Miami Beach Commissioner Sabotaging Medical Marijuana Efforts, Critics Say

Miami Beach Commissioner Sabotaging Medical Marijuana Efforts, Critics Say
photos: Photo by O'Dea | WikiCommons, CC2.0/ Paul Beattie via Flickr CC
In November, 71 percent of Florida voters backed legal medical marijuana. In Miami Beach, the approval rating was nearly 80 percent. So it's bizarre that the very next day, the city voted to block dispensaries from the island for at least four months. Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who sponsored the move, says he simply wants to hit pause to allow the city more time to decide where distributors can operate.

But filmmaker Billy Corben says emails and messages from Arriola tell a different story: namely, that the commissioner is scaremongering in an effort to limit Beach residents' access to the drug.

"It’s clear that Reefer Madness Ricky is proactively attempting to disenfranchise 79 percent of his constituents who voted in favor of medical marijuana and deliberately trying to cover it up by breaking public records laws," says Corben, who acquired some of those emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Arriola says Corben is distorting the issue and insists he's not opposed to dispensaries on the Beach.

"I'm friends with Billy, but he's straining our relationship by trying to inflame people against me," Arriola says. "I voted for this legislation. I think it's the right thing to do... But I'm trying to figure out, as a city official, where these dispensaries belong in Miami Beach."

To Corben, the emails — which he shared with New Times — show Arriola trying to drum up opposition to dispensaries. On November 8, for example, Arriola emailed Gayle Durham, the president of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association and a vocal anti-medical marijuana advocate.

"What do you think of zoning limits on medical marijuana dispensaries in the [West Avenue] neighborhood?" Arriola wrote. "Would love your thoughts. Maybe this is something that the [board] can take a position on?"

Durham did just that. In the days that followed that exchange, she regularly showed up at meetings and sent multiple emails vehemently arguing against any dispensaries in Miami Beach. In one mass email sent November 14, she wrote, "Let's not turn our city into the next tourist destination for potheads."

On November 9, Arriola texted Frank Del Vecchio, another local activist and asked him: "Do you want a medical marijuana dispensary South of Fifth?" Del Vecchio quickly replied, "No."

Arriola says the exchanges simply show him doing his job as a commissioner by soliciting opinions — and that they reflect an uncomfortable truth for policymakers.

"They all said without exception they don't want a dispensary in their neighborhood," Arriola says. "I have yet to find a civic activist who wants a dispensary in their neighborhood. It's a classic not-in-my-backyard situation."

A series of messages between Arriola and a city committee member, however, show Arriola's concerns go beyond whether neighborhood activists will fight dispensaries. The messages were forwarded to New Times by another city official who confirmed their authenticity, though the committee member's name is blacked out. (Arriola didn't provide them to Corben as part of his records request; the commissioner says he's unsure why they weren't included.)

"What are your thoughts on marijuana dispensaries?" he asked the committee member. "I know you've taken a hard stand against alcohol sales in places where our homeless people have easy access to alcohol. Are you worried about easy access to marijuana?"

When the committee member responds in favor of medical weed, Arriola adds a more ominous warning: "You need a prescription, but they are easy to get — pretty much anyone will qualify," he writes. "That means homeless will have easy access to pharmaceutical-grade marijuana."

(That stance is disputable; the state has yet to write rules for obtaining medical weed, but the notoriously anti-pot Tally GOP is likely to craft a very tightly limiting set of guidelines.)

Arriola ends the messages with a final concern: He fears Miami Beach will soon turn into a pot-smoking Denver-by-the-Sea.

"The new amendment will allow for the smoking kind. Also candies, etc.," he writes. "Look up marijuana dispensaries in Colorado if you want to learn more about what can happen if we don't regulate."

Arriola concedes the messages paint an accurate picture of his concerns: namely, that a liberal dispensary law would open Miami Beach to pot tourism.

"My long-term concern is that down the road, that's a potential outcome. Voters voted to allow medicinal marijuana; they didn't vote for recreational marijuana," he says.

But Arriola's critics say his approach threatens to make it more difficult for the overwhelming majority who backed medical pot to get the drug in Miami Beach.

"The will of Miami Beach voters was clear, with over 79 percent voting to have access to medical marijuana," says Commissioner Michael Grieco, the sole vote against Arriola's four-month moratorium. "Who am I to stand in the way of that?"

Corben says activists are ready to fight any move to block dispensaries on the Beach.

"I’ve been actively involved in the efforts to decriminalize marijuana in Miami Beach and legalize medical marijuana in Florida since 2010, and I’m not about to let Reefer Madness Ricky and his antiquated propaganda get in the way of the tremendous progress we’ve made," Corben says. "His politics are the relic of another era and have no place in the Miami Beach or Florida of 2017."
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink