On Saturday afternoon, at a few minutes past 2 p.m., I found myself carrying the world’s largest joint to the White House.
Well, OK, it was only a symbolic joint — 51 feet long, inflatable, made of plastic sheeting, and emblazoned with the words “Obama, Deschedule Cannabis Now!” But it was large. And we were headed to the White House. I was joined by nearly 100 volunteers walking down Pennsylvania Avenue towards 15th Street. Shortly after I joined the procession, the enormous joint drew to a halt before a thick line of law enforcement.
Protest organizer Adam Eidinger huddled in negotiation with the police. A few minutes later he turned to the group. “We can’t bring the joint in,” he announced. “They’re concerned it may obstruct the view of the White House.”
With that, the group collectively pivoted, dropped the massive J and began rolling it up. The joint was snuffed out, at least for the time being.
Close but no breakthrough. It seemed a fitting analogy for the status of cannabis in Washington, D.C., and across America.
Saturday’s event, Reschedule 420, was initially inspired by Bill Maher’s display of civil disobedience earlier this year, when he lit and smoked a joint on his HBO show. But the event quickly evolved into something bigger and deeper than that with the help of Eidinger, whose group DCMJ led the successful campaign for D.C. legalization, drafting the ballot initiative and organizing volunteers to gather signatures for the 2014 election.
It was an ordinary day for the nation’s capital, but for this group of activists, it was an exhilarating day of anticipation and civil disobedience. Music pumped from loudspeakers, and chants of “Free the tree! Cannabis is love!” filled the air, deepening the sense of community as organizers compared notes — and prepared for the day’s best and worst possible scenarios.
At the core of the protest was a diverse mix of people from the Beltway and beyond. Young parents spoke of raising their children amid homegrown gardens, impassioned veterans called for better access to medical cannabis, baby boomers expressed their lifelong passion for the plant, and a few zealous attendees preached cannabis as religion. An impressive cadre of low-key federal government employees also showed up, wanting to support the cause but shying away from actively participating due to the all-too-real fear that it could put their employment and liberty at risk.
Activists chanted as the crowd gathered in front of the White House. “Deschedule cannabis now! Deschedule cannabis now!”
The police presence was heavy. I spotted more than a few K-9 units standing on the outskirts of the group.
Christine Edmond of the Alliance for Women in Media spoke eloquently. “We hate prohibition because it tells us that we can’t,” she said. “We hate prohibition because it keeps us from making our own decisions. We hate prohibition because people deserve to be informed and exposed to truth. We hate prohibition because hundreds of thousands of lives have been changed, and some things cannot be undone. Regardless of your view, cannabis is more than a recreational substance. It is a healing medicine that opens up the heart and that touches the soul. The time is now to heal the people, to heal the land, to heal our economy, to heal society, to set the plant free.”
Brandon Wyatt, a lawyer and Marine Corps veteran who said he lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, stood beside a banner, speaking to the press about the importance of cannabis research. “Federally, we need the numbers,” he said. “We are fighting for the data. What if this is the state that could make the breakthrough?”
Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, a physician from the Boston area and a member of the MassCann Reform Coalition, spoke about the myth of the “gateway drug.”
“Cannabis is not an entrance drug!” she told the crowd. “Cannabis is an exit drug for the pharmaceutical crisis.”
Phone Homie (real name Rico), really got the crowd fired up. He hosts a local D.C. podcast with “dabs on the slab,” on which he discusses all things cannabis. Since I’d arrived in D.C. a day earlier, his podcast had been mentioned to me no less than five times. He was loud and charismatic, and people were drawn to his message: “One small dab for man, one giant slab for mankind!” He was frequently at the center of the crowd, encouraging cheers in agreement, blowing a train whistle and eventually, when the time came, leading the toking.
Tourists gathered in the park to gawk.
I danced between the protesters and the reporters, darting to glance at the lines of Secret Service agents, D.C. law enforcement and a few helmeted guards who appeared to be wearing armored gear. I noticed that there were several other similarly-garbed officers standing around a separate pro-life protest (you know the ones, with stomach-churning photos) and meandered over to the police line.
“So, are you here for this?” I nodded towards one of the bloody posters, “Or this?” I gestured at the Reschedule 420 crowd.
The officer smiled at me above his fluorescent vest. “Ma’am, I’m just here to keep the peace.”
I returned the smile. “Then I’m glad you’re here, sir.”
He nodded and tipped his helmet.
As the hour of reckoning drew near, anticipation built within the crowd. The grassy scent of burning cannabis had been apparent since about twenty minutes into the rally, but I couldn’t pinpoint the origin and, quite frankly, was a little miffed, because Eidinger has been quite clear in his instructions: “No lighting up before 4:20.” He wanted the group to make an impact and didn’t want to risk any premature arrests and a possible shutdown.
At 4:16 I saw the first hit. It was Phone Homie, at the center of the crowd, taking a dab. The floodgates opened. Joints, dabs, vape pens, nectar collectors, edibles — nearly every form of consumption was represented. I saw a three-pronged joint holder, complete with three joints, light up in front of me.
For a brief moment, there was truly a celebration — cheering and singing (and yes, some coughing) — as the group collectively watched the lines of law enforcement stand motionless just beyond the perimeter of the crowd. Dabs flowed, joints were puffed and passed. And when it became clear that there would be no crackdown, the crowd roared in victory.
The police shifted restlessly but made no move towards the group. I watched a K-9 officer walk with a police dog, just a puppy. His little snout bounced off of every single person as he scanned the crowd.
Just then I noticed one of the organizers, Ellen Mellody, a former advisor to the Obama, Gore and Clinton campaigns. She hustled back from a tête-à-tête with the head of the Secret Service contingent. An uneasiness settled over the crowd.
“They said we gotta rip it down or they’re going to start arresting.”
“That’s our cue,” shouted a volunteer. “Time to move on out!”
Suddenly, I heard the sound of distant sirens and someone on a bullhorn. I assumed the worst. After cringing and looking over the crowd, I realized that I was mistaken. I looked over to see one of the religious protesters, carrying a huge sign and a bullhorn. It seemed unlikely that police officers would be yelling about Jesus as they broke up a protest.
No matter. At that point we received word from Eidinger, passed through the crowd telephone-style:
With that, the magic was over, brief and bright and jubilant and filled with hope.
As the crowd dispersed to carry on the festivities at private residences, DCMJ volunteers remained behind to gather any trash — munchies and joint butts, mostly — in trash bags, carefully skirting the law enforcement officers giving side-eyed glances to a few straggling participants.
No arrests. Zero. No handcuffs, no federal drug charges, and, for these courageous, foolhardy volunteers, no reason that President Obama couldn’t reschedule — nay, deschedule — cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.
Eidinger led the procession down K Street, leading a parade of celebration. Everyone was eager to leave federal property and get to the safety of private space. Activists were awestruck afterwards, pinching themselves and exchanging glances, as if to ask “Did that actually just happen?”
Image Source: Lisa Rough