First, the promo:
N.A. Poe zipped himself up in a leafy green costume that covered him completely. He looked a little like the Phillie Phanatic, though Poe seemed even goofier and, given that he was masquerading as Hempy, a marijuana plant, was certainly stoned. Hempy roamed the city, greeting tourists, checking the Italian Market, running the Art Museum steps à la Rocky, spreading the word about the glorious event that was coming: a pop-up weed garden at Eakins Oval, across the street from those museum steps.
Then, the event: a warm fall day, two Octobers ago, with 300 folks from all walks mingling — business execs, and the medically disabled in wheelchairs, and potheads and people of various colors and ages. There was a lot of smoke. The cops simply watched from the museum sidewalk, letting the revelers revel in peace at one of the most public places in the city.
Poe took part by sucking on a huge 12-gram blunt, though the merry prankster of pot had discarded his costume, appearing in a different incarnation entirely — as himself. So Italian and intense, with a full beard, he looked like a young Fidel Castro, puffing on a joint the size of a cigar. It was a look that said freedom. A look that said he had the world by the balls. A look that said, and everyone there agreed, it was a beautiful day.
That moment felt, to Poe, a 30-something erstwhile comedian in search of a calling, like a culmination, “everything we had been building.” By that point, he’d been charging hard on the cannabis front for five years, ever since Occupy Philadelphia, the anti-Wall Street sit-in at City Hall, where he realized he could merge two things he loved: weed and performing. His comedic career wasn’t much, mostly open-mic stuff, but this … suddenly, he had his cause.
In the years after Occupy, Poe led several smoke-down protests outside the Liberty Bell (before the park rangers got annoyed enough to arrest him). He pushed then-Councilman Jim Kenney to introduce a marijuana decriminalization bill in Philadelphia, one that became law. He ran for an at-large City Council seat as a libertarian, pushing to legalize weed fully, take on the corrupt Parking Authority, and rename Broad Street “Allen Iverson Boulevard.” (News flash: He lost.) He carried a 50-foot inflatable joint down Broad Street during the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and generally bopped around the city as the Peck’s Bad Boy of local cannabis freedom. Everything was moving fast.
And Poe kept pushing. He started having parties that were advertised on Instagram — tickets were as much as 100 bucks a pop — where weed and pipes and pot-laced gummy bears and assorted goodies were sold. He held a few at One Art Community Center in West Philly, an outdoor space with music and plenty of room. They were not so much parties, in fact, as marijuana marketplaces. His friends warned Poe that he was pushing too hard, that he was becoming too open and bold and large, that he was asking for trouble. They were wrong — he was demanding it.
Last April, about 100 Philly cops raided a Poe party in a Frankford warehouse. Police confiscated 50 pounds of weed, $50,000 in cash, four handguns, and about 100 pounds of edibles, most of which were gummy bears.
Poe and his girlfriend, Rachael Friedman, got hit hardest. They were both charged with possession with intent to deliver; conspiracy; causing catastrophe (at the preliminary hearing, the judge referenced the 2016 warehouse fire in Oakland that killed three dozen people); and possession of a controlled substance. Their bail was initially set at $250,000 each.
Just that quickly, it seemed, a damper fell over the Philly marijuana scene — one that, almost a year later, still hasn’t lifted. A movement that was for a brief moment boldly public has now been pushed back underground; the moment — the event of Eakins Oval, when weed lovers could gather together openly — is gone, a quaint bit of recent lore. The huge enterprise of marijuana in Philadelphia — the procuring and selling and ingesting of it — has returned to its historic black-market state. As Poe himself puts it, “I think the marijuana community is in trouble now. People are scared.”
In early January, Poe pleaded guilty to two charges: possession with intent to deliver — based on the eight or so pounds of marijuana that police found when they searched his apartment the same night they raided his party — and conspiracy; the other charges were dropped. He’s angling to get probation with no prison time.
No matter what his punishment is, Poe says, his days of activism are over. That may leave something of a hole in the local cannabis movement. But the crisis for Poe himself may be bigger: He had found his calling, pushed and pushed — in fact, he pushed so hard that he can no longer do the thing that came to define just who he is.
