Weed People: Chris Goldstein

By mainstream accounts, cannabis legalization only began to take effect when the activists put down their picketing signs and put on suits. Despite the makeover, the men and women informing the public and rallying their support retain the protest spirit that has driven the movement since its dawn. Activists like Chris Goldstein prove that effective advocacy in the age of legislative marijuana reform still require elements of agitation and demonstration, even if the final battle is fought in official chambers.

This year, Goldstein led an effort to decriminalize marijuana in Philadelphia. With the help of a dedicated councilman and wide support among city residents, Goldstein watched the mayor sign the bill into law on October 1st, 2014. The penalty for possession of up to 30 grams is now $25. In a city with disproportionately high arrest rates for minority residents, it’s a victory for far more than just cannabis reform. Goldstein knows the value of decriminalization better than most — he’s currently on probation for federal marijuana possession charges following a series of smoking protests on federal land in Philadelphia.

Whether facing down police in front of the Liberty Bell or seated in a City Hall office persuading a politician on the issues, Goldstein’s dedication to the cause is unwavering, and it works.

Describe your involvement with cannabis in all aspects, personal, professional, etc.

In 1997 I began my own radio show on the local Santa Fe FM station, KSFR. My show was called The Last Hours of Night, and along with music, interviews, live performances, comedy and technology segments, I read the National NORML press release every week at 10:30PM. It became one of the most popular parts of the show. Reading the stories every week and eventually interviewing NORML’s staff started me down the path of activism. I began to feature more and more cannabis related content on the show such as interviews with politicians and celebrities about the topic.

In 2005 Allen St Pierre at National NORML called up and asked if I could record my reading of the press release and send it back to the NORML office to start a podcast. Podcasting was relatively new at the time, and within a month we were racking up thousands of downloads. After six months, we were the most popular podcast in the Government & Organizations category, beating out the White House Weekly Press Briefing among many others. That was also the year I attended my first NORML conference. It made me realize what NORML really was about, and that there were chapters in every state. That conference showed me that the politics of cannabis were both complex and exciting.

In 2006 NORML asked me to begin a daily podcast called NORML’s Daily Audio Stash, styled after an NPR news magazine. I stayed with the NORML podcast for a little over two years and produced more than 650 episodes. I interviewed folks like congressmen Ron Paul, Barney Frank, and Dana Rohrbacher; celebrities like Willie Nelson, Ann Druyan, Tommy Chong and Rick Steves; we also had weekly interviews with Steve Bloom, Mitch Earleywine, and Paul Armentano. A big part of the show was interviewing activists from around the country who were on the front lines of reform.

In 2008 I passed the podcasting job on to Russ Belville so I could care for my grandparents (who had raised me) through their life transition. This was when I got involved with NORML-NJ, PhillyNORML, and the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey as a volunteer. Eventually I would serve on the Board of Directors for all three groups.

In 2011 I started my first website dedicated to East Coast Cannabis Reform and began working as a writer in earnest. I’ve had OPEDs published in most of the newspapers in NJ and Philly. For a time, I wrote for the Philly Weekly and now I have a regular web column, Philly420, at Philly.com. My newest project is a free print magazine sent out every month to NORML and SSDP chapters called Freedom Leaf.

Fighting for medical cannabis access in New Jersey under Governor Chris Christie has showed me how complex the issue has become in the states. In places where there is no option for ballot initiatives, we must work through politicians and legislatures, and that is decidedly more difficult. The opposition to marijuana reform is not static; they have adapted their tactics in many ways in their final defense of prohibition. NJ, PA and NY are some of the harshest environments for prohibition in terms of number of arrests and tough policies. These challenges have been good for me; they have made me refine my game and my writing. Between medical access, decriminalization, industrial hemp, and full legalization, there is a lot to work on and cover.

What are some of the victories of state-level legalization in your area?

NJ passed a medical marijuana bill in 2010. We did pass a decriminalization measure in the NJ Assembly in 2012, but it stalled in the Senate. When I first started working in Pennsylvania, there had not been a single real marijuana reform bill in the General Assembly. Now, through the work of hundreds of volunteers across the state, we have five bills covering decriminalization, tax and regulate, medical access, and record engagement. Delaware also decriminalized cannabis. Our biggest tangible victory has been the recent decriminalization in Philadelphia–a policy that affects 1.6 million residents and will stop more than 4,000 arrests every year.

What are some of the failures of state-level legalization in your area?

NJ was the first state to remove home cultivation from a medical marijuana law. The regulations that followed capped THC at 10% and turned the law into a flawed and broken program. NJ’s medical cannabis law is one of the strangest failures in the country, and isn’t likely to get better until a new governor comes into office. We’ve seen NY pass a “no smoking” medical marijuana law, Delaware passed a medical marijuana law similar to NJ.

New Jersey under Chris Christie and PA under Tom Corbett have been tough environments for reform. It shows how a small minority of politicians can hold up such an important issue.

Do you believe the federal government is making progress towards decriminalization or legalization?

The federal government has been completely and totally stagnant at addressing cannabis reform. While state-level progress is good, we as advocates must begin to focus our beam on the goal of changing federal law. That does not mean re-scheduling cannabis; it means completely removing it from the Controlled Substances Act like alcohol and tobacco. Personally, I am spending more of my time on this effort. My hope is to get the US Senate to take up federal decriminalization in 2015. The federal penalty for possessing any amount of marijuana is up to 5 years of probation, up to 6 months in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. I was given two years of supervised probation and a $3000 fine for having 0.4 grams of cannabis (half of a joint!) on National Park property. That could happen to anyone in CO or WA who wander onto federal land with their state-legal weed, and that is atrocious. So, no, there hasn’t been much progress yet; but I hope to help change that. If Washington DC voters say yes on Amendment 71, it could be a real game-changer and force Congress to really address the issue of legalization.

With the right mix on Capitol Hill, we could be three years away. With the wrong mix, another 40 years.

America created cannabis prohibition and forced the rest of the world to follow this policy. After we change this issue here, it will quickly shift around the globe. Sure, there may be some draconian holdouts like China and North Korea, but Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and even the African continent will be quick to follow the USA in a major shift towards legal cannabis.

What is the biggest challenge facing legalization on a state level?

Big Pharma, corporate medicine (hospitals, insurance, etc.), and the substance treatment industry have long had politicians in their pockets. For example, pharmaceutical corporation Astrazeneca is one o the biggest campaign donors to Pennsylvania state legislators. 22 of the 26 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world have headquarters or major research laboratories in the New Jersey. Local “prevention” groups that rely on federal tax grants also get in the way. As we can see in states that allow ballot initiatives, if the voters get to decide, well it’s a done deal. But the biggest challenge in state that need to go though legislatures is the politicians themselves and whom they are beholden to.

A national level?

Here again, the challenge is not convincing people that marijuana is safer than alcohol, or that it has a medical benefit. It is getting politicians to make the choice to change the law against the special interests that fund their campaigns. If everyone in America who bought $80 worth of underground marijuana last year would donate the same to a pro-cannabis politician, we will be a lot closer to winning this issue overall.

The global level?

We need to lead by example from America. We need to show the world hat we are good for more than weapons of war, porn, and Hollywood movies. When we end cannabis prohibition, we can show the planet that we can produce hemp, marijuana, and social justice. If we change this policy here, it resonates around the globe.

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