Henry David Thoreau stated at the beginning of his classic political treatise, Resistance to Civil Government, “…government is best which governs least; and I should like to see [the government] acted up to more rapidly and systematically.” Thoreau went on to say that the best government is that which does not govern at all. I wouldn’t go that far, but he had the right idea about the acting up to government part. It was this same idea that prompted activists to stream into Independence Hall National Park in Philadelphia on Saturday for Smoke Down Prohibition IX; the now-monthly gathering of marijuana legalization advocates organized by the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), to make their voices heard.

A widely cited quote from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the flyers being passed out at the rally. The quote read, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” This was written in what is known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. It was written by Dr. King, at the time being held for parading or marching without a permit, as an open letter for publication. He was looking for people to stand up and say that racism is wrong and laws that enforce racism are wrong. I completely agree with his message and his methods. He was a great man.

Flyer for Smoke Down Prohibition IX

While I would not go so far as to imply that the fight of the activists in the park on Saturday was as critical as Dr. King’s fight, we are all fighting for our civil rights being denied by an unjust government. Below is a fuller version of the famous quote with the surrounding text stating a universal truth:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

An unjust law is no law at all. The cannabis community, as it might be called, are by-and-large a law-abiding mix of men and women from all walks a life. They obey all of the laws except those they believe to be unjust. This believe is how they justify smoking a marijuana cigarette at 4:20 PM, with National Park Service officers gloved up and ready visibly nearby, in an act of civil disobedience to fight for their rights as they are encouraged on the stone at the entrance of the People’s Plaza.

Stone at the entrance to the People’s Plaza

These wise words of our Founding Fathers comprise the text of the First Amendment to our Constitution. One of the very first rights we were given as Americans was “peaceably to assemble” and to “petition the government.” Philadelphia is the city in which these words were written and those words would go on to be unanimously agreed upon and ratified by the original 13 states, so where better to address grievances?

I’m going to go into a bit of legislative history, which might seem boring, but bear with me because it’s important to all Americans, whether they know it or not.

The Bill of Rights was ratified and took effect on December 15, 1791. It has been said that they were mostly useless for the first 150 years or so after they were granted to the people by the Framers. I would agree that this is an accurate statement since most land in America falls under state or local  jurisdiction; not federal. The protections contained in the Bill of Rights that the Framers worked so painstakingly to craft as a shield for the people against its own federal government was mostly an illusion of rights afforded to citizens only if they were on federal land (most of which seems to consist of parks, banks and post offices). It was not granted to citizens as a shield against their state governments until after some of those states rebelled and the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified after the Civil War on July 9, 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the rights afforded in the previous amendments and secured those rights for all American citizens regardless of skin color as protection from their individual states who believed that slavery was the right thing.

The reason I bring up the Bill of Rights is that Americans had to fight a war, with great personal costs to all, to recover the rights they were given by our Founding Fathers so that we could be protected from our state governments. Today, 145 years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, we are fighting a different war with our former ally as our enemy. This war is to protect ourselves as citizens, as well as our respective states’ rights that are being trampled upon, from an overzealous federal government. More specifically a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that refuses to let go of that most powerful of tools that they use to pretend they are winning their “War on Drugs”; marijuana prohibition.

According to the state of Pennsylvania in a report issued by its Uniform Crime Reporting System, there were 37,140 arrests for drug possession in 2011. Of those, 55.2% were for possession of marijuana. The statistics would presumably not include any law enforcement action in Philadelphia where simple possession of under an ounce was decriminalized in 2010, now only carrying a civil penalty of $200-300. Philadelphia dwarfs the next closest city by population with 1.5 million residents to Pittsburgh’s 305,000 according to the 2010 census.

I have to ask myself, why is the DEA working so hard to catch marijuana users. Could it be that these are simply the easiest to catch so they have something to show for their so-called war effort that is costing the taxpayers upwards of $1 trillion since it began in 1971 (CNN: War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure, 12/7/12). If over half of the arrests are for marijuana, which the national statistics indicate to be the case, then American taxpayers have spent over $500 billion to prevent the use of a plant that has been endorsed in the New England Journal of Medicine in an editorial stating, “The government should change marijuana’s status from that of a Schedule I drug … to that of a Schedule II drug … and regulate it accordingly.” This brings us to “unjust laws”.