“I’ll smoke a bone and we’ll talk,” N.A. Poe tells me back in November, an invitation to the one-bedroom apartment in South Philly he rented for $800, where he lived with Friedman, a paralegal. (They’ve since moved to another part of the city.) Poe is a big-league yakker — we’ll spend nine hours over three days in his living room, where he smokes weed and Marlboros, one or the other, pretty much nonstop. He gets high three or four times a day: “I’ve been around marijuana for so long and used so many different kinds of it that I need strong marijuana to get stoned. Sitting here, I feel fine, but if I walk out the door, I might get hit by a SEPTA bus.”
Last May, once his bail was reduced to $10,000 after he’d spent eight days in jail, Poe came home to hanging ceiling tiles — the aftermath of the cops’ raid — and his two Siamese cats covered in feces. Friedman went back to her job, but Poe stayed home, alone. “She is like walking out the door every day, and I’m kind of like curled up in a ball here,” he says of the first few weeks after his arrest. He wouldn’t answer calls from other activists he’d gotten close to; he was, he’d decided, done serving as the movement’s poster boy. “I never calculated the risks correctly, because I feel like we were on the right side of history,” he says. “And when you’re pushing for things that you know are right and that you know are good for everyone, you don’t take the time to really think about those risks. But when those risks come to a head and then you’re put in a situation where you do realize that that’s what happened, it’s like, Whoa. What the fuck is this?”
Poe is impossibly thin — when he springs up from the couch to douse a butt stub under the kitchen faucet, his grape-colored sweatpants hang on for dear life — and darkly handsome, enhanced by the smoke and dim lighting of his narrow living room. He claims, a sort of running mantra, that he’s done with the cannabis movement, at least until the laws catch up. But he says a lot of other things, too.
Poe has traveled the country taking in marijuana culture — Colorado and California, where Friedman is from, especially. “I felt like my job was to push the culture forward. And as far as activism, you have this dead end in Harrisburg with this medical marijuana bill” — he believes it’s solely about money, not helping people — “and you have decriminalization in Philadelphia, which is only going to get better or worse based on how the police deal with it. One way or another, there’s another closed door. And what we were trying to build was that idea of a safe harbor and people having a chance to gather as a community. That is a righteous thing.”
What’s happening in Philly is a microcosm of what’s going on nationally. We’re at the tipping point of a movement that’s become a full-out phenomenon, a huge enterprise, what will soon be a $50 billion-a-year industry — despite marijuana still being illegal federally. We all got reminded of that when Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought in the new year by undoing Obama administration guidelines for U.S. Attorneys, freeing them — theoretically, at least — to pursue federal prosecutions in states where marijuana’s medical or recreational use (or both) is legal. No one knows if Sessions’s anti-weed passion will get any real prosecutorial footing, but a lot of people — especially investors — are nervous.
In this city, as elsewhere, marijuana is birthing into the mainstream with the fits and starts of the state’s medical program, although legal adult use is still not quite visible on Pennsylvania’s horizon. But it seems inevitable that it will happen at some point; recreational use became legal in California in January, and the sheer size of that market — along with legal adult use in seven other states, with 29 states having some sort of medical marijuana program — will ultimately impose an economic force that a half century of pot advocates could not: The right side of history likes money.
Philadelphia made a splash in 2014 by decriminalizing possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana via a bill that was introduced by Kenney, then a Councilman, with the critical urging of N.A. Poe. The bill, making Philly the biggest American city to decriminalize, was designed to reduce the incarceration rate, especially of young black men, over minor drug offenses. At the least, it sent a message that Philly was becoming a weed-friendly city. Though that isn’t nearly good enough for Poe.
“The thing is,” he says, “we built a beautiful thing that everyone was enjoying, and it made people feel free and feel home for a lot of them for the first time in their life. … I understand the fucking spectrum of human emotion, and I understand where most people are coming from — a lot of people are repressed, and if a guy like me makes you feel like you can be more open about the way that you are … ”
Poe talks a lot about freedom — by which he means the right to smoke marijuana when and where and with whom anyone chooses: “Doing what I’m doing was being a voice for the voiceless. And you know, to a certain extent, silencing me was silencing everyone. They’ve cut off the head of the snake.”
Poe doesn’t sound done, I tell him, with pushing for marijuana freedom, not by a long shot.
