Philip Levine talks opioid crisis, marijuana legalization, race in Boynton Beach

Democratic candidate for governor Philip Levine joins others in a prayer led by Pastor Tommy Brown of New Disciples Worship Center before a discussion on opioids in Boynton Beach. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

BOYNTON BEACH — Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine listened to local clergy and others talk about the opioid crisis this morning in a conversation that also included a lively debate on marijuana legalization and a plea to address racial disparities in drug enforcement.

Levine spent about an hour at a meeting with 15 people organized by local activist Rae Whitely of the Boynton Beach Coalition of Clergy and a group called Black Votes Matter.

Levine recently announced his support for legalizing, regulating and taxing the recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and older, which he said would generate $600 million a year in tax revenue. Levine wants to use $300 million of that for opioid addiction treatment programs.

Much of the room seemed to agree with the idea, but there was some dissent.

“If you’re going to give our children something that’s going to destroy their brain cells and legalize it, how is that helping? Just because you’re going to get financial gain from it – it’s not helping our children,” said Cheryl Grimes, a nurse who is director of health and wellness at an assisted living center.

Levine said he supports legalization because a criminal conviction for marijuana can ruin a person’s life. He also said arrests and prosecutions for marijuana use fall disproportionately on the black community.

James W. Rorie, a minister at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, said he’s fine with legalizing medicinal marijuana, but not recreational pot.

“Marijuana in the smokable form? I disagree with that because it’s for the high. We have alcohol, you can drink alcohol, that’s a problem in itself. But to legalize something else for a high? Absolutely not,” Rorie said.

“Yes, marijuana is bad,” said another man who didn’t want to give his name. “But it has some benefit as an alternative, as a public policy, to hard-core drugs.”

Whitely said that while the opioid crisis has captured national attention, he’s worried that other types of drug abuse won’t get needed attention.

“When crack was dominant, we never had this conversation at all. And I’m afraid that the crack epidemic will be lost in the opioid conversation. We will just stop talking about it. There are still people that smoke crack. They’re still here,” Whitely said.

“The national conversation is opiates. How do we have an inclusive conversation and really, really set different policies to make sure that black and brown people are not treated as criminals when they truly have an addiction?” Whitely said.

Levine said afterward that the meeting underscored the importance of educating the public on the opioid crisis and “making sure the police force is educated in how to deal with these issues because they’re different from normal crimes.”

He also emphasized the need to create a “bridge” from recovering addicts to return to society.

Levine said he understood the opposition to marijuana legalization, but, “the bottom line is, I believe, and I think a lot of people in the room believe, that legalization, properly regulated, is the right thing to do. And the reason being is that it will stop locking people up for the wrong reasons and it will stop ruining people’s lives and careers for the wrong reason.”