Reporter Billy Cox made his first-ever trip to the Sarasota County Jail in December for misdemeanor marijuana possession
SARASOTA — Blue light strobing in my rear view, I pulled onto a side street off Tamiami Trail, eased over to the curb, and put it in park. I took my hands off the wheel to roll down the window when he approached on the passenger side. President Nixon’s endless war on weed was finally about to reel me in.
The deputy told me I’d been clocked doing 62 in a 45 mph zone. My destination was just up ahead — Best Buy, Geek Squad, an appointment for my ailing laptop — but it might as well have been Mars.
>> RELATED | Warriors rise up: Veteran mobilize nationally for access to medicinal marijuana
“License and registration, please.” The latter was in my glove compartment, along with a plastic bag containing a couple of smelly fat buds which I hadn’t even sampled yet. His flashlight spotted the vegetation. He asked if it was what he thought it was. I flashed back to the horrid lying children in those old “Family Circus” comics but decided not to go there.
“Sir, I’m gonna need you to step out of the car.”
Arms behind my back, cuffs on, Miranda rights. He called for backup. After backup arrived, the first deputy asked if he could check my car for additional illegality. OK. He asked what was in the sealed cardboard box in the back seat. I said I didn’t know, it had just arrived. He asked if he could rip it open. OK. It was a pillow with a hedgehog face. Merry Christmas.
The squad car’s backrest against my bound wrists had the give of hard plastic, but the lawman said no worries, the jail isn’t far. Sixty-four years and this would be my first trip to the joint. Me. An elderly man. Nixon, godfather of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, still dead, still hunting hippies from the grave.
The turnkeys relieved me of everything, even my boxers. They issued a coarse orange short-sleeved canvas shirt, and a pair of matching trousers with the black letters “J-A-I-L” arranged vertically down my right leg. I walked out of the dressing room wearing a pair of plastic Crocs. Orange Crocs.
After submitting to finger-printing and mugshots, I was dispatched to the commons area, where I was ordered to sit on the third and fourth rows, but not rows one and two. Rows one and two were for the women. Signs on the wall said no talking between the genders.
A woman I met in intake who got pulled for DUI but blamed her boyfriend for slashing her tires turned around in front of me and leaned forward. She asked what I was in for. I pointed to the no-talking sign. She rolled her eyes and asked again. “Sixty-two in a 45, two buds, about six grams of pot.” She said OK, but that’s nothing, there’s gotta be more than that, what else were you carrying?
The guy to my left asked what I was in for. “Yeah, OK,” he replied, “but what else?” I returned the favor and asked him why he was here. He said, “Huffin’ duster.” I didn’t want to appear un-hip and stupid so I didn’t ask.
The kid who just plopped down to my right asked what I’d done. “C’mon, man,” he said, like I’d just insulted his intelligence, “that can’t be all.”
I asked the kid why he was here. He was 20 years old and said it involved stolen property, but he hadn’t stolen it, he was just sitting on it as a favor. But then, boom, “My own damn cousin rolled on me.” The kid said he hadn’t spent Christmas at home in five years, and it looked like his luck wasn’t going to change.
The kid asked Huffin’ Duster what he was in for. Fortunately, like me, the kid didn’t know what huffin’ duster was, either — but at least he had enough integrity to ask. Huffin’ Duster said he’d passed out in a public place after inhaling a can of compressed gas. He said the holidays were always rough.
Half a lifetime ago, he said his grandfather shot his grandmother to death the day after Christmas. Huffin’ Duster’s younger self went wild with panic, tearing around the farm and swinging into a barn where he saw granddad with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, “taking his last gasp.”
There were signs on the wall listing the names and numbers of bail bondsmen. A deputy gave me a scrap of paper with a handwritten phone code to dial out. The one I’d phoned and confessed my sins to at random wasn’t calling back and I couldn’t think of anyone I despised enough to come to my rescue. Huffin’ Duster was getting desperate and pacing. His girlfriend was supposed to be here. He was incredulous.
It was well past midnight. The numbers in the holding area began to dwindle as the scofflaws processed out. Huffin’ Duster and the kid were escorted off to the cells. Soon I was the only one left in a frigid room devoid of body heat, no socks, no undies, arms retracted into my sleeves, hugging my knees in an upright fetal position, shivering, teeth chattering. A jailer said he hadn’t heard from the bondsman. He asked if I wanted charge my $500 bail to my credit card. Wish I’d known I had that option hours earlier.
