. Exclusive homes in gated communities worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been rented, sealed, and converted into home grown hydroponic laboratories.
When they are inadvertently discovered, law enforcement makes an entry only to find no one lives there, and the place was being used to solely grow pot which would be commercially marketed for a profit. If pot is going to be against the law, you can understand that type of operation being targeted. Greedy people violating the law go to jail.
The new law enhances penalties. The difference in changing the law is significant, because what the legislature has done is gone from targeting entrepreneurial operations to including individuals simply trying to cultivate their own medicine. The less you grow, the more you are likely to now face a greater penalty.
Two of the individuals I currently represent are domestic partners who purposely started a grow house in their backyard exclusively because, at the age of 45, they did not “want to go purchasing pot on the streets in their car during the dark of night.” My client said they thought this was the smart and safest way not to commit a crime, but to “tend to their own garden.” And the price they pay for a safer way to acquire pot is a speedier way to go to jail for a longer time.
Another individual I represent who was growing pot is an artist. He and his wife have two children. They are painters. They paint, they smoke, they raise their children. At six a.m. one morning last summer, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency knocked on their door to say they were investigating grow houses.
Separating wife and husband, they argued they smelled pot and had a right to enter. They warned the couple that “if they did not cooperate,” they would have to take their children to the local family services agency, the typical bureaucratic disaster in this city that it is in your own. They reminded them that under the new law they could lose their children and face 30 years in prison. The couple had no guns, ran no gangs, and committed no violent acts. They grew some weed to fulfill a passion they had engaged for 20 years. These are the types of people these new laws target.
In this operation, the one law enforcement authorities bragged about as Operation D Day, sixteen agencies combined on one single day in Florida to bust 150 grow houses which would have netted purportedly $41 million worth of marijuana plants. I guess we will never know now. Overall, on that day, April 28, over 9,000 plants were seized and 135 arrests were made throughout the state.
A review of the county wide press releases said very little about finding any guns, weapons, AK-47s, or rifles. About ten guns were found in South Florida, and a bullet proof vest. If you were Noel Llorente, you might have needed one.
Mr. Llorente, you see, lives in Opa-Locka with his wife, Isabel. He was leaving for work when unmarked cars pulled up, DEA agents jumped out, yanked him out of his vehicle, threw him down with guns drawn, handcuffed him, and then stormed into his home searching for drugs, smashing in the front door along the way. Panicked, Isabel tried to call 911. Agents grabbed the phone from her. A few minutes later, agents realized they were in the wrong house. Whoops!
“Sorry, they told me, Sorry,” Noel Llorente said. Then the agents went on their way. “So it goes,” said the Little Prince, “so it goes.”
Marijuana is, of course, against the law in Florida. The agencies had a right to make the arrests, conduct the seizures, and raid the grow houses. They were doing their job enforcing the law. We cannot castigate them for doing their duty. We can condemn, censure and criticize the legislators who enhanced the penalties for the acts, instead of adjusting the laws to respond to the practical realities of marijuana use.
Authorities correctly point out there is an emerging trend that identifies an increasing number of indoor cannabis operations statewide. One law enforcement officer said that the number is growing exponentially, at a rate they will never catch up to. Well, does that also not say to those same agents of justice that people see their prosecution as an injustice? If so many are defying the law, should we not be reducing the penalties rather than enhancing them?
I understand that law enforcement correctly stated that many ‘Cuban nationals’ were arrested in this operation, intimating that it is all part of a foreign conspiracy.
I understand too, that each county sheriff talked about how some of these major grow houses have led to more serious crimes.
I understand also that if Floridians were allowed to grow their own plants in their own backyards without the threat of law enforcement breaking in their doors and taking away their children there would be no need for Cuban nationals or terrorism.
Finally, I understand how the terrible law terrifies the decent citizen and creates the very terrorism the government seeks to end. There is a very simple way to end the problems these law enforcement officers want to cease. Legalize the pot they criminalize. Medicalize it as over a dozen states have now done.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “That government which governs least governs best.” And like his friend, George Washington, not to shabby an American himself, Thomas Jefferson was a hemp farmer.
Maybe America today needs more cultivators and more grow houses, not less. Maybe like the patriots who threw tea off a British ship in a Boston harbor, the families who have grow houses in their backyards are today’s revolutionaries. Maybe tomorrow, history will prove them right.
Who knows, if I am right, maybe someday someone will make a TV show about it and call it ‘Weeds’. Then the show will win awards, people will laugh at it, and we will all look up and say how stupid these laws were. After all, families who grow together, grow together.
Norm Kent is a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense and constitutional rights attorney who can be reached at Norm@normkent.com. Norm also blogs publicly about legal issues at www.kentvent.blogspot.com