Rich Paul practicing some civil disobedience.
Here’s how absurd the war on drugs has gotten: firstly, an activist from Keene, New Hampshire, is facing 81 years in prison for dealing marijuana; and secondly, even though he’s admitted on camera that he did sell about a pound of pot to an FBI informant, he’s still fighting the case in court in hopes the jury will acquit him.
The man’s name is Rich Paul, and his ordeal started last May, when he was arrested for selling weed and LSD (he claims he sold a legal chemical compound that wasn’t LSD). Instead of being charged with a crime, he wrote in a Facebook note about the incident and was taken to see an FBI agent named Philip Christiana, who threatened to throw the book at him unless he turned informer on his friends. According to Rich, Phil wanted him to wear a wire into meetings of a local political group he belonged to called the Keene Activist Center, lie to them about his arrest and encourage them to commit crimes. Rich said no, and shared his story with the public – even going so far as to explain on video that he had been busted after selling ounces of weed to a confidential informant on multiple occasions.
There are several odd things about this trial, which started today. (Follow live updates through this Facebook page.) First, it’s not clear why the FBI, or this particular agent, was so keen, pun intended, to go after the KAC. Although the organisation is “liberty-minded” (in other words, not fans of the police or other forms of government), it’s also explicitly nonviolent. Those kind of libertarian/anarchist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it politics are common in New Hampshire – in fact, groups like the Shire Society and the Free State Project encourage people who are tired of being hassled by the Man to move to the state, and the Keene area in particular. Acts of civil disobedience by the KAC and other activists are relatively common; Rich himself organised 4:20 PM “smoke-ins” at Keene’s Central Square to protest drug-prohibition laws.
In an email to me late last night, Rich said that his prosecution is an outlier. “Local law enforcement in Keene has always been extremely respectful, courteous and professional. Many of them, I will not say which, sympathise with us on many of our concerns, though most do not condone civil disobedience,” he wrote.
“The FBI, however, has stumbled around this investigation blindly, not bothering to understand who [the KAC was] from our published works before they made the clumsy attempt to infiltrate us… They may really be concerned that we may be violent, but if they are, they do not understand us. Our nonviolent rhetoric is matched by our actions. The club is not a hive of scum and villainy.”
The other striking thing about the case is that Rich had the opportunity to avoid a court fight without going to prison at all – he was offered a plea deal that would have included no jail time shortly before the trial. He turned it down, however, “both to make a point, and because I do not want to be a felon, because that would interfere with my right to keep and bear and arms,” he told me.
Rich appears lighthearted in a video from last week where he lights up a joint and yells about “hope for a day when people do not fear the government because the government fears the people!” while wearing a Ron Paul T-shirt (no relation). But his activism has some serious, emotional roots – he told me that his inspiration for fighting the war on drugs was his girlfriend, Julie, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 31. She didn’t use medical marijuana because it was illegal, but in 2009, Rich started smoking pot, and his life changed for the better. “I found that I started recovering from Julie's death,” Rich said. “It helped me open up to life again. Something with that much power for good must be available. I started dating for the first time in seven or eight years. I fell in love again. I finally had the life I wanted... and then the hammer fell.”
The thing that Rich is counting on to stop the hammer from falling – and reward him for standing up for his why-can’t-I-sell-some-fucking-pot-to-my-friends principles – isn’t a traditional legal argument. It’s pretty much assumed that Rich did technically break the (unjust) law by selling weed. What he’s banking on is that the jury will “nullify” his case – in other words, they’ll come to the conclusion that the statutes he violated shouldn’t exist in the first place and there’s no reason to send him to jail. That’s not such a far-fetched idea. Although judges and prosecutors throughout the country hate the idea of jurors deciding the law for themselves, it’s technically legal, and a law that came into effect this year allows defense attorneys to inform juries that they can reach a not guilty verdict if they object to the law. A Rastafarian named Doug Darrell had his marijuana charge nullified by a New Hampshire jury last September, so there’s at least a sliver of hope for Rich. Meanwhile, 420 celebrations have started up again in Keene’s Central Square in solidarity with him.
“Somebody had to stand up and say that this is wrong, and I thought I might well be that guy,” Rich told me. “I took the risk and now we'll find out whether I bet my life well.”
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