“I don’t usually do this,” Ricky Stoobbins told me from his car’s driver’s seat as he made his way through downtown St. Petersburg with a potential ten year prison sentence worth of reefer on him. “I like to make one stop at a time […] and try to never have over 20 grams on me.”
Ricky (whose name isn't Ricky) has been making a living selling good weed around the St. Pete area for the past couple years and is very familiar with the Florida laws that most pertain to his line of work. He tries to make one stop at a time, because, if he gets pulled over and popped with one bag (presuming the bag’s under 20 grams, like he shoots for), he’ll only be facing a first degree misdemeanor charge of possession, punishable by up to a year in jail.
“A year would be nothing,” Ricky says.
Should he get pulled over and pinched on one of his less frequent days, in which he’s making more than one stop per trip and has more than one bag on him — as he’s doing now: one stop near Crescent Lake to drop off two ounces (around 57 grams) to some “executive-type business woman,” and another stop near the Dali to drop off an 8th (3.5 grams) to a bartender-friend who has a couple up at her bar that want to get high — he’ll be facing the much more serious third degree felony charges of either possession of over 20 grams, or possession with intent to sell (or both), each punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Yeah, five years…” Ricky said and I could see that he’d thought about the realities of this possibility before. “That would be hard.”
He’s managed to keep himself out of the law’s reach thus far by blending in and running a tight ship.
“I rely on not being pulled over at all,” Ricky says. “I obey the [rules of the road]. My lights are always working. My license, my tag, my registration is legit. And I never have the car smelling like pot.”
Before he leaves his house, he seals whatever weed he’s bringing with him into air-tight, dense-plastic-bags with a vacuum food sealer and goes as far, sometimes, as to put the sealed bags in his locked trunk, knowing that, under certain circumstances, a separate warrant would be required for police to search it.
Despite the faith Ricky puts in his cautionary manner of doing business though, he has no illusions about the unsustainable nature of his profession.
“The gamble isn't worth the payoff,” he told me after I’d asked him one day in the back of an old dive bar on Central if he saw himself selling weed in the distant future. “I've got bigger things,” he said and got to talking about how he’s a semester or two away from getting his degree and eventually quitting selling weed to pursue a career in computer programming or as a mathematician.
Should Amendment 2 on Florida’s 2014 midterm elections pass, a legal doctor-patient-caregiver relationship, much like our state’s current doctor-patient-pharmacist relationship, would be established for all those interested in reaping the speculated and proven beneficial medicinal properties found in marijuana.
I went down to Medical Marijuana Tampa — a small, technologically savvy college for future medical marijuana (MMJ) entrepreneurs — to speak with the school’s founder, Jeremy Bufford, about what the MMJ industry’s future stamp on our state might look like. One of the first things we discussed was how prevalent the black-market demand for weed would be after its legalization here in Florida. “It will pretty much dry up,” Jeremy said and cited a recent comprehensive market analysis, released by the Colorado Department of Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division, which found that only 5.7 percent of Colorado’s weed (which is legal in Colorado recreationally as well as medicinally, not just medicinally, as it would be here in Florida) is currently being bought and sold on the black market.
I looked into Jeremy’s claim and while he was accurate with his 5.7 percent figure, the study he was referring to was a slippery one. It closes out its findings with the summation that it’s "unclear how large the black market is in Colorado […]."
“My business would grow,” Ricky says and points to MMJ’s high prices as why, contending that if people were able to buy weed legally, they’d buy it at its best price, even if they had to buy it from an illegal source, knowing that once it was in their hands, it wouldn't matter where they got it from.
It’s quite hard for Ricky — or anyone else — to predict the future of marijuana’s black market activity. But, Ricky may be right about MMJ’s high prices.
The International Business Times, in their recent comparison of black market, retail, and medical marijuana, found that in Colorado, the average ounce of MMJ was over $40 more than an ounce found on the black market ($240 vs $283.20). In Washington, they found that an ounce of MMJ was almost $100 more than what was on the street ($232 vs $326). This is due to a three-fold taxation in Colorado, where any form of legal weed is taxed when it’s produced, sold, and bought — generating a hefty state-wide economic boost from the millions collected in tax revenue.
People like Tom Quigley, founder of Florida Cannabis Coalition, are more focused on MMJ’s economic opportunities for the individual rather than on its big tax revenue potential for the state.
"If you want to become a bud tender that works inside one of these dispensaries as an occupation, if you want to run your own business, there's that opportunity,” said Quigley, as first reported by National Public Radio.
Seeing how the National Cannabis Industry Association, or “Big Pot” (the only organization representing state-sanctioned cannabis-related businesses at the federal level), has slapped an estimated $785 million value on Florida’s MMJ industry, should it come into existence, entrepreneurs like Mr. Tom Quigley, as well as all those in support of robust public funding programs, would have much economic cause for optimism.
In Ricky’s line of work though, the way Florida’s marijuana business currently functions, there’s no need to pay any taxes at all. The money that could end up in the public funding pool of resources once MMJ become legal, now goes right into the pockets of those risking their freedom to transport it — which is one aspect of this black market profession that appeals to Ricky. Like plenty of Americans who fall under the classification of millennial, Ricky has some quite disillusioned views of this country.
