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How Two Convicted Criminals Got Philadelphia to Decriminalize Weed

It took two years, but a pair of pro-marijuana agitators who are on probation for leading hundreds of potheads in protest against weed laws forced a stubborn mayor to change his mind.
October 9, 2014, 1:30pm

Nikki Allen Poe and Chris Goldstein at one of their signature "Smoke Down" protests. Photo by Kimmie Christie

Last Wednesday, activists and reporters gathered at Philadelphia’s City Hall to watch as marijuana got decriminalized. Before laying his John Hancock on the final line of the bill, thus making it official, Mayor Michael Nutter stood at the podium to break down the logic behind the move.

“It is our hope that by decriminalizing marijuana in the city of Philadelphia, we can begin to eliminate a great impediment to many who are otherwise law-abiding citizens trying to lead productive lives,” he said.

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Legalization advocates could barely contain their delight at the drastic change in tune from just two months ago, when Nutter railed against the prospect of decriminalization. But what—or who, for that matter—brought him around?

Nutter gave props to city Councilman Jim Kenney, thanking him for passing “one of the most significant pieces of public policy and legislation“ for the city of Philadelphia. Kenney absorbed the compliment with a cold, nearly imperceptible nod, and then glanced over to the two guys sitting next to me among members of the press.

The crowd at City Hall knew them well. Nikki Allen Poe and Chris Goldstein have made their names as local pro-marijuana agitators. Both are currently on probation for leading hundreds of potheads in a blazing protest on Independence Mall, the grand enclosure surrounding the famed Liberty Bell. What the press scrum didn’t know, or at least didn’t acknowledge, is that these two radicals sparked the political process that made marijuana decriminalization in Philly happen. We were there because of them. As Nutter and Kenney, the elected men in suits, basked in camera flashes, Poe and Goldstein clasped each other’s hands in celebration.

“Fuckin’ A, man,” Poe said to Goldstein, before yelling, “Thank you, Mr. Mayor!” in Nutter’s direction. After a moment, Poe turned to me and whispered, “It’s surreal to pitch all this shit and then hear it coming out of a politician’s mouth.”

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Poe and Goldstein are an odd pair. Anyone sizing them up would recognize the suited and booted Goldstein as the straight man and Poe—rocking a baseball hat with juvenile tattoos peeking out of the sleeves of his T-shirt—as the wild card. The stereotypes hold true: Goldstein is a co-chair of the Philly chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Poe is a comedian and spoof city council candidate who hosts a conspiracy-theory-laden podcast called the Panic Hour.

The two met and bonded over numerous joints in 2011 while camping out on the pavement surrounding City Hall during Occupy Philadelphia. After the movement died down and reforming marijuana laws became a hot-button issue in 2012 (the year Washington and Colorado legalized recreation weed use), Poe and Goldstein focused their efforts on their favorite illegal plant. On October 2 of that year, Goldstein and another activist smoked a joint on Independence Mall to mark the 75th anniversary of the first federal marijuana arrest. That action planted the seed for his next big project.

“I got home that day and Poe was like, ‘Man, we need to do it bigger,’” Goldstein told me.

Thus Smoke Down Prohibition was born. For the inaugural event in December 2012, Poe and Goldstein gathered about a hundred people to light up simultaneously at 4:20 AM on Independence Mall. The crowd grew for the second iteration a month later, and again for the third. The fourth protest, on April 20, 2013, the international pot holiday, saw nearly 600 Smoke Down participants burning together just a stone’s throw from where the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. That confab drew more attention than previous Smoke Downs, but Poe and Goldstein were undaunted.

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“We knew we were breaking the law,” Goldstein said. “We didn’t expect park rangers to hassle us too much. We always stayed for an hour and then left. We always cleaned up after ourselves, and we always did it in the free speech zone.”

But their good manners went unnoticed, and the authorities saw their momentum as a threat. At the following Smoke Down on May 18, while Goldstein was away visiting family, Poe led a crowd to Independence Mall to discover a massive police presence. Hundreds of Philly cops and park rangers placed temporary barricades around the protest area adorned with signs reminding the crowd that illegal drug possession is a crime. Poe, accompanied by libertarian activist Adam Kokesh, proceeded with the protest anyway. The police promptly descended upon the crowd and began detaining protestors. Poe and Kokesh were both arrested and charged with marijuana possession. Independence Mall is part of Independence National Historical Park, which is federal land, so Poe was charged with the federal crime of marijuana possession. He spent five days in prison before being released and tried.

Goldstein returned and decided to press on with the protests, but the presence of the authorities only grew more intense.

“I never knew park rangers had riot gear until Smoke Down Prohibition,” he told me.

This time, park rangers and Philly cops were joined by officers from the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Protective Services, Transit Police, and even US Fish and Wildlife Officers. They arrested Goldstein on federal possession charges.

