Every person who has ever been an activist in the United States has envisioned themselves taking the fight to our nation’s capitol, Washington DC. It’s the Madison Square Garden of social reform, groomed from decades of actions ranging from civil rights protests to veterans bringing awareness about the unseen scars of war to the fight for equality with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
And most recently, for me at least, the fight to end the prohibition of cannabis.
Last month, marijuana warriors from all over the country converged on Washington with two goals in mind: reform and civil disobedience. Following the call of the local reform group DCMJ, members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann/NORML) left our home state, where we are deeply engaged in the fight to legalize on the November ballot, to join the larger fight for cannabis freedom. With the strong possibility of legalization on the horizon, MassCann has been asking important questions about the future scope of reform and will be broadening to include New England-wide issues, as well as direct involvement in federal reform.
Back to our DC trip: Under the current Controlled Substances Act, there are five “schedules” for drugs and chemicals that can be used to make drugs. Schedule I is reserved for drugs that the DEA considers to have no “currently accepted medical use.” Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, grouped together with other substances like heroin and LSD. Many reformers call for the out-and-out descheduling of cannabis; but whether the feds reschedule or deschedule, either move could erode once and for all any arguments that prohibitionists have left. As of now, much of the blatant public ignorance stems from the ability for know-nothings to shrug and say, “There hasn’t been enough testing.”
It’s not enough to just show up to a party. So for our Sons of Liberty road trip, we rented a 15-passenger van and filled it with activists from as many state NORML chapters and related organizations as we could find with 48 hours’ notice. Among those who joined our ranks: military veteran/activist Stephen Mandile; caregiver and baker Mary Beth of CannaBeth Consultants; and Dr. Uma Dhanabalan of Uplifting Health and Wellness, who flew down at the last minute.
Our trek started down I-95 with Rhode Island NORML reps Mark Ward and Arthur McCarthy hopping aboard. Sleep was made more comfortable thanks to medible donations from Beast Coast Bacon and the Hardy Consultants, after which the van rolled into Philadelphia to meet activists including New Jersey NORML member Ricardo Rivera. Rivera advocates tirelessly for his daughter, Tuffy, who suffers from Lennox Gastaut Syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of epilepsy. Plus Marine Corps veteran/activist Mike Whiter and PhillyNORML member and Freedom Leaf Editor Chris Goldstein, fresh off his federal probation for cannabis activism, with the latter’s Panic Hour co-host NA Poe. Had we been pulled over, it would have made for an interesting police report, to say the least.
Things kicked off in DC at the DCMJ offices, located just a few blocks from the White House. Activists rolled out a 51-foot joint, at which point police stopped the procession. A temporary standoff ensued, but protesters ultimately appeased the government by deflating said enormous doobie in order to move closer to President Barack Obama’s front lawn. With a beautifully simple PA system on a handcart powered by car batteries, DCMJ opened up the mic to advocates.
As the 4:20 pm light-up in peaceful civil disobedience approached, there was an ever-growing police and secret service presence, including dozens of cruisers and paddy wagons on standby. But as the smoke rose, the sky did not fall. There were no mass arrests, and no young people were dragged through the streets. There were two $25 fines, as per DC law, both of which were paid for by Philadelphia’s Poe in the spirit of solidarity.
Days after the action, Keith Stroup, the national director of NORML, sparked an age-old philosophical debate by publicly deriding the protest, calling it “misguided and counter-productive,” among other things. As the founder of NORML, his opinions do hold weight, though to some they also seem hypocritical since Stroup himself has participated in simple civil disobedience. It’s important to consider whether direct action and demonstrations are viable tactics that help facilitate change, and if certain actions compromise by breaking the law. In the meantime, during the days immediately following the DC protest, the DEA announced that the agency plans to decide whether marijuana should be reclassified under federal law in “the first half of 2016.” Coincidence? I like to think not!
Chris Foye is a former Army airborne engineer and longtime Boston reform activist. He has served on MassCann/NORML’s Board of Directors since 2011 and is one of the event coordinators of the Boston Freedom Rally.