Officers friendly at "Hemp Revolution"
Steve Schell
July/August 1997

After two years of excessive police presence at the annual Gainesville Hempfest, attendants at the first mid-year Hemp Revolution were greeted by about one tenth the number of officers as in the past. The Hemp Revolution, held at the downtown plaza on Saturday, July 5, was attended by about 400 people, much less than the turnout at previous gatherings. But rainy skies, coupled with the holiday weekend during which throngs of people headed elsewhere probably accounted for the slim showing. Nevertheless, the crowd was treated to music from several bands plus speakers on the subject of marijuana and hemp decriminalization, as well as numerous hemp items for sale. And, hey, don't fret if you missed this one--there will be a Hempfest in the fall just like always.

"I think we got what we wanted, in terms of police presence," said Tom Miller, master of ceremonies for the event. When asked why he thought police officers were not in abundance as in past years, Miller had one word: "Shinneman." The new police chief, who came to Gainesville from Baltimore, was in attendance at the event and was thanked numerous times by the speakers for his department's handling of the event. True; during the first several hours I could not count more than nine officers at any one time, a significant drop from last year, when scanning the plaza I could easily spot 75 or 80. Later in the afternoon there were a few more on hand (maybe it was the dancing that was perceived as threatening).

Kevin Aplin, of Cannabis Action Network, staffed a table where it seemed as though there was always a group of people signing on to a proposal to add a statewide medical marijuana initiative to the ballot next year. Such an initiative, similar to those passed in California and Arizona last year, first requires the gathering of 435,000 signatures of registered voters in the state. Anyone who missed this weekend's event and would like to sign in support of this initiative may contact Aplin's group, Cannabis Action Network at 336-3519.

For many of those attending the Hemp Revolution, the big reason to celebrate this holiday weekend was the news that Dennis Watkins had all remaining marijuana charges against him dropped recently. Watkins, a longtime marijuana legalization activist, had been the target of a number of silly charges stemming from past Hempfests. In 1994 he was arrested and charged with felony distribution for allegedly throwing joints to the crowd, and after failing to have the charges dismissed on constitutional grounds, was convicted on a misdemeanor charge and served several months in jail. It seemed as though local law enforcement authorities refused to accept that, and many of Watkins' supporters believe that he was targeted by police for his involvement in legalization efforts. Indeed, in August, 1995, Watkins was arrested after police allegedly spotted marijuana growing on his property during an aerial search. A GPD spokesperson claimed that marijuana was spotted at other locations in the city during the search but, funny, no one else was arrested. Police claimed that they could not connect the plants on other properties with the owners of those properties. Hmmm. But that's not all. More charges resulted after police also used a confidential informant to buy marijuana from Watkins.

The results of all these charges were an acquittal by a jury earlier this year, and then a mistrial declared after the confidential informant said more than he should have at a subsequent trial. Finally, the remainder of the charges against Watkins were dropped last month. State Attorney Rod Smith told the Gainesville Sun that "there are more important matters for us to deal with" than pursuing the charges. What is the message here to police officers? Leave marijuana smokers alone.

New Orleans attorney Gary Wainwright, who represented Watkins in his attempt to have the Florida statute declared unconstitutional, was the keynote speaker at this weekend's event. Wainwright said there will be further challenges to the marijuana statutes and reminded the crowd that California and Arizona were the 25th and 26th states, respectively, to legalize medical marijuana. "The State of Florida is breaking its own law. The federal government is breaking the law," Wainwright told the crowd. This is because, according to the law, marijuana doesn't meet the criteria to be classified as a Schedule I Substance. "But you get [judicial] opinions like this: 'even though marijuana doesn't meet the criteria for being a Schedule I Substance the legislature has decided to classify it as a Schedule I Substance.' What does this mean? This means we are living in a country where we are all expected to obey a law that the judges will tell you that the government is not obeying," Wainwright said, as he urged the crowd to sign the petitions and get involved in the fight to legalize the herb. "If it weren't for people like Dennis Watkins...who are willing to go to jail so that attorneys like myself could come in and litigate these issues, nothing would ever change in this country. This is our country. This is our time to change the laws."

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