In his dark living room, he takes a hit from a joint and laughs.
His name, in fact, isn’t N.A. Poe. It’s Richard Tamaccio Jr., and he hails from Upper Darby. Richard Sr. was in the plumbing supply business; Rich’s mother, Joanne, was a housewife. The oldest of three children, he had a fervent interest in sports as a boy, though a lack of talent meant his playing days didn’t last long. He was smart, though. He did two years at La Salle — the first person in his family to go to college — studying (this is not a joke) criminal justice.
The straight-and-narrow wasn’t going to end well. Or as Poe puts it: “You know, I’ve always been kind of a strange bird.”
Rich was far more interested in ingesting mind-bending drugs — mushrooms and psychedelics — than in school. And the groupthink of frat culture, particularly, turned him off; after his sophomore year, he escaped to Florida with a girl. “Hustling is for me,” he says, “and I got involved in the restaurant business.” He used his gift of gab at a high-end Marriott steakhouse in Clearwater Beach, waiting on tables. He stayed six years. He made money. He had a lot of fun. He rooted for Tampa Bay in ’08 instead of for the World Series-winning Phillies. But the bottom was about to drop out again. His girlfriend of seven years said sayonara, and Rich fell apart.
Pushing 30, he came back and hid out in his father’s basement — his parents had split up several years earlier. He lost a restaurant job here because he was “coming in just plowed. And going to a titty bar at lunchtime and shit.” His mother, especially, was worried — Rich seemed to be in danger.
He’d spend 72 hours in Bryn Mawr Hospital’s mental crisis center, coming to a decision. If he was going to jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge, he first had to have the balls to try performing — he’d always wanted to be a comic. He hit open mics, got some small paid gigs. His act was raw, unformed, laced with dick jokes. But certainly risky. His mother came to a performance at a virtually all-black club in Delaware where Rich considered, with a big dose of political incorrectness, the issue of black women and unwanted pregnancy; the joke part of it went something like, “If the guy ejaculates out the fucking window, she still somehow gets pregnant.” Joanne held her breath. The audience … burst out laughing. That’s my bouncing baby boy, Joanne thought, laughing with them. (We should all have such a mother.)
But performing comedy in Philly, with an insular band of brothers showing up again and again at the same tiny clubs, telling the same jokes over and over, would soon feel limiting, not what he really needed. Something else hit about the same time, though, in 2011: Occupy Philly, inspired by Wall Street’s version. Rich wasn’t by nature politically attuned, but here was a weird all-over-the-map counterculture acting out. That was too strange to miss.
Rich would end up staying at the encampment on Dilworth Plaza at City Hall for 60 days, sleeping in a tent, using the bathroom at nearby La Colombe, cashing his $450 unemployment checks at 7-Eleven to help feed the homeless who ended up at Occupy. It was a potpourri of issues and ideas and activism; Poe calls it his graduate school of how the world works. He watched the workaday world slip by at rush hour: “I almost felt that I could put my hands through them,” he says of normal people living their normal lives who happened past — as if the center of the universe was, suddenly, right there, with him.
N.A. Poe — the name derived from Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx and writer Edgar Allan Poe — was born. It was a persona useful for a new gig: videotaping interviews with anybody who caught his fancy. He annoyed some activists, because Poe wasn’t pure enough or reverent enough about changing the world. He’d quickly seen how futile Occupy was. What would really change? Yet Poe had discovered something: the immediate hit of online views of his off-the-wall interviews — views of him. The interactive response of the Internet. And he met Chris Goldstein.
Both Goldstein and Poe loved pot. And Goldstein — a longtime marijuana activist, a leader of Philly NORML — was always looking for recruits, for help in the ongoing war to legalize. As Poe says, pot is a great “gateway to activism,” and a marriage of opposites was born. Goldstein likes to roam City Hall or the state capitol to buttonhole lawmakers in his conservative suit, with only the cannabis leaf on his lapel giving away his calling. Poe likes to … annoy people. Be the guy who blows smoke in the face of authority and dares anyone to react.
Poe immediately understood the power of becoming pot’s court jester: “The thing I learned most at Occupy was that it wasn’t working and that these people were never going to be successful. And the thing is, I was done with not being successful. I was starting my road to success.” He was a little late on the career thing, though, so he had to move fast.
