When I lived in Philadelphia, I didn’t think much about the law. As a college student, I was off the police's radar. They had their hands full with actual violent crime and also profiling black dudes who were doing the same shit that I did. This meant that I could walk around just about anywhere in town and light a one-hitter, sit on my stoop and smoke a blunt, and even needlessly drive walkable distances with a joint hanging out of the window.
Even before the city of Philadelphia decriminalized marijuana possession in 2010— now punishable only by a fine—the city largely tolerated marijuana use, and when the legalization conversation spilled out of dorm rooms and into the national arena late last year, Philly and its weed smokers found themselves with the opportunity to stand as a symbol. And a symbol it is becoming. Last Sunday, on St. Patrick’s Day, I traveled to Philly for Prohibition Smoke Down III, the third public demonstration for the legalization of marijuana at the city's historic Independence Mall.
Independence Mall stretches over three city blocks in Ye Olde Citte Philadelphia, a strip resplendent with national monuments named for immortal American ideals like Liberty, Independence, and the Constitution. Managed completely by the National Park Service since the 90s, this historical section of the city is technically federal land, overseen by National Park Service Rangers and not city police. As a monument to the accomplishments of an underdog that overcame the odds and attained liberty, it’s been the stage for the demonstrations of struggling movements of all shades, from federal workers protesting budget cuts to 2011’s Occupy movement. It was here in 2003 that Edward Forchion, known to many as NJWEEDMAN, originated what is becoming a regular public light-up and protest called Prohibition Smoke Down. NJWEEDMAN is a diehard legalization activist, perennial candidate in local New Jersey elections, and serial perpetrator of prohibitions laws. His early efforts at smoking in public hit some road bumps.
In the video above, Forchion is exercising what he claims are his religious rights as a practicing Rastafarian to take the sacrament of marijuana. The NPS rangers are exercising their right to give him a hard time about it and their right to wear large sunglasses and grim expressions while doing so. This arrest and two subsequent ones in the same location led to US v. Forchion, which WEEDMAN ultimately lost. This set a grim precedent for future protests of this nature, a cautionary tale that was well-known to Chris Goldstein and Colleen Begley, activists who chose to light up in the same location, on October 2, 2012, the 75th anniversary of the first federal marijuana arrest. The protest inspired Goldstein’s mentee, N. A. Poe, to bring Forchion’s original demonstration back in a bigger way than ever before.
Poe runs a podcast called The Panic Hour, a talk radio program that’s an amalgamation of comedy, marijuana activism, and conspiracy theory, currently on its 66th episode. Rallying his collaborators and getting an endorsement from Philly NORML, he planned the first Prohibition Smoke Down. On December 15th 2012, a decade after Forchion’s arrest on the same spot, Poe and about a hundred weed smokers of all ages and races gathered on Independence Mall’s lawn and counted down to 4:20 PM, when they simultaneously lit up joints, blunts, and pipes, rallying against the prohibition of their substance of choice.
Aside from “a few taunting tweets inviting city officials to attend,” Poe and his crew had no contact with the City of Philadelphia prior to this first event. To counter the mass blazing, the city’s authorities paraded their own show of force. “At the first Smoke Down, we witnessed a caravan of paddy wagons roll up in front of us and were watched by Philadelphia police and Park Rangers downwind the entire time,” recalls Poe. Despite the threatening stance, law enforcement chose not to exercise its namesake function that day. “It became apparent that there would be no problems from the police. With smiling faces we lit up joints at 4:20 and passed them around, then everyone picked up and left, leaving the area cleaner than it was before.”
Clearly, something had changed since Forchion’s maverick days. Even after possession was decriminalized in 2010, a Philadelphia Police official told The Raw Story, “We’re not going to stop locking people up. Our officers are trained to do that… Until they legalize it, we’re not going to stop.” Despite the threat, drug arrests have been falling drastically since peaking around 2008, according to the PA Uniform Crime Reporting System. Neither the police, nor the rangers stationed at the historical site took any action to inhibit the protest, allowing it to sail through the barriers of city, state, and federal law at once. Naturally, Poe’s next move was to do it again even bigger.
