CANNABIS CULTURE – When Rich Paul went on trial facing 81 years in prison on March 26, 2013, in Keene, New Hampshire, it was a portent of the growing revolt against Prohibition, if not against a broader swath of governmental policy and authority.
Under the radar of American political life, though percolating away on YouTube and other social media, it is reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s early days in the deep south. Then, after decades of Civil Rights hopes, societal changes were about to burst forth with unexpected suddeness. The same may be true today.
A confluence of issues induced Rich Paul to “bet his life,” either, as he put it, “to win” or to “get enough attention to the cause to make whatever happens to me worth it.” But before getting into details, we must look at “why Keene?”
Keene is a small city in southern New Hampshire, and New Hampshire is the focal point of the Free State Project. Libertarians, by the thousands, chose it, based on its already strong libertarian leanings, as the ideal state to move to, with the ideal of carving out a community of greater freedoms.
Free Staters, generally referred to as “porcupines” (as in “don’t tread on me”), work on causes from cryptocurrencies to trying to steer the U.S. away from military adventures around the world. Tactics run the gamut from street protests to getting elected to the state legislature.
The increasing success of the latter led last year to the passage of a jury nullification bill, one of the aspects of this story.
Of all the centers of porcupine community activism in New Hampshire, Keene has acquired the reputation as pushing the envelope the most via civil disobedience.
The boys and girls there make an effort to live “as if free already,” regardless of the consequences. Defiance is one of the things that most pisses-off the authorities, and they often dish out those consequences with relish.
Activists tend to spend a lot of time at the Spiritual Retreat Center (the jail). While this would seem to defeat the aim of being free, Thoreau and other philosophers are frequently quoted on broader perspectives of progress towards that goal.
Challenge to the marijuana laws in Keene began on January 10, 2009, when Andrew Carroll, a non-smoker, acquired some of it, and then turned himself in to police for possession.
This led to daily protests on the Common, which continued for several years, and has now seen a re-invigoration because of the trial of Rich Paul. At one of these rallies, a number of arrests resulted on a march on the police station, with the crowd rebelliously lighting up in the lobby.
Two years ago, at another event, Derrick Horton smoked a bowl amidst a large contingent of police officers. As he was dragged away, “All we are saying… is give peace a chance” was chanted over and over by onlookers. That incident has been immortalized in the movie “Derrick J’s Victimless Crime Spree.”
Before following the path of the Free State Project, Rich Paul was from Ann Arbor, Michigan, known for John Sinclair, whose own ten year sentence for passing a joint to an undercover officer led to John Lennon writing a song about him, and to Abbie Hoffman disrupting the Woodstock Festival with The Who onstage.
Mr. Paul is a curious mixture. A great Shakespeare enthusiast, he also enjoys street poets. He can be fun loving, even goofy at times, but he has a fire in the belly when it comes to the struggle against injustice. Looking somewhat bookish, he also fits the radical role finely when standing in front of a crowd with a megaphone in his hand.
In a state where Ron Paul bumper stickers are commonplace, and porcupines take on names like Freeman and Liberty, I had to check that “Paul” was not a tribute of some sort. It turns out to be his real name.
“Live free or die” is New Hampshire’s motto, and Rich Paul is a true believer. After the death of his wife Julie from cancer, which he thought could have been eased had she had access to medical marijuana, he took up the crusade against Prohibition with added zeal.
Arguably the most prominent legalization advocate in New Hampshire, his protests extended beyond Keene, often times reaching the steps of the State House in Concord.
I even heard a speech by him in Massachusetts.
In addition to speeches and protests, he also sold the herb, a perilous tightrope to walk for someone so out of the closet.
Rich is not averse to capitalism, in fact he is dedicated to it. A disciple of Milton Friedman and Hayek, he told me that reading Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” was a transformative moment in his education. His vending was civil disobedience of a sort, but especially under the current laws, keeping it low key is not hard to understand.