When many average people hear marijuana advocates talking about unjust laws, they usually just think that it is being called unjust because the advocate likes marijuana and finds it unfair that he or she cannot use it legally. The facts are readily available. Marijuana is classified under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as a Schedule I drug. Regulations pursuant to the CSA go on to explain what they mean by Schedule I drugs, “Substances in this schedule have no currently accepted medical use in the United States…” -21 CFR 1308.11(d)(31)

Ignoring the fact that 20 states have now legalized Medical Marijuana usage, does the federal government not find the New England Journal of Medicine (or its own National Health Institute for that matter) to be a credible source for what acceptable medical use means? Add in this comparison; among the drugs listed as Schedule II is cocaine, noting only that Schedule II drugs have an accepted medical use, but a high potential for abuse. Is my government actually trying to tell me that cocaine is better for my health than cannabis? It is a claim that beggars belief, especially with hundreds of studies published yearly indicating the exact opposite.

If the above mockery of United States Public Law does not constitute a “unjust law” by Dr. King’s standards, I honestly do not know what does. For this reason, we avail ourselves of our First Amendment rights to petition the government on their own doorstep to democracy, a short walk from the Liberty Bell that your government seems to have forgotten the meaning of. Since the word ‘petition’ is not defined in the text, we have to be creative. We choose to address our petitions by way of lighting our marijuana cigarettes in a peaceful act of civil disobedience.

I was very fortunate to be amongst these heroes of mine whom have done this eight times before; always being harassed by National Park Service officers led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg. Not wanting to miss any of it, I arrived about an hour early and looked over as I drove by The People’s Plaza to see hard, metal barriers cordoning off the area and each had a little sign attached to it.

Sign placed on each fence surrounding The People’s Plaza

The sign purportedly quotes from 36 CFR 2.35(b)(2) of the United States Code of Federal Regulations as indicated at the bottom. This was yet another mistake made on the part of the federal government. While I am by no means an expert in law or even qualified to give advice, I have spent a decent amount of free time over the past 14 years reading Supreme Court decisions, related news and documents, and state and federal statutes (yes, I have strange hobbies). For this reason, my curiosity was peaked enough to look up that regulation to see what else it said in case they were quoting out of context. What I found was even worse. Below is what the text of 36 CFR 2.35(b)(2) actually states:
The possession of a controlled substance, unless such substance was obtained by the possessor directly, or pursuant to a valid prescription or order, from a practitioner acting in the course of professional practice or otherwise allowed by Federal or State law.” 
              –actual text of 36 CFR 2.35(b)(2)

The first part of the sign I will assume is just stating a fact. My guess would be they were attempting to properly quote federal statutes regarding penalties for simple possession to give the sign some credibility with the second, bold part. Unfortunately, I don’t find lies to be very credible. The actual penalty for a first offense for possession of any amount, regardless of how much, under federal law is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail and $1,000. (Source: norml.org)

Was the person who authorized and hung the signs intentionally trying to mislead us as a scare tactic? It seems to be their go-to plan, including roughly tackling to the ground protesters at previous rallies who were quite obviously not attempting to flee, since they just lit a joint. Was it an accident and the federal employee is just incompetent and unaware of the laws they are sworn to uphold? I don’t know the answer to these questions and I will not venture a guess, but I do believe they are questions that need to be asked and should be asked loudly.

Overall, Smoke Down Prohibition IX was a big success. There were competent speakers including Democratic primary challenger John Hanger; the only gubernatorial candidate in PA who is fighting for the rights of those who are being harmed by this destructive and unjust war on marijuana. I had an opportunity to speak with John and he is a very nice, intelligent man with some great mainstream ideas for improving our great state. Maybe he can help me live and fix PA’s economy at the same time. 

To my knowledge, there were 6 people carted off by the National Park Service (do they seriously need 5 officers to escort, sometimes forcefully, a peaceful protester?) and all issued the standard fine of $175, not even coming close to paying for the reported overtime the officers are being given.

In the coming days and weeks I know that others will be writing about issues of racial disparities in the laws and their enforcement as well as other interesting statistics. I hope you read them and come around to the side of logic and reason if you haven’t already.

Have a great week and please smoke responsibly,