“Despite the intense 20-degree weather [on February 15, 2013], the second Smoke Down had a larger crowd than the first because those who were afraid to come the first time were encouraged by the lack of arrests,” said Poe. This time, the demonstration included speakers from all walks of the marijuana activism community, like Mike Whiter from Combat Veterans for Alternative Treatment for PTSD, Philly NORML executive director Kevin Clough, and a performance by Weed Al Dankovic (yes). As for the law enforcement reaction, Poe guesses, “It must have been too cold for the cops. There was only one civil-affairs unit watching from their car and a few Park Rangers huddled behind a wall.”
At around noon last Sunday, I was sitting in Poe’s South Philly apartment blazing with his crew. Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday played in the background, as he explained his mission. “We’ve brought together groups that each have their own angle on why we should legalize, like medicinal purposes and hemp farming, and they bring our cause to different people who agree with their reasons. We want to grow until we can’t be ignored by the mainstream media, until we fill that lawn with people safely and peacefully breaking unjust laws.”
Despite the inarguable criminality of what they were about to do, everyone in the room looked easy like Sunday morning, a mellowness that permeated even me by the time we arrived at Independence Hall that afternoon. Gathered around a makeshift stage on the lawn by 5th and Market, a colorful crowd of stoners surrounded a weathered, dreadlocked man who spoke of his life’s mission to overturn marijuana prohibition, and the plight he had faced for it. This was Edward Forchion, the one and only NJWEEDMAN. In his first protest at Independence Mall since his arrests a decade earlier, Forchion readied a huge joint as comedian Steve Miller-Miller, donning a Jamaican flag printed headband, exuberantly counted down to 4:20.
At the moment of ignition, about a dozen common, and a half-dozen uncommon, stoner stereotypes became animated. College-aged hippies, college-dropout-aged punk rockers, Rastas, ghetto kids, people in suits, nerds, activists, metal kids, and a man in a kilt all lit up with Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” playing in the background. Whether you’d expect any of them to or not based on their appearance, every soul in this social hodge podge loved weed enough to break the law, risk arrest or citation, and have their photo appear in a depraved VICE column, just to show the world that their drug of choice should be legal.
Not a singe Philly police officer was in sight for the duration of the Smoke Down, and only one National Park Service officer, a lone ranger if you will, sat stationary on his bicycle watching the whole thing go down. When approached for comment, he declined. I asked him casually if he gave a shit about what was happening in front of him. He shrugged and said, “Job still pays me the same.”
With the city of Philadelphia’s decriminalization of marijuana, the drastic drop in all drug arrests, and the jurisdictional issue of the federal land Independence Mall sits on, it’s not so surprising that the cops chose not to bother with the Smoke Down protesters, despite the intimidation exercised at the first one. The National Park Service has had tons of issues with marijuana, with sizeable weed plantations turning up on their land all the time. They even recently had to remind residents of Washington that weed is still illegal on what is technically federal land. But in Philly, about 50 yards from the crack in the Liberty Bell, their interest seems to be diminishing.
At one time, you could have argued that instead of advancing marijuana politically, demonstrations like the Smoke Downs do more to damage its reputation socially, which is a battle unto itself. But watching the Smoke Down go down, you can’t help but consider how suddenly America realized that, hey, we’re all pretty much OK with weed smoking. It was only last November that we saw what was possible on a state level, and suddenly everyone seemed so relaxed about it. Now with the Ending Federal Prohibition of Marijuana Act on the table, things are looking good for Poe and the Smoke Down crew.
Naturally, Prohibition Smoke Down IV is scheduled for this coming 4/20, and as concern over being arrested wanes, it promises to pack even more freaks and geeks onto the little patch of lawn on Independence Mall.
Photos: Sam Tuthill
Thanks to Sour Joe, Sunny Ali, CoCoComPro, T Willa, and Sambones