The war on marijuana is being waged on those who speak out

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Photos of the author from before Philadelphia police busted up the "smokeasy" party in April.

America's renewed war on cannabis consumers had its hands down the front of my pants last week. Twice.

Two cops searched my genital area during a raid on a 4/20 weekend marijuana party in Philadelphia. The “smokeasy” event was like an indoor farmer’s market – not a rave. There was even some rather delicious barbecue chicken. This mellow gathering was the target of a months-long, major narcotics investigation and ended with a SWAT team coming through the door.

While federal drug enforcement discussions are often couched in terms of state regulations, that’s a mistaken assumption.  In the state of Pennsylvania, the police crackdown on people for the mere possession of small amounts of marijuana has never stopped.

Dozens of underground medical marijuana patients, many with serious illnesses, were left terrorized by the raid. My friend and fellow political activist NA Poe was sitting in jail for more than a week and still faces serious charges.

The smokeasy breakup quickly made national news and prompted Mayor Jim Kenney to call for Pennsylvania to finally legalize cannabis. The timing and circumstances of the raid during a week of parallel events put a spotlight on the dramatic cognitive dissonance involved in our current marijuana laws.

Last weekend, literally as the raid was happening in Philly, almost 3,000 people were in Pittsburgh attending the World Medical Cannabis Conference and Expo. Former NFL players Ricky Williams and Marvin Washington were the stars of the show. Speaking on stage were Sens. Mike Folmer (R., Lancaster) and Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), who sponsored Pennsylvania's rather limited medical cannabis law. There were plenty of fragrant after-parties, but certainly no raids or arrests.

A few days after the Philly raid, the Pennsylvania Department of Health released a list of hundreds of straight-laced applicants competing for licenses to sell legal, medicinal hash oil to thousands of Pennsylvania patients.

Among the aspiring cannabusinesses are local millionaires, politicians, lawyers, investment brokers, bankers, licensed marijuana growers from other states, and even some cops, like Philadelphia Police Department K-9 Unit Captain Mark Everitt (seriously!).

They promise to be patients’ steady connection, with grand greenhouses full of thriving plants and well-paying jobs, such as armed security guards. But until adult patients are registered next year, the only access for Pennsylvanians remains the underground market.

The 1920s era of busting up beer kegs, whiskey stills, and liquor rings is considered almost quaint. Today, among the boom of craft breweries and putting hard liquor onto the shelves of neighborhood grocery stores, the concept of criminalized drinking seems absurd. Meanwhile, the cannabis community is still enduring more than a century of politics and government policy at gunpoint, all to keep us from ingesting a plant. This is why we need to legalize.

I've been briefly detained by federal, state, and municipal authorities in the process of demonstrating for different causes over the years. Still, the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Unit raid of the Philly Smoke Session on April 22 was the most invasive encounter I've ever had with a cop.

For more than an hour I had relaxed inside the party. Did I smoke marijuana? Absolutely. People freely shared some gorgeous cannabis. But I also smoke tobacco, which is rather taboo in the green crowd. So I was standing outside in front of the warehouse, next to the two hired security guards and having a cigarette when the initial move was made on the party just before 8 p.m.

I saw four white men with scruffy beards and longish hair walking abreast and with a purpose.  They looked out of place, like hillbillies in North Philly. For a split second I thought we were being mugged.

They yelled: “Get the f- up against the wall!”

I asked who they were.

“We have badges, who the f- do you think we are?”

By then one of the hillbillies had quickly turned me to face against a brick wall, my hands were up and legs spread. I nodded at the incredibly calm security guard next to me and said, “They have badges too.”

“We're the f-ing police.”

At that moment the truth was clear as dozens of police vehicles swooped in and what seemed like an army of cops followed a SWAT unit through the front door. I heard plenty of shouting but did not witness anything inside after that.

The plainclothes officer handed me off to a blue-shirt in a tactical vest. He was younger and shorter than me with meticulously styled, gelled, blonde hair. I couldn't see a name, but have since called him “Bieber” in my head.

Bieber quickly searched my pockets and sport jacket then put me into metal handcuffs behind my back.  He found a small glass pipe in my side pocket that someone had given to me as a gift. He turned me around, put his left hand down between my boxers and jeans and quickly searched there. It seemed like an intense version of a TSA encounter.

Bieber then handed me off to another cop. This one was pudgy, tall and wearing a dark gray SWAT-type coverall outfit with a matching baseball cap. A set of small reading glasses perched atop his pink cheeks. It was drizzling rain that night and his nametag was covered by an extra jacket. He looked like a Ghostbuster in this costume, so that's what I call him in my head.

Ghostbuster walked me around the corner in handcuffs and I saw more than 30 police cars, vans and special units. On the way he was loose-lipped, proudly talking up details of the operation with dozens of other cops who were milling about.

We arrived at a police van where the completely compliant security guards were being loaded. After a brief discussion, it was decided that I was to be “cut loose.”

Unprompted, Ghostbuster leaned in close to my face and stated that he was with Narcotics and that they were “different” than other police.

My hands were still cuffed behind my back and I just listened.

“We're here because marijuana is still illegal,” he said with snarky confidence.

He was correct. Without cannabis prohibition we would have never met.

Ghostbuster took out my wallet and found a goofy picture from the party's photo-booth. There I was smiling, 30 minutes prior, wearing a Canadian Mountie hat and holding a corny marijuana leaf flag. He showed the photo to other cops, and they all shared a laugh. It didn’t feel funny to me.