This correspondent’s own involvement in the matter goes back somewhat earlier, and farther south, across the border in Massachusetts, in the college town of Amherst, an hour from Keene. Marijuana was no personal concern of mine. It was one of those been there, done that, things. I had smoked it a few times my freshman year of college. Been there. Done that.
Twenty years ago, Amherst’s hometown boy, Allen St. Pierre, had long since departed for Washington, D.C. to run NORML, but Aaron Wilson was headed in from Worcester.
Worcester, MA is a breeding ground of rebellious characters. In the 1960s, it was Abbie Hoffman. In the 1990s, it was Aaron Wilson.
Aaron came to Amherst to study history at UMass. He was a working class kid, with a huge chip on his shoulder when it came to the behavior of the police. He gathered a loyal entourage of social agitators, who founded the Cannabis Reform Coalition, still the longest running drug policy reform student organization in the country. (Aaron also later had a hand in founding the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, which has become so dominant on other college campuses.) The UMass CRC began the spring marijuana legalization rally on the Amherst Town Common called the “Extravaganja.”
It’s par for the course I suppose, that townsfolk in college towns despise college students. When it comes to defiant ones who don’t cow-tow to authority figures, like Aaron and his gang, well, let’s just say that the makers of the movie “Animal House” hit the nail on the head with the personality of Mayor De Pasto.
Filling that role was Amherst Town Manager Barry Del Castilho. He, along with a police captain named Charlie Sherpa, who he later made chief, were the type of thugs who find joy in pushing people around. No other word fits as well, in accordance with its dictionary definition, than “bigot.”
Insults, threats, intimidation, harassment, and arrests went on for years, until the students were finally able to defeat them.
The Extravaganja endured thanks to some valiant people, and has grown into a great spring festival enjoyed by the whole community. It is second in size in New England, topped only by MassCann’s Boston Freedom Rally in the fall.
As I said, personally I couldn’t care less about marijuana “per se,” but when it comes to bullying, I don’t care for that at all. And when it comes to the First Amendment, it was time to start caring a great deal.
Back up to Keene… or perhaps out to Chicago. This case is full of twists and turns, touching several aspects of the American political landscape, and in some of it the cannabis is almost incidental. The police bust a prominent legalization advocate for marijuana. Nothing surprising there. But how does the NH Joint Terrorism Task Force fit in?
Finding the true story has actually turned out to be quite difficult. This is odd, because the authorities usually love to trumpet their criminal prosecutions. When it comes to Rich Paul however, neither the Keene Police Department, the NH State Police, the FBI, nor the prosecutor, would return my calls when I asked about him. I had to rely on the Keene porcupines for speculation on the Chicago angle.
Last year at an Occupy protest of the Chicago NATO meeting, three people were picked up for allegedly conspiring to make Molotov cocktails. One of them, Jared Chase, was originally from Keene.
Molotov cocktails have been taken seriously since the Finns used them to drive off the Russian invaders. Rarely though do a couple of beer bottles and a can of gasoline lead to a multi-agency/multi-state investigation. At least not until recently, since we’ve gotten so many terrorist investigators with so much idle time on their hands.
The FBI apparently wanted to find out what plots might be afoot in the Keene Activity Center among Mr. Paul’s libertarian friends.
When I visited the KAC, the scheme everyone was working on was something called “Robin Hooding.” One of those “random acts of kindness” things, where activists would constantly scour the streets, always on watch for parking meters which had expired, and adding coins to them. I wasn’t sure how that meshed with Ayn Rand, whose books line the walls there, and who was known to despise the homage paid to Robin Hood. It was explained that the folklore was being interpreted to emphasize the government oppression aspect of medieval history, that of the Sheriff’s taxes.
The evading of fines has the municipal officials in apoplexy, but it is hardly a threat to national security.
It has to be said that I never met anyone in Keene who knew Jared Chase, or had even heard of him before the FBI’s probe. From reading media reports, my impression of him is that of a troubled drifter, rather than a political activist. Besides, as one porcupine put it, it’s as if the Feds can’t tell the difference between left wing and right wing anarchists.
