This past weekend I had the very strange joy of driving to Scranton, Pennsylvania with a van full of cannabis activists.
I was invited by my good friend and NYC cannabis and social justice activist, RJ Katz. The goal of the road trip was to appear at a rally featuring Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But we weren’t coming to show our support or even to attend the rally itself—instead, our reason for being there was to carry a 51-foot, inflatable marijuana joint and pass around an open letter to Hillary Clinton asking her to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. The action came just days after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused, once again, to reschedule cannabis on August 11th.
Hillary, for her own part, has expressed support for medical marijuana and easing restrictions on research, but has stopped short of embracing full legalization.
“I do support the use of medical marijuana,” she said during a Democratic presidential debate in October 2015. “And I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”
Regarding states like Colorado that have legalized marijuana, Hillary has supported their right to do so but said she wants to “wait and see what the evidence is.”
This wasn’t the first cannabis action on the Clinton campaign trail, nor will it be the last. The 51-foot joint has made appearances at the Clinton campaign office in Brooklyn, NY, at the DNC in Philadelphia, and at the White House in Washington, D.C. Next week, the same group of activists will bring it to a Clinton appearance in Massachusetts.
The action in Scranton was organized by Dana Beal, one of the most notable cannabis activists still around today. Dana’s long history with activism includes (but is not limited to) his involvement with the Youth International Party (Yippies), founding the New York City Cannabis parade, and his promotion of the psychedelic substance ibogaine as a treatment for drug addiction. What struck me throughout our trip was the amount of respect the other activists showed Dana. “What’s so amazing about Dana, he’s not just a complainer, he’s a doer,” said Paul Gilman, who represented the New York Green Party for our action. “He’s not perfect, he’s not a god, but he’s someone I would encourage people to emulate.”
The group of activists—formally called the National Initiative to Deschedule Marijuana—was as eclectic and diverse as any group of pot smokers.
There were men and women; people aged 20 to 70 and every age in between; Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and Grade-A political radicals; and people in varying states of sanity. There were about 13 of us altogether.
We left New York City on Sunday, August 14th at about 7:00 PM, traveling in a cramped van with our giant joint. Before we departed, a container of gasoline in a brown paper bag started leaking onto the floor. After some passengers raised complaints about the odor, Dana angrily snatched the gas can and emptied it into a nearby gutter. The stench of gasoline, sadly, remained. The two-hour car ride was punctuated by discussions on music, cannabis, psychedelics, revolution, and of course, politics.
The “Jill not Hill” issue was debated furiously.
Regular-sized joints and glass pipes were passed around freely, while music by the Grateful Dead played. Dana lost his temper with some of the activists when they took an extended bathroom and snack break at a gas station. When we arrived at the Red Roof Inn just outside Scranton, we were greeted by some other hippies and Deadheads who were lodging for a different reason—Peach Music Festival was just ending that weekend.
The following morning, Monday, August 15th, we rose early to pack the van and set out for the Clinton rally in Scranton proper. Scranton, the sixth-largest city in Pennsylvania, is nestled high in the Pocono Mountains, and we were treated to some spectacular views of clouds rolling over the peaks and valleys. Unfortunately they gave us little cover from the blazing sun. We arrived at Riverfront Sports Stadium around 9:30 AM, and immediately disembarked to prepare the joint. A line of Hillary supporters were already gathering in the parking lot outside the stadium.
Democratic volunteers and Secret Service officers also prowled around the lot. We climbed a small grassy knoll that rose above the parking lot, and laid the joint parallel to the line of people.
Now it was time to inflate the joint, with a gas-powered leafblower.
“I Like Marijuana” by David Peel and the Lower East Side Band played through a speaker. The joint slowly took shape just as the line in the parking lot started to swell.
A message across the joint read, in bold letters, “Hillary, Deschedule Cannabis Now!” Some activists helped hold up the joint, while others stood beside it with banners reading “Legalize Marijuana Now!“
Meanwhile, Dana Beal marched through the crowd with his open letter to Hillary Clinton (copied below). “We’re calling on Hillary to do the right thing on the medical marijuana issue!” he announced. “We’re calling on her to enact the Bernie Bill.”
