Philly NORML co-chair Chris Goldstein very well may be going to jail in the new year, and, to him, it’s all over an act of expression falling under the First Amendment. That is, if you consider smoking a joint at the Liberty Bell freedom of speech.
“I’m being prosecuted for an expressive act — smoking a joint,” he says. “But it’s not simply about the act of smoking, so at that point it becomes a First Amendment issue. There are better places to get high than Independence National Park.”
Following a short hearing yesterday, officials decided to go ahead with a federal district court case for a simple marijuana possession charge stemming from an Smoke Down Prohibition protest in August. His second citation in a year at the time — the first from June's Smoke Down Prohibition — prompted the U.S. Attorney’s Office to request a federal case instead of a fine, as has become common under Seth Williams’s “smart on crime” approach to marijuana law enforcement. But given the sudden crackdown on the Smoke Down protests, it would seem that its organizers, of whom Goldstein is one, are being made an example of. In fact, Goldstein was never even given the option to pay the fine, as shown in his citation pictured here.
Also charged is Libertarian New Jersey Senate candidate Don DeZarn, who, like Goldstein, could face up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine in a concurrent incident. Up until receiving notice of yesterday's hearing, neither party had any contact with police officials since being issued the citations over the summer.
The joint Panic Hour/NORML Smoke Down Prohibition protests have become somewhat of a fixture in the Philadelphia activist community, having started this past December after the Obama administration declared it had “bigger fish to fry” than the nation’s illegal marijuana consumers. Increasingly, though, that bit of rhetoric is appearing alarmingly thin.
“They’ve got bigger fish to fry, so long as you’re quiet about it,” Goldstein says. “But certainly we’re not telling homosexuals who want the right to marry or women who want the right to vote to be quiet and not march. This is no different.”
But, of course, you don’t smoke pot at a national park en masse without expecting at least a little bit of trouble, and, in fact, the Panic Hour crew has been explicit with participants that they very likely will be arrested during the protest. It is, to some degree, the point. However, arrests didn’t begin at Smoke Down Prohibition protests until about May, giving the Panic Hour crew five months of peaceful demonstration before trouble began.
“The intolerance switch flipped in May,” says Goldstein. “Seven different agencies started showing up, and it essentially became a raid.”
The agencies to which Goldstein refers include the SEPTA Transit Police, Philly Police, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Department of Homeland Security — along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg, among others. Typically, those detained at the Independence National Park protests for possession face a simple fine after being escorted to tents set up to process them. Few prior incidents at Smoke Down have resulted in a federal court appearance, and, indeed, the same can be said for national marijuana possession arrests. Which, of course, is what makes Goldstein and DeZarn’s cases unique.
“We’ve been protesting in Philadelphia for years with the South Street march, which never saw an arrest,” Goldstein says. “There is no reason for this against known peaceful protesters.”
The other notable arrest from Smoke Down protests came in May, when police charged comedian/activist N.A. Poe (real name Richard Tamaccio) with resisting arrest, interfering, and assaulting a federal officer. Since then, he has been placed under conditional probation as part of a plea bargain that keeps him from being within 100 feet of a Smoke Down protest so that he can’t “be on site to incite and direct,” he says. Ultimately, though, banning him won’t stop anything.
“I’m the perfect martyr after my arrest. Even if I’m on probation, the kick in the ass to the movement can’t be underestimated,” he says. “I mean, we’re not a crime family — we’re trying to raise awareness.”
As it stands, Smoke Down is the only regularly occurring protest against our federal marijuana laws, so that awareness is coming at a price. But, in recent months, we’ve begun to see just how much the federal government is willing to spend to fight the political debate. The sudden surge in response we’ve seen is not, in fact, over Goldstein, Poe, and DeZarn smoking a joint — it is, though, about organizing a protest about smoking joints. After all, as Goldstein says, there are “more fun places to get high” than Independence National Park, and less law enforcement-laden, too.
In that sense, this is a symbolic battle, fought not over marijuana use, but the idea that marijuana use should be tolerated by our federal government on any serious level. “There can be no change without being honest about adult marijuana consumption,” Goldstein says, and, in many ways, organizing a large demonstration to address that fact seems only responsible. However, change is not exactly what the government is going for, instead opting to spend needlessly, astronomically high collective amounts of money to enforce outdated laws against people who otherwise aren’t bothering anyone.
Perhaps that’s why, increasingly, it seems like the federal government wants Smoke Down to just go away — targeting those most vocal organizers behind its public presence makes little sense otherwise. But with the tenth Smoke Down Prohibition coming up tomorrow, that day seems more than a little far off. After all, this latest heat hasn’t scared anyone off anyone instrumental.
Goldstein will be attending himself, though he won’t be participating in the customary moment of “cannabis reflection” that has landed him in a federal court this winter. Should Goldstein get cited a third time this year, it’s likely that he’ll end up in custody immediately. “There will be plenty of others participating in civil disobedience — this is bigger than a couple of people,” he says, indicating that, federal case or no, there’s an undercurrent of conviction here that prosecution won’t easily change.
Poe, however, remains banned from entering within 100 feet of a protest. But with this weekend’s demonstration looking more like a festivity thanks to the addition of Halloween costumes into the mix, that ban is starting to look a little shaky. After all, who’s to say who the man behind the banana suit or pirate patch smoking that bone really is?
"A Halloween Smoke Down offers people a unique opportunity to come out of the cannabis closet. The ability to come to this protest in costume allows a certain amount of anonymity, possibly enough that I may just grab a mask and try to blend in myself,” he says.