He took out the pipe and asked, “Do you want this back? Yes or No?”

I didn't answer and just looked quizzically.

“Yes or NO?” he shouted. I said no. He put the small multi-colored glass tube under his heavy boot and smashed it with dramatic flair.

Ghostbuster searched me again, quickly pushing his hands in each pocket. Then he grabbed the waist of my jeans, jerked them forward and put his right hand down my boxers. He may have been wearing mechanic’s gloves.

Ghostbuster's hand was on my genitals for a split second, but it was more than simply passing along. My zipper was left open afterward.

This happens 1,000 times a day to women and men across America on the premise of marijuana possession. But in all my years of police interaction, it was a first for me.

The second cop's hand down my pants during the raid didn't feel like the TSA.  The intention felt like calculated intimidation.

NA Poe never knew how much of a focused animosity the Narcotics Unit had built up for him. After all, Poe worked with me, then-Councilman Jim Kenney, and many others on the decriminalization ordinance that's been in place since 2014. That change has since saved Philadelphia Police millions of dollars. The process formed an unlikely bridge between city government and local cannabis consumers.

Last July during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, marijuana activists staged several large actions. Two 51-foot-long, inflatable joints were marched up Broad Street. PPD even tweeted out a picture.

Poe helped us throw a “Marijuana Welcome Party” for the DNC delegates in town. New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari was among those who showed up, along with the Huffington Post. Some of the guests openly smoked joints under the sidewalk awnings of the Italian Market. There was a parade of Uber cars pulling up for hours. It was cozy, cordial, and felt completely safe. Off-duty members of the press stopped in and marveled.

All that goodwill seems to have really burned up some of the folks on the PPD Narcotics Unit. Last summer they started to infiltrate the gatherings. All they needed to do was show up, be nice and share some weed. Blending in with the unabashed enthusiasts and medical patients who are coming out of the closet was sinfully easy.

Being welcomed in, the undercover officers should have observed that Poe has a passionate sense of service. Food drives, winter coat, and toy donations were a major part of every event he planned, from music parties to comedy shows. Regular attendees and his longtime fans always brought something. Poe would help volunteers drop everything off to local charities. He often stopped to give directly to the homeless. I wonder if any of the undercover cops ever brought a donation.

In October 2016, we celebrated two years of Philly decriminalization with a whimsical “Pop Up Weed Garden” on Eakins Oval. Poe's promotional video got thousands of views. He was wearing a plush marijuana leaf costume and running up the iconic Art Museum steps. Hundreds of people showed up to smoke cannabis on that beautiful fall afternoon. Local TV news crews reveled in the optics. There were no arrests.

Side by side, Poe and I have pulled off many high-profile political actions. Our simple but effective tactic is carrying along some actual, honest-to-goodness cannabis. In December we joined Washington, D.C., activist crew DCMJ and took some pungent buds to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office. Capitol Police showed up, but no one was arrested. Video of the encounter made national news.

Camera icon CHRIS GOLDSTEIN / Freelance
Marijuana activists gather at the Pennsylvania statehouse in Harrisburg on April 19, 2017.

On April 19, just days before the raid, Poe joined me and more than 150 advocates for a cannabis rally in Harrisburg. Pa. Statehouse reporters watched as supporters held signs and lined up on the swooping, marble steps. Les Stark of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition and Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale opened 55 full minutes of the most passionate speeches favoring legalization that I have ever witnessed in eight years of working with this government.

“The war on marijuana must end, and it must end now,” DePasquale said to booming cheers.

Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) talked about the many injustices of prohibition, including the racial disparity of enforcement.  Rep. Mark Rozzi (D- Berks) courageously revealed that he consumed cannabis for years as a young man to mitigate PTSD caused by sexual abuse. Underground medical marijuana patients joined the call to decriminalize possession because so many with legitimate medical needs will be left out of the upcoming Health Department program.

“We need this now,” Poe said in his speech. “There are medical marijuana patients floating around this state getting their weed illegally...these people need protection, now more than ever. They’re children, they’re sick people. They’re people that smoke weed all day long on the couch [pointing at himself] and we all deserve not to get arrested ever again.”

A few minutes later most of the participants streamed out the front doors for pictures and interviews. We smoked that joint outside with several dozen people, right on the front steps of the Capitol. No one was arrested.

So, why raid Poe and why now?

Was it because of the weed? His eclectic lifestyle? Or was it because he is an uppity stoner, one who will never shut up about changing the law?

Every weekend there are dozens of marijuana gatherings in every American city. If Poe had kept quiet, with his head down and out of politics, would he have avoided arrest? If the answer is “certainly,” where are we as a society?

PPD and the Philadelphia District Attorney's office have earned national infamy for their zeal in policing for profit. After scoping out and casing the smokeasy parties for months, the police struck for maximum impact, taking cash and decriminalized quantities of marijuana from many of the peaceful attendees in what amounted to an armed robbery. In court they call it Civil Asset Forfeiture. So was this just about money?

Exactly one week after the party, as Poe still remained in jail and assigned $250,000 bail, President Trump came to Harrisburg. Were it not for the raid, we would have all, undoubtedly, been right there performing some funny direct action with cannabis and making hay while the sunshine of the national press was on our turf. Just saying.

There's no such thing as a war on marijuana. The war is waged against people. It’s real. This is written from the front lines.

No matter how Poe’s case plays in court, the most disturbing question will always linger: Was it pot or politics that landed my friend in such hot water?