On October 18, 2014, 250 marijuana supporters attended the “NJ Cannabis Conference,” the largest marijuana demonstration in New Jersey history. In front of police several hundred of us smoked in civil disobedience across from the State House in Trenton, and no one was arrested. As the main organizer for the event I came up with the idea for it only a few months earlier at my first marijuana demonstration ever. In between that time I went from being a stranger to the Movement, to being at the head of it. This was made possible by direct action, civil disobedience, and the help provided by an amazing group of people.
On April 20, Easter Sunday, I was one of 150 persons who came out to “Stoner Day: Confront Christie’s Cannabis Policies.” We marched one mile down the deserted main street in Trenton, listened to speeches at the State House, and then smoked in civil disobedience. The cops were friendly and no one was arrested. Afterward I was positive we could have another event in the fall that could be double the size.
The 4-20 demonstration was organized by NJ Weedman, the symbol of the movement in NJ. When I pitched my idea for another demonstration in October, he told me he would endorse it as long as I organized it. But I didn’t begin planning until July 10. That was the first day of the weekly medical marijuana demonstrations known as “Patients Speak Up: NJ Medical Marijuana Program is Failing.” I was one of a dozen people who attended nearly every single week. Our weekly demonstrations were held every single Thursday from 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. We performed 20 weekly protests between July 10 and November 20, and will resume them again early next year.
The weeklies were organized by Jennie Stormes, a nurse who takes care of her son Jaxs. Jaxs suffers from Dravert Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Over a 15-year period, Jaxs failed 56-plus medication treatments, two failed brain surgeries, a VNS implant, and the Ketogenic Diet. None of these reduced seizures, and some of the medication increased them. When put on cannabis Jaxs’ seizures were immediately reduced and he was taken off of three narcotic medications and the Ketogenic Diet. Many other parents with sick children attended the weekly demonstrations. One mother represented her 21-year old daughter Sara, who suffered from Lennox Gastaut syndrome. Sara suffered from seizures since she was seven months old. After years of failed medicines and surgeries, accompanied by broken bones from seizure attacks, Sara was put on medical cannabis and the results were immediate. Her seizures reduced, as did her parents’ worries. Ricardo Rivera was another father who attended the weeklies in support of his five-year old daughter Tuffy. Like the other parents, Ricardo doesn’t smoke, but found cannabis to be the best medicine for his daughter. Prior to using cannabis as a medicine, she suffered from 300 seizures a day. Once she began using cannabis, however, her seizures were reduced to only one every two weeks.
The weekly demonstrations successfully organized the top marijuana activists in the state. Many of them had been in the movement since the 1990s, and were therefore much more knowledgeable than myself. Even though I didn’t belong to any organization, I was meeting with the top leaders of several organizations on a weekly basis, which gave me the idea of forming a large coalition for the NJ Cannabis Conference. Those who attended the weekly demonstrations included Jennie Stormes, Ricardo Rivera, NJ Weedman, Michael Ward, Lefty Grimes, Def Jef, Carolyn Piro, Jim Price, Jim Miller, Ken Wolski, Wayne Burrini, Robert and Cindy Ruggiero, Larry Vargo, William Haney, Jeremy Santos, Skot Vaselik, Claudia Litost, Amanda Panda, Jo Anne Zito and myself. Dozens of other persons attended at least one of the weekly demonstrations.
At the weekly pickets over a thousand leaflets for the NJ Cannabis Conference were distributed. Some weeks we drove around in the Weedmobile and passed leaflets to people on the streets. The weeklies also gained more publicity for the movement. Local news reporters interviewed us several times. Our actions became so well known that we were paid a visit one week by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. He said he fully supported our actions and I made sure he received a leaflet for the NJ Cannabis Conference.
A dozen of us weekly attendees formed a tight pack, and we seemed to have radicalized one another. We were undeniably the leading forces in the NJ Movement, but we began going beyond state borders and connected with other leading activists. This broadened my connections in the movement.
On July 30, I attended a “Newark Street Panel on Decarceration,” hosted by Bob Witanek of Decarcerate the Garden State (NJ). Bob is a long-time peace activist and I spoke with him briefly after the event. Although he personally doesn’t smoke and focuses mainly on the decarceration issue, Bob agreed to be one of the sponsors of the NJ Cannabis Conference and personally came out to make a speech. I was happy to work with Bob because many other Decarcerate groups refused to participate, despite the fact that 22,000 persons per year are arrested in NJ for cannabis possession, with blacks being 2.8 times more likely than whites to be arrested, according to the ACLU.
On Saturday, September 6, weekly members Lefty Grimes, Cindy Ruggiero and I marched with 150 demonstrators to Love Park in the “Philly Marijuana March.” Organized by Philly-NORML, the march and rally applied pressure on Mayor Michael Nutter to sign the Decriminalization Bill that was passed by the Philadelphia City Council in May, which reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce to a $25 fine ($100 fine if smoked in public). On Monday, two days after the rally, Mayor Nutter announced he would sign the decriminalization bill, which went into effect October 20. The signing of the bill made Philadelphia the largest city in the country to decriminalize marijuana.