It was 3 a.m., 4 a.m., slow as molasses and the jailers played online trivia, geography, multiple choice, the world’s northernmost and southernmost capitols. Closing in on 5 a.m., good news — the card accepted the bill. I get my clothes back, my belt, shoes, all that. My wallet had been cleaned out of $141 in cash, which was replaced by a debit card that will not be accepted at all locations.
The Uber driver picked me up outside the jail and asked. He didn’t believe my answer. “Dude,” he said, “there had to be something else.”
The expiration decal on my license plate says 4/20. I’m not making this up.
A few hours later, I Ubered back to the garage where my wheels were impounded. The bill was $214. Sorry, we don’t take credit cards. A three-quarter mile round-trip hike to the closest ATM convenience store. At least the cash dispenser wasn’t broken.
I spent the next few months in legal limbo. Thanks to a lack of priors, and a friend-recommended attorney, I got off easy. I signed up for a diversion program in April: 15 hours community service, court costs, three months’ probation, a group therapy session. But as a cancer survivor, I figured it’d be real dumb not to shell out more money for a medical marijuana card and a legal prescription, too.
The community service options were eclectic. I liked the idea of mindless work, something like shredding paper all day at a local theater, but that gig was weekdays only. I settled on delivering Meals on Wheels on Saturdays. The overwhelming majority of clients were elderly, shut-ins, vulnerable in ways I had never seen up close.
One 80-something widower met me under his carport and said he couldn’t find his teeth, which was weird because he placed them in the exact same spot every night. I wondered if maybe he didn’t have a ghost.
He pointed at the empty house across the street and said his son used to live there, before he died. One night as he dozed in his recliner, the man felt something brushing against his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, his son was standing next to him, clear as day, before dissipating.
Wow, what was that like? “Oh,” the man said, not scary a-tall. “I felt like he was telling me it was OK.”
There were three perfunctory exchanges with a probation officer at $50 a pop, cash. She had a Superwoman illustration on the wall. She signed a paper giving me permission to leave the state and visit with my daughter in Washington.
Then came the mandatory group session, designed to cover a small laundry basket of afflictions: drug counseling, anger management and theft prevention.
One guy said he was a high-priced babysitter for one of the “Siesta Key” stars on MTV. He said he was sentenced to be here because of what happened at a Sarasota Walmart. While shopping, he grabbed a soda from a cooler, and by time he reached the checkout counter, he’d finished it. The cashier called the cops, arguing that the suspect had consumed one of their products without paying for it. The “Siesta Key” babysitter kept shaking his head in disbelief.
My own slow-motion shakedown spanned roughly six months, and when it was over, I was so jubilant I considered getting drunk. Counting attorney’s fees, court costs, probation costs, medical card/prescription and getting my car back, my experience with the Florida justice system left me about $2,200 lighter. And being medically square with the law wouldn’t recoup any of that.
Last week, state Rep. Shevrin Jones introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis. But a more comprehensive legislative remedy? Forget it, even though a Quinnipiac Poll released in June indicated 65 percent of Floridians support legalization.
“Not while I’m governor,” proclaimed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis two months ago. “I mean look, when that is introduced to teenagers and young people, I think it has a really detrimental effect to their well-being and their maturity.”
Oh yeah, the children. The Journal of the American Medical Association last month reported that “marijuana use among youth may actually decline after legalization for recreational purposes,” but never mind that. It’s only a peer-reviewed study.
Even as more states move to join the 11 that have already legalized “recreational” marijuana, never forget the reality of where we live. If a personal-use marijuana referendum passes next year by the same landslide margins medical marijuana did in 2016, we know how it’ll turn out. The Legislature will spend years obstructing and stonewalling, throwing away good money for the opportunity to lose in court. And in the meantime, the law will keep shaking down geezers for the good of the children.
Maybe someday the obstructionists will either die off or become intoxicated by the allure of windfall profits, but right now it feels like I’m living in another time and space altogether, maybe in the last line from one of my favorite films: “Come on, Jake ... it’s Chinatown.”
Billy Cox, who will be covering marijuana issues for the Herald-Tribune, can be reached at email@example.com.