Home Culture Freedom Fighter From Philly: An Interview with Chris Goldstein

Freedom Fighter From Philly: An Interview with Chris Goldstein

Image Credit: Chris Goldstein's Facebook Page

The war against marijuana users in the United States is fought on many fronts, too many to ever hope to count. That’s because millions of people are fighting every day in one way or another to help bring down the massive and entrenched walls of cannabis prohibition.

And in any battle, some people have to be on the front lines, in the streets, risking their freedom for the greater good. We’ve had the honor of profiling many of those front-line warriors, and we’re equally as honored to have gotten the chance to connect with Chris Goldstein, a marijuana activist, radio personality, writer and freedom fighter who has waged some of his biggest battles on the streets and in the courtrooms of Philadelphia.

Chris told me about his career in radio, the two years he was barred from the use of cannabis, the current state of the cannabis law reform movement and more.

The Marijuana Times: What were you told about cannabis growing up?

Chris Goldstein: Nothing terrible. There were the usual DARE classes in New Jersey schools but my family were accepting people. We always had a lot of artists and musicians as a part of our life…and alcohol was ever-present. Cannabis wasn’t really something people talked about one way or the other. But there were people around us who smoked pot and it wasn’t seen as a problem.

MT: How and why did you get involved in cannabis activism?

CG: I got introduced to the issue as a radio broadcaster. I quickly learned how marijuana prohibition intersects with so many aspects of our society, from health care to criminal justice to economics. As a Quaker and someone who believes in social justice, and as a cannabis consumer myself, I decided to become an advocate. It was a conscious choice. At the time my career track was commercial aviation and broadcast radio so this was a new direction.

MT: How and why did you get involved in radio?

CG: In 1996 I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a beautiful and generous community. After a few classes at the Community College they asked me to fill-in for a few shifts on KSFR, the local public radio station. That turned into a ten year stint on the air, with eight years hosting and managing Wednesday nights.

In 2000 I helped form the 501(c)3 Northern New Mexico Radio Foundation (NNMRF) who took ownership of KSFR and began an improvement effort. We ran on-air fundraisers, brought in BBC and NPR programming and built an Associated Press Award-winning local news team.

KSFR continues to grow, acquiring new transmitters and signal areas to now reach most of Northern New Mexico.

In 1999 I began reading the NORML weekly press release during my show in a segment called “NORML News.” This became a podcast from NORML in 2005 which spun into a daily podcast (NORML’s Daily Audio Stash) from 2006 to 2008.

Some of my past radio work can be found here.

And some old NORML podcasts here.

MT: You recently served two years of supervised probation, during which you had to submit to drug tests. How did that come about and how did going 2 years without cannabis affect you?

CG: Well in 2012 I staged a protest on the anniversary of federal marijuana prohibition. We handed out information on Samuel Caldwell and smoked a joint in front of the building that houses the Liberty Bell. Nothing happened other than a nice conversation with reporters.

My friend Nikki Allen Poe and me discussed doing this kind of activity more regularly. We came up with Smoke Down Prohibition and committed to doing one every month for one year. And we did.

The first four went off without a hitch. People showed up, we held signs, sang songs, cheered and chanted, then at 4:20 lit up in civil disobedience. After it all we cleaned up any trash and left. It all took about an hour.

On April 20, 2013 more than 600 people showed up – it was a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Again everyone was well behaved, lit up, and no one was arrested.

I had to take May off, but Poe showed up and was confronted by an army of police. National Park Rangers, Federal Protective Service, Department of Homeland Security, Philadelphia Police, SEPTA Police, even Fish and Wildlife. Not kidding.

At 4:20 Poe was tackled to the ground and put into the Federal Detention Center for 5 days on puffed up felony charges of assaulting a law enforcement officer. Poe was released on bail but would have to face trial and then sentencing months later.

Meanwhile we went ahead with the monthly protest. I lit up in June, July and August. They cited me the first time and I paid a fine, the second time I was taken to federal court.

My friend and a wonderful attorney, Bill Buckman, took on my case. Our first round was – predictably – lost. For possessing 0.4 grams of marijuana (the half smoked pinner of a joint) I got 2 years of probation and a $3,000 fine. I will also have a federal record for the rest of my life unless a sitting president extends me a pardon.

Not only was I drug tested almost every month, but I could not leave the state of New Jersey without special permission. On any approved overnight trip I had to get written permission that notified local federal probation offices of my visit as well.

Bill and I had planned further appeals to make a free speech case of the protest. Unfortunately, he suddenly passed away during that process.

Poe also served a term of probation and was fined $800. Thankfully all of the more serious and unwarranted charges against him were dropped.

While being tried and convicted in federal court certainly sucked …the press attention gave us new leverage for reform efforts. It gained us some extremely productive meetings and conversations with Philadelphia city leaders.  This developed quickly into decriminalizing marijuana …pretty awesome.

MT: What should activists be focused on going forward?

CG: There has been a clear divide growing between those who advocate for the cannabis industry and those who represent consumers.

