Original Gainesville Activists Reunite and Continue Battle Against Marijuana Decriminalization
Loose joints, tattered throw pillows and a conga drum recreated a famous 1990s Gainesville lounge — dubbed Fort Ganja — in downtown Gainesville on Saturday. Stocked with more than 1,000 cannabis cigarettes, the city’s original ‘doobie tosser’ was set to recreate the stunt that led to his arrest and police crackdown on marijuana 30 years ago.
But the crowds at Hemp Fest, he said, didn’t justify it.
Police arrested Dennis “Murli” Watkins for throwing “doobies” into the 1994 Gainesville Hemp Fest crowd at Bo Diddley Plaza. He, along with other designated pitchers, pitched 3,000 pre-rolled cigarettes that year, Watkins said.
He wanted to be arrested, he said. He wanted the opportunity to challenge the criminalization of marijuana in the Supreme Court.
According to Watkins, organizers gave out 300 joints in 1992 and increased it to 1,000 in 1993. In 1995, the year after Watkins was arrested, they threw donuts away to avoid another confrontation with police. , which was fitted with riot gear.
At this year’s festival – held just weeks after Watkins’ marijuana charges were dropped in 2019 – 1,300 were ready to be thrown. The crowd, made up mostly of original festival organizers and attendees, did not warrant an orchestrated cash out, Watkins said.
“It wasn’t going to happen today,” he said. “There was nobody.”
As the political and legal landscape surrounding marijuana has changed since the glory days of Hemp Fest, Watkins has found himself surrounded by former peers who continue to fight for the full legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. It was like a meeting, he said.
A difference in culture and community could explain why younger, college-age people didn’t populate the square, said MaiTreyi Michel-Trapaga, Watkins’ 27-year-old daughter. Her parents had to find a community in order to fight the stigma associated with marijuana. Young people today – who are more isolated in a post-COVID world – might be comfortable with legalizing medical use, but Watkins’ generation remembers what it took to get there .
Only two officers from the Gainesville Police Department attended Hemp Fest at Bo Diddley Plaza on Saturday – a day after two officers were suspended after an internal investigation uncovered inappropriate posts about Black resident Terrell Bradley Gainesville who was mauled by a K-9 cop.
The two officers left about halfway through the event, while vendors, volunteers and locals crowded the plaza from noon to 4 p.m. before moving to a smoke-free afterparty in Depot Village.
“It’s weird that there isn’t more smoked pot,” said Devin Meyers, a 45-year-old original doobie pitcher.
The crowd and atmosphere were different from his last experience at the 1994 festival, Meyers said. When a friend led him to a teepee in the middle of the crowded square, he didn’t know what he was getting into; but he accepted the bag given to him and began scattering its contents at 4:20 p.m.
“Florida is going to have to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said. “There’s a ton of money they could make out of it.”
While Florida is not included with the 19 states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana use, it legalized medical use in 2016. At least 15 dispensaries populate Gainesville, and recent local reforms made possession of 20 grams a civil rather than a criminal offence. .
Alix Knowles, a 31-year-old registered nurse and representative of the Vidacann dispensary, said access to medical marijuana would likely have greatly improved her mother’s palliative care experience.
Education, she said, is key, adding that people should understand that access to medical marijuana can mitigate the risks of buying weed and other drugs on the street that could be mixed with deadly substances, such as fentanyl.
Governor Ron DeSantis recently advocated increasing the amount cannabis operators pay for licenses.
“I would charge them an arm and a leg,” DeSantis told reporters August 25. “I mean, everyone wants those licenses.”
Jodi James, president of the Florida Cannabis Action Network, likened her work — trying to legalize marijuana under DeSantis — to running hot coals barefoot.
Earlier this month, James joined Nikki Fried, state commissioner for agriculture and consumer services, to discuss reversing DeSantis’ emergency decision limiting medical doses the previous week.
The emergency rule — announced Aug. 26 and effective Aug. 29 — set a 70-day total supply limit of 24,500 mg of THC for non-smokable marijuana and established dosage caps for different routes of administration such as edibles, inhalation and tinctures.
Years of activism have earned them a medical use, but there’s still more to be done, James said.
“It’s still illegal and it’s still selectively enforced,” James said. “And while I could probably walk down the street smoking a doobie, if we were in a different neighborhood, I would go to jail.”
While statewide marijuana arrests have plummeted, thousands of people are still being arrested. In 2018, approximately 38,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana. In 2020, that number has dropped to around 18,000.
Although Saturday organizers announced that smoking and vaping were banned in the plaza, some attendees took to the surrounding sidewalks to celebrate the anniversary of Watkins’ arrest.
“I followed the scent around the corner,” said 21-year-old Gainesville resident Brenden Gonzalez.
In moderation, Gonzalez said, weed can be very cathartic, tranquilizing, and euphoric. Throughout his youth in Miami and his recent move to Gainesville, he said, the police never gave him a hard time smoking.
“Too many people are being arrested, incarcerated and losing their careers due to outdated policies that seek to criminalize and demonize a largely victimless act,” said Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville,
People who smoke weed don’t cause riots, host Tom Miller said, they eat gummy bears, watch South Park, make music and laugh.
Miller refuses to adhere to extreme division along party lines, he said.
“The reality is we’re all one, we’d all like to have fun, we’d all like to figure things out together,” he said. “And where we disagree, something that takes the edge off would be a big seal.”