Welcome back to Florida Stories, a column where staff writer Allie Conti tells us some of the lessons she's accumulated in her decades of living in the Sunshine State and making her parents sad.
In the spring of 2014, I had just started working as a reporter in Broward County, the suburban basic wasteland that sits on top of Miami. Mostly, I wrote about weed—back then, people were certain Florida was about to legalize marijuana via a constitutional amendment, and there was a never-ending supply of pot bros who wanted press for their chronic-based business plan.
That's when I got an email from a man I'll call Santiago, a 50-year-old who, he told me, used to be a radio DJ and a cocaine trafficker. He was apparently one of the good cocaine traffickers, though—he reinvested in the neighborhood rather than build a mansion on Star Island. He'd pass out ice-cream-truck money to the local kids, and even brought an alcohol-free, family-friendly hip-hop festival to the area using his DJ connections. When he was caught and sent to prison for a decade, he became a vegan, and when he got out, he married a woman with dreadlocks and had a kid.
Santiago seemed like a nice guy, but more importantly for my purposes, this seemed like a slam-dunk 500-word feel-good story: a Robin Hood–esque protagonist, major hip-hop players on the periphery, drugs, prison time, redemption. Naturally, I agreed to chat with him, and we set a date to drink Starbucks in Hollywood's Young Circle and go over his newest business venture, which had something to do with hemp cakes. Health food wasn't the most exciting topic in the world, but it was better than having vaping explained to me again.
When I got to the meeting spot, he ordered a cup of black coffee with light hazelnut syrup and exactly two ice cubes, then led me outside to a van with blacked-out windows. His wife and young daughter were sitting inside, which made it seem less likely that I would be kidnapped. Once we were comfortable, he handed over a couple of blueberry cakes for me to sample as he told the story of how he went from being a kingpin to a family man.
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He made for an engaging narrator, and the hemp cakes were really good. I was on my third when Santiago asked me how I felt.
"Uh, healthy?" I replied. It took me a few seconds to realize there had been a huge miscommunication, and that I had basically just eaten a bunch of drugs.
Then I realized that Santiago was probably more confused than I was. I explained that I thought we had been talking about health food, because medical marijuana wasn't legal yet in Florida. He wouldn't email reporters about an illegal THC edible business, right? Turns out that's exactly what he was doing.
"You want me to write about how you sell weed out of a van and put it in the newspaper?" I asked. "You just spent ten years in prison for selling a different drug."
"Medical marijuana is going to happen, and people are going to be smoking blunts in the streets," he told me. "We're just getting there first."
Santiago started the van and said he was headed home with me in tow. A few minutes later, his family and I went inside their apartment, where I was presented with a business proposition. "If you write about us, we'll write you into the business," he told me. "If we work together, we can take this to the top."
At this juncture, I should point out that I was very, very high, the kind of high where navigating routine social interactions is a task on par with working out differential equations in your head. Having a drug dealer proposition you about doing something that was super-duper wrong from a professional-ethics perspective and also a wait-could-I-get-sent-to-jail-for-that perspective was far from routine.
Santiago began packing some more cakes into a doggy bag along with some regular weed. His very young daughter was scribbling with crayons at the kitchen table as I finally figured out how to force my mouth to make sentences.
"I'll think about it," I said. "There would be a lot of ethical concerns."
Then Santiago's daughter came over and gave me what she'd been working on. It was a family picture of her, her parents, and me in front of a house. Jesus Christ.
I looked at the clock and realized I had another problem—it was already 4 PM, and I had another interview in an hour, at the Paul Rein Detention Facility in Pompano Beach, where I was trying to force a guy awaiting trial for welfare fraud to talk to me.
I said I would consider joining their weird hemp cartel, packed up my samples, promised to put the little girl's drawing on my fridge, and got the hell out of there, on the verge of an anxiety meltdown. Should I throw out the approximately $500 worth of weed I'd just been handed? What would happen if any of the cops there smelled the pot stench on me? Was I sober enough to talk my way into a visit with the inmate I was there to interview, then actually interview him?
Surprisingly, everything worked out OK—my claim that I was the inmate's friend was unchallenged, the inmate himself talked with me enough for my piece, and the subject matter was juicy enough that I went on Fox News and talked to Greta Van Susteren the next night. (By then, thank God, the high had worn off. I don't think I could have handled Fox News otherwise.)
Unfortunately for Santiago, medical marijuana lost at the ballot box in November—constitutional amendments require 60 percent of the vote, and it only mustered 57 percent. I'm not sure if that led Santiago to scrap his edibles business, or if he's still going around in his van and selling illegal cakes.
I did end up writing a tiny story about him (he was an interesting character, after all), and as far as I know nothing happened to him—he didn't get arrested, but he didn't become rich or famous either. He called me several times after the piece came out to see if I was interested in trading more press for equity in his business, and I kind of just stopped answering the phone, because I was terrified. Sorry, Santiago.
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