Taking Back 4/20: Richard Castaldo Ten Years After Columbine

CANNABIS CULTURE – Ten years ago on 4/20, crazed killers invaded their own school and changed his life forever. Today, this member of the global cannabis culture has made the transition from victim to activist with dreams of making a living in the marijuana business.

It was a beautiful spring morning in Jefferson County, Colorado on April 20, 1999, ‘4/20’ to marijuana smokers in the know. From what Richard Castaldo remembers, it was a normal day right up until the shooting began. He was seventeen years old and sitting on the grassy knoll where the ‘weed-loving crowd’ from Columbine High School normally gathered.

4/20 is an international day of pot smoking for members of the marijuana community, and stoners around the world were in a good mood. Rich – being a good student – didn’t join the other potheads that day when the lunch bell rang out. His mother would not have approved of him getting high on marijuana in the middle of a school day, but in retrospect as he tells his story to me ten years later, it might have saved him from being paralyzed from the chest down and put in a wheel chair.

“The grassy knoll, where we all hung out, was unusually empty that day because it was 4/20 and everyone was off smoking weed except for me and Rachel,” Rich explains looking down thinking. Suddenly he looks up, “So, there was only Rachel and I instead of a big group.”

Although not close, Rich and Rachel Scott were part of the same crowd, and were the first victims of a massacre that claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher. As the two sat next to each other on the knoll outside of the cafeteria eating lunch and talking, things seemed normal. That was 11:18AM. By 11:22AM, Rachel was dead and Rich was lying motionless, bleeding and unable to move. Rachel died instantly after receiving four shots; however, Richard managed to hang on despite being shot eight times.

Rich and I first met three years ago when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career in the music industry. His mother came to California with him when he first moved out here. She was getting her nails done at a shop in the same mall as ‘Temple 420’, the Judeo-Christian Fellowship I founded in 2006 as a refuge for the spiritual growth of the 420 Nation. Rich didn’t feel like sitting in the salon with his mother, and had seen our sign outside. He wondered what ‘Temple 420’ was, although he had a good idea. When he came into the store we met and connected in a Dude way. He admitted he liked pot and I told him about medical marijuana in California. He explained that he was moving from Colorado to Hollywood. He said he didn’t know much about medical marijuana, but had heard rumors while living in Denver.

4/20 in 1999 is a day that Rich will never forget, but the bad memories are being replaced with new dreams and ambitions as he takes the date back from Hitler (whose birthday) and the Columbine Killers. Rich had studied to be a sound engineer and loves music, and moved out West to chase his dreams and make music his career. Although he is currently working as an unpaid intern in the music industry, he admits that it is difficult getting around an engineering booth with his chair, so he is considering a career in the cannabis industry.

Richard and I reconnected some time later, running into each other at a rally for Charlie Lynch in downtown Los Angeles outside the federal courthouse. Charlie’s story was featured on CBS ‘s ‘60 Minutes’ as an example of how state law conflicts with federal law. The rally for Charlie had already broken up, but I was hanging around because I was running for mayor of Los Angeles at the time and desperately trying to get every last stoner vote. I was just about to leave as Rich rolled up in his wheelchair, late to the event. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in three years we immediately recognized each other and exchanged numbers.

Since moving to California, Richard’s interest in cannabis had not diminished but increased, and he had acquired a medical marijuana card and uses the herb for back pain and to reduce spasms in his paralyzed legs. Rich soon began volunteering and helping me at the Beverly Hills Green Cross medical marijuana dispensary. Today is he is part of the team, and considering a future in the cannabis industry.

Richard, who plans on being in Denver this April 20 at a memorial for his slain friends, has been asked to do several interviews about the 10th anniversary of the massacre at his high school. He agreed to sit down with me and discuss his journey over the last ten years. I don’t know what he was like before the shooting, but now Rich is a quite thoughtful person with a nice sense of humor. I sometimes catch him looking shy with new people who come in the dispensary, but he is a warm and friendly person who is not bitter about what happened to him. This is something that is hard for me to understand, but I know, as a pastor, that it is healthy to forgive. Rich is a thoughtful person and as I posed questions to him he didn’t just blurt out an answer, but really considered the questions before answering.

“It is hard to say,” he answered when I asked if the incident at Columbine was preventable. “I am not for gun control, but they should at least do a sanity check when someone buys a weapon.” He reflects a moment, “Not that it would have helped because they bought the guns illegally anyway, but maybe if those guys were stoners it would have never happened either. I don’t know any violent stoners, you know people who only smoke pot don’t usually get violent in my experience.”

It has been widely reported that many of the mass shooting incidents that occur are done by people who have been clinically depressed and some have been on powerful pharmaceutical anti-depressants.

“I think it is ironic that Zoloft and Luvox, the drugs [Columbine shooter Eric] Harris was taking, are both legal and pot is not. I think those powerful drugs are 10 times or a 100 times more dangerous than marijuana. If they were potheads I don’t think the shooting would have happened.” He repeated that theme often in our conversation saying things like, “pot brings people together…it doesn’t make them fight.”

When I asked what his reaction was to other recent shootings taking place he said, “It is sad for me every time I hear about it. I do feel connected to them in some weird way.” After the VA Tech shooting Rich was interviewed for his reaction. “I do follow the news and know that many of the shooters in these mass shooting situations are on anti-depressants. I just think for some people medical marijuana would be better.”

Beside smoking marijuana, Rich finds relaxation from playing music. He plays the bass guitar and Saxophone when kicking back at home and with friends. He says that writing in his journal helped him to overcome the depression of suddenly having his life altered in such a radical way. He also said his friends and family were really there for him, which helped him deal with the changes he was going through. Everyday life can be physically difficult when your legs don’t work, so despite Rich’s positive attitude, he still has challenges that most people will never know or understand.

I asked Rich what advice he would give to students injured in recent school shootings.

“Don’t give up”, he said. “Stay busy by getting involved in something. For me writing in a journal helped. I wrote it only for myself. Some poetry, some journaling and it helped; writing just helps.” He paused and thought for a moment, “That is pretty much it. You just have to move on and stay busy.”

Rich had mentioned the fact that many of these mass shooters seem to be on pharmaceutical anti-depressants, and I asked him if he blamed the drug companies for the carnage.

“No,” said Rich, “I just find it ironic that these powerful drugs are legal while pot is illegal and marijuana helps people more. I think the real problem is that we live in an extremely violent society. I think Harris, the one on the psyche drugs, came from a military family, and on that same day Clinton was bombing Serbia or Yugoslavia.”

The two killers that day were dressed as soldiers and had a battle plan to kill their classmates. After a moment of reflection Rich went on, “They,” speaking of the omniscient ‘they’, “tried to say it was the music and violent video games that turned them into killers, but I think it was just our violent society. It isn’t that we glorify war on TV, it is that we glorify war in real life.”

I had to follow up after that answer: “So, are you saying there is a connection between the shooting at your school and Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia?”

“Yes,” said Rich right away and then paused a moment, “Well, not directly. It is difficult to put into words, but in a ‘butterfly effect’ way, yes, you know, how all things are connected? I can’t exactly say how they are connected, but innately I feel there is a connection between the two events besides them just being on the same day, but I am not putting the blame there either I am just making the connection. That is all I am saying. Everything is connected to everything else and we live in a violent society.”

Hollywood Craig X Rubin is a pastor and marijuana activist who operates the Beverly Hills Green Cross marijuana dispensary in California.