Marijuana activist shocked by his own prosecution

Chris Goldstein poses with the doormat at the Moorestown office of lawyer William Buckman, who is taking on Goldstein's appeal, basing the case on free-speech grounds.
Chris Goldstein poses with the doormat at the Moorestown office of lawyer William Buckman, who is taking on Goldstein's appeal, basing the case on free-speech grounds. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2014

Chris Goldstein sees momentum in the battle to legalize marijuana.

As a paid blogger with NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an activist who later worked on New Jersey's medical-marijuana law and Philadelphia's decriminalization bill, he has been caught up in a swirl of hearings, media conferences, and street theater for more than a decade.

Goldstein, a 38-year-old Willingboro resident, says the groundwork has been laid. But for him, the effort came with an unanticipated setback.

Colorado and Washington opened the door to full legalization this year, and 22 states allow the sale of medical cannabis. Even the federal government, which still classifies marijuana as illegal, has softened its stance. The attorney general has said resources won't be spent on enforcing marijuana laws in states where there is a conflict, and President Obama said in recent interviews that he doesn't consider marijuana worse than alcohol or cigarettes.

That's why Goldstein was stunned when he was prosecuted for smoking, you guessed it, a marijuana cigarette, during a monthly public protest staged in the shadow of the Liberty Bell last August. He is appealing, and his court brief is due by the end of June.

"They really came down hard," Goldstein said in an interview. In March, a federal magistrate had fined him $3,000, sentenced him to two years of supervised probation, and ordered him to stay 100 feet from the Independence National Historic Park when "Smoke Down Prohibition" protests are held.

They had been held monthly for most of last year. Goldstein, the cochair of Philly NORML, was an organizer for many of the monthly protests that were held most of last year, which each included a moment when the group smoked marijuana en masse.

William Buckman, a prominent civil rights attorney in Moorestown, is taking on Goldstein's appeal, which he will base partly on a free-speech argument.

"The supreme irony of Chris' case is it took place at the very epicenter where America celebrates First Amendment freedoms," Buckman said. "Yet in other states and in other locales he would not have been prosecuted at all. And, it also came at a time when Barack Obama and his own attorney general were saying we have to look more realistically at the drug policy in this country."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard W. Goldberg, who has overseen cases involving protesters in Philadelphia for the last 20 years, said that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has also instructed law enforcement to continue to detain people for possessing marijuana on federal land and parks and to prosecute them.

"The parks are filled with children on school trips, and parents bring their kids to see the Liberty Bell," Goldberg said in an interview. He said the visitors have the right to go to these parks without seeing people smoking marijuana and breaking the law.

"The parks are different from other public areas, and there are different rules," Goldberg said. ". . . They're to be maintained for the use of a large number of people and have grass and trees and historic artifacts that they can visit in a peaceful environment."

In his sentencing memorandum, he had urged the magistrate to issue a "substantial penalty" against Goldstein and his codefendant Donald DeZarn, 48, of East Windsor, because the two "have made clear their contempt for the law" by smoking a joint at the park on two different occasions and for encouraging others to do so during the protest. Both were fined $175 for their first offense but were required to go to trial the second time.

"There is no reason that the public which pays for police protection, and who rely on police and the Courts for services and the fair administration of justice, must suffer this lawlessness and the waste of government resources. . . . While the law can be changed, it cannot be flouted without consequence," the memo said.

The magistrate found the two codefendants guilty after a short trial. Goldstein said that under terms of his probation he cannot leave New Jersey without permission and that this has hampered his marijuana advocacy work.

He said he had to get approval from the judge before he could attend last week's marijuana decriminalization hearing in Philadelphia and then a legislative hearing on a medical-marijuana bill he is advocating for in Harrisburg.

Currently employed by a trucking company that makes local deliveries, he is also an online eBay seller and does marijuana reform work on the side. He also is a columnist who contributes to Philly.com, which is owned by IGM, which also owns the The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.

Goldstein said his interest in marijuana reform began when he was a student at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and he noticed that minorities were being arrested disproportionately for simple possession and incarcerated. "I watched the prohibition and all the black people who were getting arrested," he said.

Goldstein said this was another reason he was shocked when a park ranger and Philadelphia patrolman detained him for smoking a joint during the August demonstration, which was attended by about 150 protesters. "I'm white, and white people don't get arrested for weed," he said. He says he was targeted because he is an organizer.

Though more states are considering allowing medical-marijuana sales, and a few others are weighing full legalization, Goldstein says there is still much more work to be done at the federal level.

"Prohibition doesn't end at the state level," he said. "Until the day comes when we change federal law, marijuana will still be a civil rights problem in America."


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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