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Largely African-American crowds were mostly peaceful, yet many were arrested for marijuana.
Largely African-American crowds were mostly peaceful, yet many were arrested for marijuana.
Photo by George Martinez

Miami Beach Decriminalized Pot, but Cops Still Arrested 40 People During Urban Beach Week

As night descended on Lummus Park this past Sunday, the smell of pot along the sidewalk was thicker than the salty ocean air. Perched on a coquina rock barrier, 20-year-old Bianca Plummer rolled a blunt with a few thimblefuls of pot.

But before the young woman dressed in shorts and a black swimsuit could light up, five cops on bikes surrounded her. Within minutes, she was handcuffed.

Miami Beach Police arrested 40 people, many of them African-American like Plummer, this past weekend for misdemeanor drug charges — primarily for small amounts of marijuana. There were a total of 130 arrests for all crimes. That number far exceeded the 27 people whom City of Miami Police took into custody in three days during Ultra 2018. (The city didn't say how many of the Ultra arrests were related to small amounts of pot.)

In addition, MBPD arrested only 14 people for pot during Miami Music Week this year.

“Minorities are the favorite target when it comes to drug enforcement,” says Karen Goldstein, the deputy director of Florida’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “That’s no question.”

Beach cops made all of those pot arrests during Urban Beach Week despite a 2015 ordinance that gave officers the option of issuing citations in lieu of arresting anyone caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor amount. After the order passed 5-0, it was touted by activists and politicians, including former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, as a step toward legalization.

For years, advocates and visitors have complained about an overwhelming police presence and anti-African-American bias during Memorial Day weekend. Though Beach authorities have strongly denied the allegation, the number of arrests for pot clearly send the opposite message.

When the ordinance was approved, however, Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates warned visitors it wasn't a license to smoke in public.

“If you’re using or smoking marijuana, if you’re smoking marijuana in public, we’re going to charge you,” he said. “If you have marijuana in your possession, if you’re driving an automobile, we’re still going to charge you.”

In a just world, the ordinance would result in about 400 fewer arrests a year, Oates said at the time.

But activists say the option to issue citations isn’t being exercised enough. And cops use it selectively: No citations for pot were issued during Urban Beach Week. (It's possible some of those 40 misdemeanor arrests were for drug paraphernalia or other charges, but likely most were for small amounts of weed.)

Plummer's arrest.
Plummer's arrest.
Photo by Molly Minta

Miami Police took a very different approach during Ultra, which is not a predominantly African-American event. Concertgoers could drop off drugs and weapons in “amnesty boxes... no questions asked,” according to a New Times article published before the event. The only things that could have been considered amnesty boxes during Urban Beach Week were trash cans.

Plummer wasn’t even in town to attend Urban Beach Week. She and her boyfriend had recently returned from a cruise to Jamaica and were awaiting a connecting flight to Virginia when cops cuffed her. The officers kept her boyfriend, Raoul Rodriguez, 15 feet away while they surrounded her, so he had to raise his voice to communicate with her about bail. “We’ll get you out, 'cause we’re not broke!” he yelled. Three of the cops then approached him; one said they were “gonna give him one more opportunity to keep [his] voice down.”

A white van arrived. Rodriguez stood in disbelief as Plummer was taken to jail. The cops biked away.

“The only answer is legalization,” NORML's Goldstein says. “That’s the only way minorities and people of color are going to be safe from law enforcement regarding marijuana use. Sooner rather than later, I hope, because this will save a lot of people’s futures.”

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