A Gandhi analogy fails to sway judge in marijuana case

Don DeZarn , one of the men fined, served in Iraq.
Don DeZarn , one of the men fined, served in Iraq.
Posted: August 22, 2014

History should decide, not the courts, whether Chris Goldstein and Don DeZarn - two New Jerseyans who each lit up a hand-rolled marijuana cigarette during a protest at Independence National Historical Park last year - belong in the same pantheon as Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, and Allen Ginsberg, a federal judge said in a caustic written opinion issued this week.

In her 10-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe in Philadelphia rejected appeals filed by Goldstein, 38, of Willingboro, and DeZarn, 48, of East Windsor, who argued that identical two-year probationary terms and $3,000 fines imposed by a lower court were harsh and that they should not have been ordered to stay away from future marijuana protests at the park, which Goldstein had organized.

Lawyers for the two had urged the court to treat their acts of civil disobedience as following in the tradition of Gandhi and King, and called the ruling disappointing.

Goldstein and DeZarn participated in the monthly "Smoke-Down Prohibition" demonstrations held throughout 2013. Each was fined $175 the first time he was cited for smoking pot, during a June rally that year.

But when they repeated the action two months later, in August, they received the stiffer terms. Rufe said the sentencing magistrate properly took into consideration the men's "recidivism and their continued incitement of others to violate drug laws."

"America is a protest nation," the judge wrote in her opinion, issued Tuesday. She named a dozen figures who engaged in civil disobedience and who, she said, wrote "intellectual masterpieces" or speeches to bring change. But, she added, "whether history will place DeZarn and Goldstein in this pantheon is not for the federal courts to decide."

"I don't know what the judge meant, but those are my heroes," Goldstein said Wednesday, adding that he believes civil disobedience is the most effective way to work against marijuana laws that he said unjustly restrict people's freedoms and that are enforced more frequently against minorities.

Goldstein has worked as an advocate for marijuana law changes for more than a decade, writing articles for NORML and Philly.com, a website affiliated with The Inquirer; meeting with legislators; and researching the laws.

He said that in most jurisdictions, the maximum punishment for simple possession is six months' probation and $500 in fines.

William Buckman, Goldstein's lawyer, expressed dismay at the judge's decision.

"She paid homage to the tradition of peaceful protest in this country but didn't see fit to find it applies in a situation where people were rightfully protesting the failed drug policy of this country," he said.

"They weren't protesting the simple fact that you can or can't smoke a joint, they were protesting against the misguided policy of throwing hundreds of thousands of people in jail or giving them a criminal record for smoking marijuana."

DeZarn, a veteran of the Iraq war who has a medical marijuana card in New Jersey, said the judge misread him.

Rufe's opinion said that DeZarn had "already claimed for himself a seat at the table" with Gandhi and King, citing his lawyer's arguments.

George Newman, his lawyer, had said DeZarn's peaceful protest was carried out "in the tradition" of these figures. DeZarn said he never expected to be considered an equal to those men.

"I'm one average person who got fed up with the federal government and decided to speak out," he said. "My motivation for getting involved with activism was from being in the military. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. . . . But the federal government is blocking research on medical marijuana."

DeZarn said people should not be deprived of the relief marijuana brings for many conditions.

Newman said he felt it was unfair that the judge's opinion belittled his client's civil disobedience.

"He served his country for 16 years, and was in combat in Iraq. Hello, he was protesting marijuana laws. He is not a criminal," Newman said. "She could have shown mercy."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard W. Goldberg, who prosecuted the case, said the prosecution and sentence had nothing to do with the protest.

"The judge talks about how the defense keeps complaining that they are being punished for their viewpoints, but she makes it clear it has nothing to do with their viewpoints. . . . This is not about advocating for the legalization of marijuana, it's about the repeated violation of the law," he said.

Goldberg said that the sentences were less than the maximum because under federal law, Goldstein and DeZarn could have received prison terms, up to five years' probation and $5,000 in fines for marijuana possession.

He said the sentences were appropriate because Goldstein and DeZarn were not deterred from repeating their offense when they were simply fined $175.

The judge declined comment through her law clerk. "She has a policy of not commenting on her opinions," he said.


856-779-3224 @JanHefler


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