“I do this,” Ricky says of selling weed, “because I don’t want to pay taxes. I think they’re unequally represented.” He points to the “police force,” as a group whose militarization in recent years, thanks to government funding, has gone way overboard. He goes on to accuse politicians of gerrymandering and regrets that “unfair zoning laws” were paid for and enforced with taxpayer dollars. “I don’t even feel like I’m part of this country,” he says.
Dealing in a criminal business though, whether it’s for a moral or financial reason, is going to bring about some criminal shit. Ricky recently had a package from California of his seized by the United States Postal Service, containing both marijuana and hash oil, or wax — a marijuana byproduct. “I lost ten-thousand dollars,” Ricky told me after it happened.
He’s had his share of involvement with people on the wrong side of the law too, not just with the law itself. “I don’t think I’m the biggest criminal in the world — other people might,” Ricky told me one day as we sat on his couch. “Doing this does make you run into people who are criminals though.
“There was this guy who I used to front weed to, an old friend of mine. […] For a long time he did really well. But he was just a straight-up criminal. He dealt in other drugs. He used to steal cars. He was just a criminal.
“Sure enough, one day came where he was supposed to pay me, and I couldn't find him — and, you know, we were pretty close, he would usually at least call me [if something was holding him up]. So I went to his house and […] somebody had broken in and robbed him the night before. He’d been stabbed 12 or 13 times and there was just blood everywhere. It was nasty. His hand prints were everywhere. And he was just on his bed, curled up into a big ball of blood. I called the paramedics and had all this money and product on me, and there’s all this blood everywhere, and I’m trying not to make foot-prints, and he’s just like… well, he didn't die. He came pretty close though. Imagine if that guy [robber] was still in the closet when I got there or something though, you know? Anyway, I called the paramedics and just left […] so, yeah, there are a few stories like that.”
A certain level of crime beyond the business’ accepted amount of illegal trafficking might be par for the course for people in Ricky’s black-market-marijuana line of work, but data compiled by the FBI shows that, out of the 15 states where MMJ has been legal since before 2011, violent crimes have actually dropped by 20.4 percent between the two years before legalization and the two years after legalization.
The dispensaries themselves — think one-stop weed shops — haven’t seemed to have experienced much crime either. The answer as to why may lie in the dispensary owners — and police — coming to terms with the high-risk potential involved in a brick-and-mortar MMJ establishment.
“Most of these operators acknowledge the fact that they may be a sitting target, so they've beefed-up security pretty substantially […] plus, the police are pretty cued in on them too,” said Mr. Bufford, of Medical Marijuana Tampa.
Mr. Bufford, or Jeremy, opened the doors to Medical Marijuana Tampa early in 2014. He was introduced to the idea of basing a business around MMJ after seeing how well it worked for his father, who went through a series of complicated abdominal surgeries, resulting in much damaged tissue, and prompting a severe loss in appetite. Jeremy says cannabis was crucial to his father’s recovery after each surgery.
“When I saw that with my own eyes, how well it worked, it opened me up to the possibility of seeing marijuana as a medical product.”
Jeremy told me that, according to Amendment 2’s language, Florida would become a caregiver state should MMJ become legalized, which would create, as earlier mentioned, a doctor-patient-caregiver relationship for the industry to operate around. Meaning that if you’re a MMJ patient, you’ll need to go to a doctor to show your symptoms to get your initial prescription; then to the state to show your prescription to get your initial MMJ card; and then to the caregiver to show your MMJ card to get the weed itself, which will be your only continuous charge. Comparing Florida’s MMJ industry to California’s, a potentially like-market, Jeremy predicts that doctors will be required to take a day-long seminar to be certified to prescribe MMJ and that caregivers will be limited to treating about six patients with about 30 marijuana plants (plants they can grow themselves) — five plants per patient and six patients per caregiver.
In most states where MMJ is legal, becoming a caregiver only requires a willingness to assist your patients, no serious criminal record, and the attainment of a reasonable age. Here are Michigan’s only three legal requirements, according to Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, to become a caregiver: “you must be at least 21 years old; you must agree to assist with a patient’s medical use of marijuana; you cannot have a felony conviction involving illegal drugs, a violent felony, or any felony within the past ten years.”
Jeremy, referring to some thorough number-crunching done by Medical Marijuana Tampa, concluded by saying caregivers in Florida will stand to make about “$100,000 a year” under these guidelines.
$100,000 is a nice looking number, but, really, that’s all it is as of now — a nice number. We don’t know how much caregivers will make per year in Florida; we don’t know how exactly the MMJ laws will be written here. We don’t know, exactly, what the effect of legalized MMJ will have on crime and black market marijuana activity in Florida, should MMJ become legalized. We have estimates, but we don’t know. We don’t even know how big of an industry MMJ will actually be, should it become legalized. All we know is that the medicinal benefits of marijuana have been scientifically proven and published in credible, peer-reviewed medical journals, and that, if our state legalizes and taxes it, a near incalculable amount of tax revenue will be generated from it. What we also know, because we've lived, is that marijuana will be bought, sold, grown and smoked throughout our state whether it’s legal or not. What it all comes down to now is deciding, as a state, how we want to buy and sell our pot — like it’s medicine, or like it’s moonshine?
The medical marijuana vote, Amendment 2, will be on Florida's 2014 mid-term elections ballot this Nov. 4