Celebrated Civil Rights Attorney and Marijuana Activist Dead at 61

My friend and colleague at New Jersey NORML, the great American attorney Bill Buckman is dead. His body was found in a motel room in Mount Laurel, New Jersey; the cause of death is reported to be suicide. He was 61-years-old.

Earlier reports said, “No foul play is suspected,” which was a reasonable observation given that the funny, compassionate and wise Bill Buckman was a dangerous lawyer – dangerous to the state – and he rattled a system he believed in because he knew it needed shaking.

He was the kind of lawyer that Hollywood makes movies about: smart, selfless, committed and tirelessly working for the underdog. He took on serious felonies – capital murder cases and civil rights litigation – and he was famous within legal circles for exposing racial profiling by the New Jersey state police in the 1996 case, State vs. Soto. In that case, he successfully won the dismissal of criminal charges against 19 minority men who were stopped and searched by troopers on the Garden State Parkway.

Bill was also part of the ACLU team of attorneys who sued the NJ State Police on behalf of minority motorists who had been racially profiled, and when several state troopers suffered retaliation for speaking out about racial profiling, Buckman represented the troopers as well.

Bill squeezed a $1 million settlement out of New Jersey for Larry Peterson, a Pemberton Township resident who spent nearly two decades behind bars for a rape and murder he did not commit. Buckman was “a heavyweight in fighting for equality and fairness in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “He wasn’t a person to sit back and hope others would do it. He stood up to the challenge.”

Buckman was also a long-time active member of the Board of Directors for New Jersey NORML. In 2011, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dragged his feet on medical marijuana, Bill put the governor’s feet to the flame by leading a team of NJ NORML lawyers in representing Richard Caporusso, a NJ patient who sued the state because its medical marijuana rules were “designed with the intent” to interfere with the program. The mainstream press reported that Mr. Caporusso was joined in his suit by his doctor, Jeffrey S. Pollack, as a plaintiff on behalf of other would-be medical marijuana patients and their doctors; and also that he was represented by “one of New Jersey’s most prominent civil rights lawyers, William Buckman.” Thus did Bill lend his gravitas to our cause, which was his cause as well.

That timely case put pressure on the Christie Administration and shortly thereafter the first dispensaries began to tentatively open as the governor grumbled and stumbled towards political scandal. When activist Diane Fornbacher was harassed for her advocacy by child protective services, it was Buckman who ran to her side and swept the mosquitoes away.

In a statement, New Jersey NORML executive director Evan Nison remembered Bill as “an amazing advocate for civil rights. He took on cases to defend those who didn’t have the means to defend themselves and dedicated his life to fighting inequality and injustice. His loss will be mourned by advocates across the state and country and our quest for a more just world will be made difficult without him.”

Bill was a good good man who protected us with his counsel, enriched us with his mind, inspired us with his heart and graced us with his presence, which was far too short on this all-too-slippery Earth. He classed up the joint. We are lessened by his loss.

Rick Cusick is the associate publisher of High Times and the chairman of New Jersey NORML.

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