Darryl Rouson's anti-drug crusade at the State House

click to enlarge Don't bang a gong: St. Pete state Rep. Darryl Rouson on the floor of the Florida House last year. - Florida House Of Representatives/mark Foley
Florida House Of Representatives/mark Foley
Don't bang a gong: St. Pete state Rep. Darryl Rouson on the floor of the Florida House last year.

Florida's 2009 legislative session doesn't begin until March, but Rep. Darryl Rouson is not wasting time in renewing his battle against drug paraphernalia.

The newly re-elected Democrat — who represents parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties — filed a bill (HB 201) last week that would charge a 25 percent tax on any items listed or viewed as paraphernalia as defined in Florida statutes, regardless of whether the "paraphernalia" was sold for legal purposes or not. The proceeds of the tax would go to drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. (Rouson initially filed a bill with a 5 percent tax but withdrew it to up the ante to 25.)

Going after drug paraphernalia is nothing new to Rouson, who initiated Pinellas County's crackdown on paraphernalia in 2006. In fact, for the former drug addict, the issue is somewhat of a crusade.

In the mid-'80s, after a successful stint as the first African-American assistant state attorney in Pinellas County, Rouson struggled with a crack cocaine addiction (see "From the crack house to the floor of the House," July 9, 2008). He eventually left St. Petersburg, sobered up, involved himself in various community activist groups in other parts of the country and returned to the city in the mid-'90s. He quickly became one of the county's most visible black leaders, working to close down drug-infested motels and cleaning up neighborhoods. In 2006, while president of the Pinellas County NAACP, Rouson convinced the County Commission to pass an ordinance restricting the sale of items deemed "drug paraphernalia," including water pipes, certain rolling papers, home drug test kits and whipped cream chargers containing nitrous oxide (see "Messing with our heads," July 12, 2006).

But, besides ridding most gas stations of glass pipes, the ordinance has done little to affect tobacco accessory stores except raise the ire of their owners.

Since gaining a seat in the Florida House earlier this year after a special election (and re-elected again in November), Rouson had not broached the issue until filing an initial bill early last month.

"If they're going to talk about a dollar tax on cigarettes, why should tobacco accessories be sacrosanct?" Rouson says from his Manatee County office. "And if we can use some of the funds from it to help curb addictions, then why not? All I'm doing is bringing some of my passion. ... to making our community a better community."

But not everyone agrees, especially the owners of some novelty stores. Those owners contend they are selling legal tobacco supplies and the proposed law is yet another way to put them out of business.

"What Darryl is trying to do is make people admit they sell bongs," says Randy Heine, owner of Rockin' Cards and Gifts and a longtime Rouson critic. He says the law is designed as a Catch-22: If a retailer pays the tax, they admit to selling drug paraphernalia, which is a felony. If they do not pay the tax, then they face charges of tax evasion.

"It's a bill that will not get out of committee," predicts Heine. "It's already being laughed at."

Rouson's bill closely resembles some state laws that require drug users to purchase a "drug tax stamp" from the government in order to possess contraband. The intent of the law is to impose additional penalties — i.e., tax evasion — on drug offenders. Many marijuana legalization advocates and criminal justice reformers say the law is unfair.

Rouson claims his proposal is a "straight tax" and adds, "I'm not going to get into what people will admit by paying the tax."

But the state representative clearly wants to harm so-called "head shops."

"We know, however, [tobacco accessories] is entirely a charade and a blatant hypocrisy that the law allows," he says. "We believe that illegal drugs are being smoked out of these things."

Storeowners are opposed but don't seem worried.

"Bring it on," says Noah Greene, owner of Hot Wax, a record shop in Ybor City that also carries some glass pipes. "I don't care. I won't raise my prices at all. I'll eat the extra fee."

When asked if he plans to stop selling any items in his store, Heine gives a shorter response: "Fuck no!"

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