On a day in which he literally campaigned on the turf of Democratic primary rival Jeff Greene, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine listened to local clergy and others discuss the opioid crisis Thursday in a conversation that also touched on marijuana legalization and racial disparities in drug enforcement.
Levine, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in several polls, spent about an hour at a meeting with 15 people organized by local activist Rae Whitely, of the Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy, and a group called Black Votes Matter.
Later in the day, Levine discussed incentives for high-tech businesses in a visit to the Palm Beach Tech Association in West Palm Beach. His SUV dropped him off in a Datura Street parking lot owned by one of billionaire Palm Beach real estate investor Greene’s companies.
Levine, Greene, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Winter Park businessman Chris King are running in the crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary race.
Levine recently announced his support for legalizing, regulating and taxing the recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and over. Levine says pot legalization would generate $600 million a year in tax revenue, and he says $300 million of that should be used for opioid addiction treatment programs.
At the Boynton Beach meeting, much of the room seemed to agree with the idea, but there was some dissent.
“If you’re going to give our children something that’s going to destroy their brain cells and legalize it, how is that helping? Just because you’re going to get financial gain from it — it’s not helping our children,” said Cheryl Grimes, a nurse who is director of health and wellness at an assisted living center.
Levine said he supports legalization because a criminal conviction for marijuana can ruin a person’s life. He also said arrests and prosecutions for marijuana use fall disproportionately on the black community.
James W. Rorie, a minister at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, said he’s fine with legalizing medicinal marijuana, but not recreational pot.
“Marijuana in the smokable form? I disagree with that because it’s for the high. We have alcohol, you can drink alcohol, that’s a problem in itself. But to legalize something else for a high? Absolutely not,” Rorie said.
“Yes, marijuana is bad,” said another man who didn’t want to give his name. “But it has some benefit as an alternative, as a public policy, to hard-core drugs.”
Whitely said he’s worried that the spotlight on opioids will draw attention from other types of drug abuse.
“When crack was dominant, we never had this conversation at all. And I’m afraid that the crack epidemic will be lost in the opioid conversation. We will just stop talking about it. There are still people that smoke crack. They’re still here,” Whitely said.
“The national conversation is opiates. How do we have an inclusive conversation and really, really set different policies to make sure that black and brown people are not treated as criminals when they truly have an addiction?” Whitely said.
Levine said afterward that the meeting underscored the importance of educating the public on the opioid crisis and “making sure the police force is educated in how to deal with these issues because they’re different from normal crimes.”
He also emphasized the need to create a “bridge” from recovering addicts to return to society.
Levine said he understood the opposition to marijuana legalization, but: “the bottom line is, I believe, and I think a lot of people in the room believe, that legalization, properly regulated, is the right thing to do. And the reason being is that it will stop locking people up for the wrong reasons and it will stop ruining people’s lives and careers for the wrong reason.”