A large force of federal, state, and local police were put together under Phil Christiana of the FBI, to send a “confidential human source” (a snitch) named Richie Dupont to ensnare his friend Rich Paul in pot sales. A couple of ounces now and then. Nothing more than goes on thousands of times a day between friends in this country, but felonies never the less. They did it repeatedly to rack up the number of counts.
A few words on snitches may be in order at this point.
When a government creates incentives for a black market by its policies, one of the great difficulties for police is how to ferret out knowledge of violations. There is no victim to complain. Both the buyer and seller of contraband are equally happy with the exchange. Neither are about to report it. The situation leads to widespread spying on citizens.
Among the tactics police use, nothing is more insidious than the turning of friends into snitches. With horror stories of the years of prison awaiting them, cops will terrorize people into betraying others who trust them. With the zeal of slave catchers of old, and the same lack of moral introspection, they often preying on the young and vulnerable.
In ancient Rome, when the cops were out to get Christians, people would turn in their entire congregations under the browbeating of detectives.
In Soviet times, there were so many laws, no one could ever feel safe. They were probably violating one of them. It is said the laws were not there because the government expected them to be followed. They were merely to assure that everyone would feel guilty all the time.
One would think that a nation would be better off with independent and self confident citizens, and without a government trying to break people’s spirits and keep all in widespread fear and suspicion. That however is the natural tendency of governments, and the reality of the Drug War. Unless opponents learn to shun acquiescing politicians and political parties, it will continue.
A few words about jury nullification are also pertinent to this story.
For centuries, juries have been among the most vital of checks and balances against tyranny. During the era of the Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, juries would often acquit people who had been arrested harboring escaped slaves.
Jurors have the power to vote against conviction under what they regard to be a bad law; but what if a judge is able to hide that fact from them? In a controversial five-to-four decision in 1895, the Supreme Court said trial judges had no responsibility to inform juries of that power, and could conceal it if they wanted. Afterward it became standard for a judge to say “you handle the facts, I’ll handle the law.” In most of the country, that is where it stands. Except in New Hampshire. Last year, due to Free State Project legislators, New Hampshire became unique in allowing defense attorneys to discuss the truth of jury nullification during trials.
According to the Washington Post, as of 2010 when the article was written, New Hampshire has not had a single terrorism conviction since 9/11, yet it has 41 law enforcement agencies and initiatives, 24 of them new since 9/11, with some function related to the fighting of terrorism. The big one is the FBI’s task force, and their man, Phil Christiana, was in Keene, eager to go fishing.
Rich Paul was arrested and brought to the interrogation room, and with the requisite wisecrack about waterboarding out of the way, Christiana got down to business. He offered Rich freedom if he’d wear a wire into the KAC to spy on his friends.
Mr. Paul contemplated actually doing it, just to give the investigators endless hours of tape of folks debating Rand’s philosophy.
But the situation wasn’t funny. The federal agent told him he was going to have to do things he didn’t want to do. Perhaps this would mean trying to entrap people into conspiracies involving made-up plots.
He said no. He wouldn’t be an informer or agent provocateur. Rich Paul chose to maintain his integrity by standing firm and going to trial with the attitude of not conceding he had done anything wrong. As with Martin Luther King, he wouldn’t plea bargain.
I don’t think it’s appreciated the rare human courage it takes to stand firm when one is in a position such as this. All alone, up against the hostility of society, the ridicule of the media, the cruelty of the criminal justice system, with a malevolent authority determined to make your life miserable in every way possible. Robert Forchion in New Jersey. Julian Heiklen in Pennsylvania. And now Richard Paul in New Hampshire.
Individuals are most often broken. But what happens when it comes to broad social matters, be it an ethnic identity, a faith, or a favored intoxicant?