Goldstein and another advocate had smoked a joint outside the Liberty Bell, to make a point about freedom. Poe, as is his wont, upped the ante: “What if we get everyone we know to smoke a joint there?” Thus was born a series of smoke-downs on federal property, with hundreds of tokers. Before the fifth one, in May 2013, barricades had been set up, and the feds made their move, coming in on Poe, hog-tying him and rushing him off to jail as the crowd hooted.
When he was released on bail five days later, Poe found that his role in ending Prohibition, as weed activists call the federal ban on marijuana, had suddenly given him not just a stage, but the beginning of a national following. In the world of pot, he quickly became, as Poe himself now points out, “a folk hero.” He’d get a year of probation.
Among fellow activists, at least, Poe’s work really is highly regarded for the noise he’s made and the risks he’s taken. “I think the smoke-down at the Liberty Bell is going to go down as big in the history of ending Prohibition in this city,” says Jim Babb, an advertising consultant who lives in Eagleville and is a longtime jury nullification advocate. Nullification occurs when a jury fails to convict because one or more jurors deem an allegedly broken law to be senseless or immoral, and Babb made a big stir among prosecutors in D.C. a few years ago by funding posters at subway stops promoting it. He met Poe at Occupy. “Poe was one of the gems there,” Babb remembers. “Here’s a guy with a nice disrespect for authority, and he’s funny. That’s a basis for a friendship right there.”
In 2013, N.A. Poe and Chris Goldstein wrangled a meeting with then-Councilman Jim Kenney in his office.
“He was obviously kind of nervous about us being there,” Poe says now, “being the type of guys we are. I get the same vibe from every politician — they’re thinking, If I take a picture with this kid and it goes on the Internet, I’m in trouble. Which I kind of relish.”
But Kenney turned out to be different. Poe and Goldstein’s presentation boiled down to: Marijuana arrests are both discriminatory and a waste of police resources. And Kenney was the most receptive politician Poe had ever met. Goldstein watched them connect: “They’re both very Philly guys — not many on Council could have the style of conversation Poe would have. But Kenney’s a blunt guy.” Or, as Poe puts it, “I didn’t feel like he was giving me a hand job in his office.”
That meeting, insiders say, got the ball rolling. Kenney introduced a bill, it got passed, and after some protracted hand-wringing by Mayor Nutter, the bill became law. Beginning in October 2014, Philadelphia police were instructed not to arrest anyone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana. An arrest for possession of under an ounce became a $25 fine. An arrest for smoking in public became a $100 fine. That’s it — a sea change for Philadelphia.
A City Hall insider pooh-poohs the work Poe did on the bill, citing Goldstein as the real nuts-and-bolts advocate. “Poe’s never been taken seriously in City Hall,” says the insider, who then adds: “Other than the amount of noise he generates. Every movement needs heat and energy. The thing that makes elected officials pay attention is the number of eyeballs viewing press about an issue.” Which is exactly what Poe is all about.
He would go right on poking the bear in his distinct way. When City Councilman Bill Green left his seat to join the School Reform Commission, Poe ran against John Dougherty-backed candidate Ed Neilson. Sort of.
Even Poe is a bit embarrassed now about the “car-commercially” campaign ads he posted online — he couldn’t hide his own amusement as he railed about weed and the corrupt Parking Authority, about Comcast getting tax breaks to sustain its monopoly, how the city was helping fund a fusion center for $20 million to spy on us and we “are building a fucking ice-skating rink in the shadow of City Hall.” (No clue why that one bothered him.) “I don’t have any political experience or friends in high places,” Poe said in one of his online promos, “though most of my friends are high, most of the time.”
Pure high jinks, something to keep him sane while he was on probation and Mayor Nutter dithered over signing the decrim law. But then he got 4,000 votes (Neilson won, with 66,000), which surprised him, and now Poe thinks he may have a political future. As he said in one ad, “My skeletons, they’re scattered around the room. It’s time we drag City Hall’s skeletons out of the closet.” Which gets at something longtime Poe-watchers wonder: Does he really want to accomplish something, or is he just after attention?