Businesspersons running hot with the green fever of profit have been quick to buy up lobbyists and push for exclusivity in permits. New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania’s extremely limited medical cannabis laws are prime examples. These laws do not work for consumers. They are built to entrench a price model for products which is unattainable for working class people living with difficult medical conditions.

Consumer activism must be focused on broad access and fair prices. Let’s face it, most cannabis products in this country have a markup that Martin Shkreli would be proud of.

So activists now have a responsibility to keep both the industry AND the politicians honest.  

We have also seen a massive groundswell of consumers get empowered and involved with politics. Marijuana reform has been a relatively small boat for many years…now we need an ocean liner for all those that are on board. That means creating new vehicles to channel this support, because prohibition certainly isn’t over yet.

The next pivotal move is to pass legalization through a state legislature. I think Delaware has a good chance of breaking that ground.

Decriminalization is also being downplayed by some organizations – a critical mistake. Decrim stops arrests. We still have 25,000 people getting put into handcuffs in New Jersey every year. So, decrim has a positive, tangible benefit for everyday cannabis consumers. Philadelphia has seen a remarkable transformation in atmosphere under decrim. Also, every place that fully legalized marijuana…had decrim first.

Activists should be working to hold high visibility events: Concerts, press conferences, education (NOT business) conferences, proactive strategic communication and better coordination with drug policy reform lobbyists.

Right now there is a concerning disconnect between the hard-working, well-meaning non-profits and many grassroots activists. Unity is a two-way street. This movement can crystallize into something even stronger.

Now that so many local reforms have been won, a laser focus needs to be on federal policy. De-scheduling.

The industry can drastically lower prices and tithe to federal reform efforts. Major non-profits can start Street Teams instead of crinkling their noses at fragrant protests. And consumers can find a deep power together; not in the sterile world of social media, but in person.

We can concentrate the pressure of tens of millions of consumers to shatter this seemingly granite position. But we all need our hands on the sledgehammer, right at the same moment.

MT: How much do cannabis users have to fear from the Trump Administration?

CG: First, I am not afraid…they are just politicians!  

Now to the Trump admin proper: Senator “I thought the KKK was OK until I heard they smoked weed” Jeff Sessions is likely to win his confirmation as US Attorney General. He is a smart, savvy and seasoned politician with an intimate knowledge of federal law. There will likely be a few cannabis questions during his Senate Judiciary hearings.

I don’t see any silver linings in the President-elect’s picks.

So far Donald Trump, and everyone in the current admin, has been conspicuously silent on marijuana. They will likely not say a word until after Session’s confirmation.

I expect Trump admin to articulate some tacit support for cannabis. Likely no short-term threats to home cultivation, legal possession or decriminalization laws.

But the next tactical move seem clear: An attempt at federal regulations for the states’ retail sales schemes.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, MA AG Maura Healey and then Maine Governor Paul LePage are likely to send letters seeking clarification from the Department of Justice in short order.

Reporters and lobbyists often mention the 2013 DOJ Cole memo…but that was actually the second from Cole.

It was 2011 when the first, and rather profound, Cole memo was issued by the DOJ.

It was in response to Gov. Chris Christie sending repeated requests [letters from the NJ Attorney General Paula Dow] for clarification on implementing the medical marijuana law. I was one of the first sources to get it from NJ US Attorney Paul Fishman’s office.

See many governors had either refused to implement or even vetoed laws [Gregoire in Washington State, etc.] on the perceived threat that federal agents would arrest and prosecute state employees for issuing ID cards and the like.

No US Attorney General or presidential admin ever articulated such a threat, although it is a theoretical possibility. Thus the Ogden and then Cole memos put into writing what the DOJ enforcement focus was…

The concept of “not interfering” with the implementation of a state law – clearly addressing Christie’s query about employees – was spun by cannabis industry advocates as a blanket protection for marijuana businesses from federal prosecution.

Thus current industry growth has been under the false pretense that such DOJ memos were a permanent policy.

So, Trump, Sessions and the DOJ can now simply wait for letters from Govs. Baker and LePage (and possibly other govs under mmj laws).

Then, brand new “clarification” memos will be issued in what could be a few months …or drag on more than a year. Baker and LePage could delay retail sales in their states, theatrically wringing their hands, until they receive a reply.

Then, without having to alter any federal laws, the DOJ will lay out enforcement and possibly top-down regulatory plans.

The federal government is perfectly positioned to try the first major regulation of commercial marijuana production and retail sales. President Obama took a hands-off approach here, but the Trump administration can start tinkering. The Controlled Substances Act, with its supporting laws and agencies, already gives the White House many of the tools necessary to take a stab at corralling all that cannabis cash.

What could ensue is a major battle not over the concept of legalization, but over the money. It all might end up like something less of a political fight and more of a corporate takeover. Consumers will get caught in the crossfire in that scenario.

I have two recent columns on this.

MT: What has been your proudest moment as a cannabis activist?

CG: Every time I see someone consume cannabis without any fear.

The enemy of fear is hope. And activists like Chris Goldstein give cannabis users everywhere hope for the future. So much has been accomplished and yet there is still so much more work to do.

But we know we have people like Chris out there fighting and that helps alleviate some of the fear.