During the march I spoke at length with N.A. Poe, a leading marijuana activist and organizer of Philadelphia’s “Smoke Down Prohibition.” Chris Goldstein, the other founder of Smoke Down Prohibition, spoke at the rally in Love Park. I also marched with my friend and Green Party candidate Glenn Davis, who I marched with for 10 days in PA the previous year in the “March for a People’s Budget.” As we were marching toward Love Park we passed by a street performance of a dozen high school-aged drummers. They supported our march so we told them to join us. They marched behind us and the sound from their drums echoed off the buildings, filling the marchers with energy and determination. The sound was so loud that people walked out of buildings to learn what caused the noise, and they smiled when they saw the placard-holding demonstrators marching down the street.
The following weekend I attended the 25th Annual “Boston Freedom Rally” from September 13-14. Over 25,000 persons attended the festival on the Boston Common, the second largest annual gathering of marijuana supporters in the world. Everyone smoked in the open and the entire park smelled like weed. Nearly a dozen of us from the weeklies hung out in our own section of the park, including NJ Weedman, Michael Patrick Ward, Scot Vaselik, Jim Price, Carolyn Piro, Robert and Cindy Ruggiero, Jim Miller, William Haney, Larry Vargo, Def Jef and Wayne Burrini. NJ Weedman parked the Weedmobile in a no-parking zone near the entrance, but since he had marijuana designs all over his van, it looked as if it was supposed to be there for the festival. So the NJ group smoked in the Weedmobile and in our own section of the park.
Weekly members Def Jef and Jim Miller introduced me to Rick Cusick, Associate Publisher of High Times magazine. I handed him a flier for my demonstration, but I never heard back from him. I also met co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Jack Cole, who previously worked as a New Jersey state trooper before he was disillusioned by the war on drugs. I hope to begin working with him next year.
The NJ Cannabis Conference culminated out of the work performed by our small group of weekly demonstrators. Our work as a group resulted in the largest marijuana demonstration in the state’s history, with 250 demonstrators attending. The event launched at 3:00 with a one mile march from the riverline to the State House. Known as the “Parade of the People,” at least 200 marched in the street, with the Weedmobile at the head of it. Another noticeable figure leading the parade was weekly member Wayne Burrini, who carried a four-foot cross on his back with a huge pot leaf at the top of it.
Along the way we stopped at City Hall. Everyone spontaneously stormed the steps, with one woman at the top waving a massive marijuana flag over her head, indicating that we successfully occupied City Hall. After that the energy of the crowd was turned up to full-blast. On their own initiative the crowd loudly chanted: “Whose Streets, Our Streets” and “Yes We Cannabis!” One marcher climbed on top of the roof of the Weedmobile and led the chant, which only electrified the crowd even more.
At the State House speeches were made by representatives of sponsoring organizations. This included comedian Michael Hayne of NJ against Chris Christie, NJ Green Party candidate for the 12th District Steve Welzer, Bob Witanek of Decarcerate the Garden State (NJ), and Anne Armstrong of Rhode Island Compassion Party. Weekly members who spoke included NJ Weedman, Ken Wolski of CMMNJ, and Jennie Stormes. After her speech, Jennie left for Colorado, where she was forced to move in order to get proper treatment for her son Jax. Another weekly member who spoke that day was Ricardo Rivera. Ricardo’s speech was one of the most moving of the day, which ended with him placing THC droplets into his five-year old daughter’s mouth.
At 4:20, over 150 people smoked across the street in civil disobedience. Reporters walked around the smoke-filled area taking pictures of the crowd. It was inspiring to witness hundreds of young people committing civil disobedience, not for profits or personal gain for themselves, but for the unselfish reason of legalizing a medicine that could save millions of lives and free millions of others from unjust criminal records. Governor Chris Christie could learn a lot about moral leadership from these young people.
The demonstration was a success and received positive reviews in the Trentonian, Associated Press, Culture magazine, NJ.com: True Jersey, Watch Dog Wire New Jersey.com, and on New Jersey News 12 station. There are already plans for a second annual NJ Cannabis Conference next year. In the meantime larger demonstrations are being prepared for 2015.
The weekly demonstrations are expected to last from spring to fall next year. Weekly members NJ Weedman, Michael Patrick Ward, Jeremy Santos and I are organizing the next massive demonstration in Trenton on March 21, known as “NJ Spring Smoke-Out.” We are also trying to spread the movement across the state, like in Camden, another impoverished city with high incarceration rates that could benefit from legalization. A massive demonstration is planned there for May 2, Global Marijuana March day, the international cannabis holiday when marijuana rallies are held in hundreds of cities worldwide since 1999. We hope to attract the Camden community by having a “Poor People’s Parade for Pot.”
Our small band of radicals will continue the fight in NJ and elsewhere. We will continue to apply pressure through nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. Lighting up joints in public is no less honorable than the youth in the 1960s who set their draft cards afire to protest the war in Vietnam. Nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience undoubtedly brought victories in the labor, civil rights, antiwar and antinuclear movements in the last century and we proudly carry out that tradition today. The only thing that can be determined as of now is that if great changes happen to come along, they will come from the people, not the politicians.