Back in 2014, reeling from the Liberty Bell arrest — “I was insanely revved up at the feds — they’re coming at me and I’m going at them and I’m running this fucking crazy City Hall campaign” — Poe admits he may have been out of control: “We did a rally about ending the PPA — looking back, maybe most of that was for personal attention. But that’s who I was then.”
Certainly, Poe kept on ruffling feathers: He worked with porn-convention promoter Exxxotica to make a series of videos about the porn industry, featuring him getting high in bed with female talent. (Even his mother, Joanne, says that Poe’s rough edges have needed smoothing: “He assumes everyone loves him and he can do whatever he wants and they’ll still love him.” She’s talking about how her son treated women. “But he’s learned to respect people.”) Poe videotaped himself in Philadelphia last year outing an undercover cop at a Trump protest as, naturally, Poe smoked a joint. He made a trek to see Sessions in Washington with marijuana stuffed in his sock (an ostensible gift to the attorney general, who had famously said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana”). He and Goldstein and others met with Sessions’s staff, but the AG declined to take a meeting.
Ah, the fun Poe had with his still-new enterprise. Rittenhouse Square, January 2017: Poe and his cohorts got the idea for a pop-up weed event there, where for the longest time the wall had been a place for kids to congregate and sneak shared joints. It had the potential for a delicious “eat the rich” moment. But Mayor Kenney got wind of the idea and saw red — not in Rittenhouse Square! So Poe and Chris Goldstein met with two cops to hash out a controlled protest, a strategy they’d been developing with police for some time. (Goldstein calls the meetings the “doughnut summits.”) An agreement was reached: The protesters would smoke on the wall, police would issue tickets as they must, the media would record it, and everyone could go home happy.
When Poe got popped at Rittenhouse, thoroughly stoned, he made his perp walk in a beatific stupor, escorted by a cop, reporters taking it in. Sometimes, it all worked to perfection.
“As fucking weird as this is,” Poe says, “this is my body of work.”
Yet there’s the question that still dogs N.A. Poe: Was all this off-the-wall action simply designed to get him attention, or was it really in service to the cannabis movement he claims to love?
Poe himself spends a good bit of time worrying about that; he brings up commitment again and again — far too much. But it’s not one or the other; in fact, whether he’s selfish or a martyr misses the point, because Poe and the cause became, in his mind, one and the same. His drive to get attention — “I never apologize for it,” Poe says, “because I started with a microphone in my hand, wanting to be a stand-up comedian” — merged with a sense of righteousness. That meant he could only carry on by pushing harder.
At the first N.A. Poe party that Tanya Dakin, a photographer, went to, in West Philly in 2016, she wrote in Sharpie on her wrist: In case of emergency call: … Because she didn’t know what to expect, given that these parties were, like, illegal.
But they didn’t feel illegal. Poe hosted at least six parties over a couple of years, held at various locales. Some of them drew up to a thousand people: social stoners, medical patients, vets, old hippies, every financial class. Everyone had one thing in common — an enthusiasm for weed. There would be edibles in various forms, t-shirts for sale, glassware for smoking. Vendors promoted personal strains and extracts. The parties were the world’s giddiest marketplace; a lot of people came, marveled, sampled, bought and left.
The party in April of last year was on the second floor of a warehouse in Frankford, in the Lower Northeast, and smaller than the ones in West Philly. Dakin had become one of Poe’s party photographers, and she got there early, about 6:30. There were maybe 200 people there, milling around three rooms, with perhaps a dozen vendors. It was chaotic and smoky, from so many people sampling weed. Suddenly, Dakin saw a bunch of people rushing toward the door.
“Cops!” someone yelled.
Dakin took a step forward to get her purse and camera bag, felt a hand on the back of her neck, and was told not to move.
A hundred officers poured in with their Glocks out, Dakin says. It was madness. She heard Poe yell at the cops: “You’re all a bunch of fucking heroes!” Meanwhile, his house was being raided. And even Mayor Kenney, while wondering aloud about the police resources and time and expense employed to bust Poe’s party, would acknowledge that the volume of products changing hands was beyond the pale.
Dakin pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 24 hours of community service. For Poe and Friedman, the risk — and ultimate outcome, even if Poe comes away with probation and no prison time — is more severe, of course.
Which raises another question. If Poe was taking all that risk, were the parties really about making a lot of money?