The Puritans, prudes, and Prohibitionists are off in their own world, with no understanding of human nature. When punishment is severe, that which is attacked is made important, and people embrace it all the more. In Rome they threw people to the lions. When Nixon launched the Drug War, he was most likely using it as a weapon against a few political opponents. 46,000,000 people have now been arrested. If punishment is such a good tool, you would think marijuana smokers would have quit by now. Pot has become a religion.
Except for some Rastafarians and others who explicitly see cannabis as a sacrament, few smokers would characterize it in religious terms. But the level of religion is not a bad characterization. Connoisseurs will give strong disagreement, but all intoxicants are pretty much the same. They make the mind fuzzy. An altered state can be perceived as mystical. The ancient Greeks, who are regarded as having had a great amount of wisdom, used to have perfectly good spiritual ceremonies drunk on wine. Pot is little different from wine.
Absolutely nothing builds a religion like persecution.
Rich Paul’s predicament might have made for a fantastic show trial for the intimidation of dissidents, but it turned out to be more of an anticlimax. He had a good showing of supporters in the courtroom, and protesters on the street outside. The FBI was embarrassed. He was convicted.
One should not read too much into the jury failing to nullify, in terms of popular support for change. Juries vary, and nullification an uncertain strategy. But more juries than ever before have been acquitted people who were clearly guilty under the marijuana laws. Others still acquiesce in the status quo, believing in the sanctity of law “per se,” regardless of how evil or bigoted it is. While the judge in this case had to allow the defense lawyer, Kim Kossick, to argue for jury nullification; in his own instructions, he told the jurors that they “must follow my instructions, and ignore the statements of the lawyer.” Case law is still evolving on this issue.
Rich Paul has now been sentenced. One year in jail, and three more on probation, much less than the maximum. Reminiscent of many of Martin Luther King’s trials, the judge, John Kissinger Jr., chose to treat him as more of a naughty child, than as serious menace to state authority.
During the sentencing hearing, Mr. Paul did have an opportunity to speak. In a 20 minute statement, with head held high, he lashed out against the Drug War and the FBI. The video of this is now circulating widely. In contrast to the sorry state of the American legal system, his dignity shines through.
His appeal is currently moving forward.
One of the ironies in this case is that Mr. Paul sits in the Cheshire County Jail. His jailer, Richard Van Wickler, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is one of the witnesses who testified at the State House this year in favor of a bill to legalize marijuana.
The greatest irony however, is the that day before terror specialist Mr. Christiana (who works at a subsidiary of the Boston FBI office) testified on a matter related to random snooping on pacifistic libertarians, there was an actual terrorist attack. The Boston Marathon bombing gave us the spectacle of every law enforcement agency stumbling all over each other like Keystone Kops, trying to get in front of the cameras to tell the nation how much work they were doing.
Towards the close of alcohol prohibition, the saying was “the cork is starting to move,” soon the champagne would be flowing. Marijuana has now been legalized in Colorado and Washington. Massachusetts is certain to legalize in 2016, as will many other states. New Hampshire does not have a procedure for citizens to vote on initiatives, so change will have to come via the legislature. This is a more difficult route, due to the reluctance of many politicians to touch any issue which is controversial. Yet when legislatures start to take up the task, it wouldn’t surprise me if New Hampshire were the first.
Already the buzzards are circling. Bureaucrats truly have no shame. The same functionaries now administering the prison industrial complex, will work to ensure their interests and continued relevance, by devising limitless red tape for the cannabis market.
After all the urban minority communities broken and perpetually impoverished under the weight of the Drug War, and all the other human suffering they have overseen, they will add insult to injury with their insatiable greed. We will move from back alley to well lit store, and they are surely going to get their cut in taxes.
In the dreams of the Legalization Movement, the Prohibitionists will just go away to the ash heap of history. The struggle will not end that easily however. In reality it is perpetual. Desire runs deep to control the lives of others. As I often point out to college students in Amherst, alcohol was supposedly legalized 80 years ago, and yet the Town Manager fills his jail every weekend with you, for its possession. But as the Romans learned with those Christians, they didn’t go away either.