“What’s the Bernie Bill?” a man asked. “The Bernie Bill takes it out of the Controlled Substances Act,” Dana explained. “It makes it like a regular thing. Hillary just wants to move it from Schedule I to Schedule II. But that’d just be reclassifying it from heroin to cocaine and methamphetamine. Well, we think they could do a little better than that.”
Hillary Clinton, Dana went on to explain, could pass the Bernie bill through an executive order on her first day in office, “literally with the stroke of a pen.” The Hillary supporters had mixed reactions. Many laughed at our group and took pictures on their cell phones. Some simply ignored us. A small number of them shouted derisive comments at us: “Marijuana affects your logic and reasoning! It gives you impure judgement!” “Chocolate cake is legal, everyone eats it, that’s why everyone’s fat!” “What about the babies?” “It’ll defunction [sic] our society, make people lazy!”
But many—possibly most of them—showed solidarity and support for our cause. The pro-weed Hillary supporters raised their fists and smiled at us. One group even broke out in applause when Dana Beal announced our mission at the rally.
One woman named Elizabeth from New York State had this to say:
“Cannabis has been in use for thousands of years. Other countries have been using it for decades, for its medicinal properties… it’s better than any prescription medication you could use! I think eventually the tide will turn and it will be a universal form of health care… We don’t need depression pills, we don’t pain medication, you use cannabis and it makes you better.” Elizabeth was confident Hillary Clinton would support cannabis once in office because she is “so progressive with many things.”
“All I could say is whatever comes natural, if you feel like you’re able to get by with it, that’s good,” said another Hillary supporter named Ron. “As long as you don’t hurt anybody else. And I believe Hillary would feel the same way.”
We stayed in the parking lot for about two hours, by which time the Hillary supporters finally started to filter into the stadium. Dana determined it was time for us to move, so everyone grabbed a part of the joint and walked it around the sports complex to the opposite side (I unfortunately did not witness most of this because the heat was finally getting to me). They set up camp near the street entrance to the stadium, so all the cars passing by would see the joint. According to Mr. Gilman, a great number of cars honked their horns in solidarity.
Our group was joined at the entrance by some savory and not-so-savory allies including members of the Pennsylvania Green Party and, of course, Donald Trump supporters.
Both of these groups showed support for us; the Trump supporters even offered to take pictures of us and said they were “down” with our cause (when asked if Trump himself was “down,” they admitted they weren’t sure).
But Dana also chose to move to the street entrance so the joint could be seen by the guests of honor themselves: Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They arrived in a long motorcade led by the Scranton Police and black Secret Service cars, and drove right past our group of activists and the joint.
Rachel Donlan of MassCann/NORML explained:
“We had the MassCann ‘Legalize’ banner, with the gigantic pot leaf, positioned perfectly so that as they drove by—I have a video, where you can see, Mrs. Clinton looks, and then turns her head, and has a smile on her face, and Joe Biden is clearly looking out the window at the banner with a big smile on his face… You can hear Trump people yelling—‘F’ you—well, I don’t wanna say—but they were yelling profanity, you can hear some people yelling ‘Jill, not Hill’… Our group, the people with the joint, were yelling ‘Deschedule cannabis!’… There were no people outside that were supporters. If there were supporters, they were inside… I’m not sure what [Clinton and Biden were] smiling about but hopefully it’s about the fact that they plan on rescheduling like they say they will.”
We left around 1:00 PM and returned to New York City that same day. This weekend the giant joint will travel to Massachusetts, where Dana hopes to continue pressuring Hillary Clinton. Speaking after the fact, Mr. Gilman reflected that the majority of the Hillary supporters in Scranton supported us, and he was pleased that we encountered no fierce opposition or violence.
He urged everyone who cares about the cannabis issue—or any other issue—to get involved directly in political action: “Voting is not enough,” he said. “Voting is a good thing to do, but along with voting you have to get out in the street, you have to organize. You have to make your demands widely known through personal contact. Anyone who complains but doesn’t actively try to solve the problems, I don’t have any time for.”
Many thanks to all the activists who helped make the trip happen and shared their thoughts for this article. Special thanks to RJ Katz for assisting with research for this article.