Poe has profited from them, and exactly how much is a question the Philadelphia DA’s office seemed quite interested in. Poe’s lawyer, Chuck Peruto, says his client is now broke. Dakin says Poe made little from the parties after paying sizable overhead to rent the spaces and for security and so forth. But everyone around Poe makes a nod to the potential riches in marijuana; Chris Goldstein says that “money swirls around” weed, and that the last time he spoke to Poe, which was around the time of his arrest, “Rich seemed to be going in that direction.” Peruto says, “He lived a menial life, in a very modest apartment. There were constant people in and out, sleeping there, like a commune. He lived on very little. Did he deal? It’s stupid to answer that.” Then Peruto does, sort of: “I’m sure some marijuana sales were involved.” And, of course, Poe’s plea of guilty to the charge of possession with intent to deliver after cops found several pounds in his apartment is the clearest answer. As for the parties as moneymakers, Poe himself admits: “I started getting into more of an entrepreneurial spirit.”
But Poe’s on too much of a mission for money to be the bottom line of what he’s up to. And if it seems that Poe was pointedly asking for the trouble he’s now negotiating — he was! — he remains adamant that he’s done nothing wrong, a point he keeps coming back to as he gets high on his couch in South Philly, showing me how to heat up a wax dab. We built a beautiful thing that everyone was enjoying, and it made people feel free and feel home for a lot of them for the first time in their life.
Poe goes back, always, to his righteous stand. Freedom. Walking with Friedman in downtown Philly behind two black guys sharing a joint not long ago, Poe laughed to himself: This punk-ass white boy allowed you to smoke that shit on the street and I know that the cops have like kind of changed their mind about the idea like cops do.
In Philadelphia, arrests for pot are down, though a dauntingly high rate of them are still of black men: about two-thirds. But the feel in the inner city has changed. Lump Hamilton is an African-American comic who grew up in West Philly and has been Poe’s buddy for a half dozen years. Lump knows the streets, and he says things are a bit different now. Decriminalization “has allowed us a little leeway for carrying weed or smoking weed in public. Before, the unwritten rule was, you can smoke on a porch — even if the cops walk up on you on your parents’ porch, smoking, they wouldn’t say anything; it’s private property.” The problem was, Lump says, that anybody who was carrying pot for his own use or to sell might reek of it as if he’d been smoking, which was an invitation for cops to search him; now — given the new law — not so much. “It’s been a blessing,” Lump says.
And Poe has helped normalize the reality of marijuana’s widespread presence. “There’s an amazingly vibrant cannabis culture in Philly,” Chris Goldstein says. “It’s across classes, across every neighborhood. It used to not be true, but it’s ubiquitous now.” That includes high-end edible parties as well as “rich people who smoke expensive shit all the time. You should see what rich people have — they set up collective gardens, warehouses in the middle of nowhere. Philadelphia is a cool marijuana city. Everybody knows that.”
It was the message Poe delivered at Eakins Oval with that pop-up party a couple years ago: We’re here. And we’re going to sing our song in public, because nobody can stop us. That’s his demand — and there’s the bottom line on Poe as well: He calls it freedom.
N.A. Poe has pushed so hard, and the unfairness of it all rankles him: “The whole West Coast, pot is legal, and here I’m settling two felonies. People are getting rich [off of pot]. I’m paying lawyers.” Poe’s now in reboot mode: This spring, he’s opening Poe’s Sandwich Joint, a small takeout place in Fishtown. “A destination for everyone with the munchies,” Poe says. He’ll host there, and run charity events. He’s going to try to get a room above the cafe zoned to create a Philly marijuana museum, to show off what’s been accomplished.
“I feel like after 38 years, I’m finally an adult,” he says. “I want to live lightly at this point, without fear of the government. But as time goes on” — as the laws catch up to allow freedom, in other words — “I’ll reassert myself. I’ll always be involved in the cannabis movement.”
In his smoky living room, even Poe is finally talked out. But he allows himself to think, for a moment, long-term, to the far reaches of what’s possible. “Personally, I’d like to turn Philly into Amsterdam” — maybe the most marijuana-friendly city in the world.
Poe smiles his impish smile. “Amsterdam — that would still be one of my goals.”
Published as “The Court Jester of Philly Pot Isn’t Smiling Anymore” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.