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Poe wound up with a year of probation and Goldstein with two, and both were fined. While going slightly easier on Poe due to the five days he’d already spent in jail, prosecutors came down hard on Goldstein, demanding that he pay a $3,000 fine within 30 days or else be subject to prison time. Both men paid up and remain on federal probation to this day.

Goldstein, Poe, and other activists on the day of Poe's sentencing.

In the wake of their spats with law enforcement, the duo began to eye up more legitimate routes to marijuana legalization. Rather than challenging the dystopian monolith of federal law, they targeted local marijuana regulations. Goldstein attempted to convince Philly police that they should alter their marijuana enforcement protocol in light of the vast racial disparity in the city’s marijuana arrests—83 percent of those charged in 2013 were black, mirroring a nationwide trend. Poe ran for an open City Council seat on a platform comprised of decriminalizing marijuana, dismantling the notorious Philadelphia Parking Authority, and renaming a street after former 76ers star Allen Iverson.

Neither effort had much impact. Poe and Goldstein were two guys with a great idea for Philadelphia, but no sure way to get it through. They had to find someone in city government to take on the cause, but who would listen to two federal criminals with a penchant for public pot-smoking?

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Thanks to a combination of luck, smooth talking, and a referral from local organizer Anne Gemmell, Poe and Goldstein landed a meeting with Councilman Kenney, a champion of LGBT rights and likely 2015 mayoral candidate. Goldstein presented the politician with the facts: Those arrested for small amounts of weed are usually people of color, the police burn roughly 17,000 work-hours a year on marijuana crimes, and the local court system wastes $7 million annually on processing these arrests. Moreover, decriminalization could be the first step to mending the frayed relationship between black residents and city police.

Kenney found the arguments compelling enough to pursue a change in the law. With Poe and Goldstein’s collaboration, he and his staff drafted a bill that would sufficiently alleviate the arrest rate—reducing penalties to a $25 ticket for possession of up to 30 grams of pot. (That’s an ounce and two grams, for those of you who don’t buy in bulk.) Kenney quickly gathered strong backing in the City Council. He also began prodding Mayor Nutter for support. In July, Kenney wrote an open letter to the mayor urging him to sign the decriminalization bill. Nutter responded through the press, saying, “It is an insult to the African-American community that all of this discussion and debate is revolving around whether or not black guys can smoke as much… weed as white guys.” Nutter would soon come to regret this baffling oversimplification of the racial disparity in marijuana arrests. He flipped his stance completely in September, indicating that he and Kenney had reached an agreement.

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“We want to ensure that the punishment for using or possessing small amounts of marijuana is commensurate with the severity of the crime, while giving police officers the tools they need to protect the health and well-being of all Philadelphians,” Nutter told reporters with Kenney at his side. Ever since, his views on the issue reflect the councilman's, whose stance, in turn, has been shaped by Poe and Goldstein.

So what made Nutter blink? Goldstein theorizes that the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer shined a light on questionable police practices and race issues all over the country, leading Nutter and Philly’s police commissioner to look at their city's racial disparities more closely. Kenney believes Nutter just didn’t want to continue the slugfest: “I guess he just figured that he would cut bait as opposed to trying to fight this.”

Philly Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler thinks it was just pragmatism. “[Nutter] still has a year and a half left on his term and he still has another budget to do," he told me. "There are a lot of bigger challenges in the city of Philadelphia than decriminalization of marijuana right now. My guess is that the mayor looked at the bigger picture.” (Nutter's office did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Prior to signing the bill into law, Nutter amended it to include a $100 fine or nine hours of community service for anyone caught smoking weed in public. Besides that, and the familiar compromise of funding an educational campaign to keep people off drugs, Nutter left the bill largely intact. Despite opposition from the highest authority in the city, and against almost all odds, Poe and Goldstein have brought marijuana decriminalization to Philadelphia.

Considering the path of their uphill battle, one wonders if Poe and Goldstein just happened to be in the right place and time, touting marijuana reform just as the city (and country, for that matter) readied itself for what seems like inevitable change. But then I asked Kenney if he ever considered pursuing decriminalization before his meeting with the activists. “I didn’t think much of it at all, really," he replied. I asked if he was aware of the activists’ criminal backgrounds. He laughed. “I looked at their federal charges as their way of protesting what they believe was an unjust law. I wouldn’t exactly call either of them criminals.”

Of course, for the time being, at least, both Nikki Allen Poe and Chris Goldstein remain criminals in the eyes of the federal government. In Philadelphia, however, they are also local heroes. Two days after the signing of the marijuana decriminalization bill, Poe posted the following on his Facebook page:

“I just got a round of applause and a free haircut at the barbershop in my neighborhood because of the weed decriminalization bill. I was also told that I am an honorary African American, although that's not exactly how they put it.”

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