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Monthly marijuana protest to continue at Liberty Bell June 30th

Hundreds of pot smokers gathered at Independence Mall outside of the Liberty Bell to celebrate the marijuana holiday, "420". (Colin Kerrigan / Philly.com)
Hundreds of pot smokers gathered at Independence Mall outside of the Liberty Bell to celebrate the marijuana holiday, "420". (Colin Kerrigan / Philly.com) Colin Kerrigan
Hundreds of pot smokers gathered at Independence Mall outside of the Liberty Bell to celebrate the marijuana holiday, "420". (Colin Kerrigan / Philly.com) Gallery: Monthly marijuana protest to continue at Liberty Bell June 30th

PhillyNORML and comedy crew The Panic Hour are back on Sunday June 30th (weather permitting) for a Drug War Tour of Philadelphia. Starting at Love Park then stopping at City Hall and the Federal Detention Center, the pro-marijuana procession will end at 5th and Market in front of Independence Hall for another “Smoke Down Prohibition.”

I will be helping to lead the 4:20 p.m. countdown with military veteran Mike Whiter and activist NJWeedman. This round it will be a silent moment of cannabis reflection to remember the millions of Americans arrested and punished for being marijuana consumers or cultivators.

The monthly anti-prohibition rally has been rolling along since December 2012. On a beautiful April 20th this year, more than 400 people participated in a peaceful civil disobedience action by smoking marijuana joints

The gatherings have taken place on National Park property known as the People’s Plaza, an open space with a monument to the First Amendment across from the building housing the Liberty Bell. The area is essentially preserved by the Park Service for free speech and protest activity. 

There were no arrests or citations at any of the events until May 18, 2013. On that day, federal Park Rangers, Philadelphia Police and a variety of other agencies sent in more than eighty members of law enforcement to end the event.

At 4:20 p.m. that day, the crowd of about 100 lit joints despite sudden rain showers. Rangers and Philly police pushed past scores of people to reach those using the microphone on stage. They arrested N.A. Poe, the comedic chief officer of The Panic Hour, and libertarian media personality Adam Kokesh. When he was taken into custody, Kokesh was still speaking into the sound system.

Poe was dragged to the ground and handcuffed as the crowd (many still smoking joints) shouted “No victim; no crime.” Video of the arrests went viral

Don Dezarn, a New Jersey Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate and four other people were also issued simple citations for marijuana possession.  The federal misdemeanor citations can be settled out of court (and expunged) by paying a $175 fine. Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion was also briefly detained but not cited.

But Poe and Kokesh were in for another shock.  After being wrestled away by rangers they were charged on federal felony offenses, accused of “impeding” federal officers in the course of their duty. Poe and Kokesh were initially denied bail or even a phone call and were jailed together at the Federal Detention Center for five days.

Kokesh was eventually released and the felony charges dismissed; his federal defender successfully arguing that there was no probable cause to arrest him the first place (he didn’t even have any cannabis). Poe agreed to be released on bail with the felony charges still hanging over his head along with a ban from the Independence Mall National Park.

Make no mistake: marijuana legalization is a civil rights movement. Those arrested or cited were in the act of practicing open civil disobedience.

The effort to end prohibition has gathered serious traction recently with the public and in politics. There are bills pending to allow the medical use of cannabis and to tax and regulate recreational marijuana for adults not just in Harrisburg but in Washington DC. Polling shows resounding support among all ages and party affiliations.

Still, more than 750,000 Americans will be arrested for a marijuana violation this year: 20,000 in the Keystone State and another 22,000 in New Jersey.

While much of the country moves forward and decriminalizes it, NJ and PA keep up the costly, old-school approach.

Philadelphia prides itself in its revolutionary history and its status as the birthplace of of the Declaration of Independence and The US Constitution. Yet both federal and city authorities too often take a heavy hand with peaceful demonstrators. 

Targeting NA Poe and Adam Kokesh, simply because they were speaking out in favor of cannabis legalization, goes against every principle in our founding documents - especially the First Amendment.

For 75 years federal cannabis prohibition has corrupted all of the liberties that Americans revere. Prohibition has allowed an unrestrained, untaxed, unregulated underground market to dominate our public safety budgets all to keep people from using a natural substance that can be medically beneficial and less dangerous than alcohol.

If this policy weren’t so disruptive to the lives of so many Americans it could be a laughable absurdity.  But apparently just talking about legal marijuana in public is enough to get busted now.

A cadre of federal agencies has put a high priority on halting free speech when it comes to marijuana. So, we are unsure of whether the National Park Rangers will return this weekend to tolerating the 20-minute pot-friendly protest or choose again to shut down those speaking out.

In May, an intimidating police presence did not deter participants. Federal agents and city cops targeted organizers so it wasn’t about citing people for pot. But because we understand our rights and value them we will not stand down in the face of such an abridgement of freedom. It can only be met with peaceful action; akin to all civil rights and social justice issues.

Without massive protests in Seattle, Boston and Ann Arbor (just to name a few) along with thousands of activists and advocates, cannabis reform at the state-level would have never materialized.

The legalization of marijuana and hemp are a legitimate redress we are seeking from the government. Prohibition will only end though persistence and determination.  I believe this is a righteous fight and when cannabis is removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act it will be turning point for freedom around the world.

Until then, you will find me each month for a 4:20 at 5th and Market.

Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Contact Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com or on Twitter @freedomisgreen

Chris Goldstein Philly420 columnist for Philly.com
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