Supporters of marijuana legalization took their fight with a law directly to the law Sunday as they lit up in the Keene Police Station lobby.
They puffed. They cheered and laughed. They left. But not before one of them yelled at a department employee who was working behind a front window.
One of the rally-goers had just been released without being charged, after being arrested for smoking what he said was nothing more than mint leaves. But activist Sam A. Miller said, “What they smoked inside the police station today, that was real. … I could tell from the smell.”
Activists have gathered for more than a week to smoke at 4:20 p.m. — a number identified in marijuana subculture with the drug.
Sunday’s police station smoke circle sparked no arrests from a department Lt. Shane C. Maxfield said had a limited staff on a Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, as the activists vow to continue their pro-pot protest indefinitely, local residents are left to wonder: What’s next?
“I really believe tomorrow will be a bigger and better day for entertainment,” said Patricia A. Byrnes, whose apartment is near the rally’s epicenter on Central Square. Byrnes has been watching the protest daily and says she doesn’t like what she sees.
“All I feel is sadness that we have come to this point,” she said. “There ought to be a better way of getting our points across.”
One way, according to Mayor Philip Dale Pregent, is working through the established channels of government .
“At this point, I don’t think that (the activists) have a real mission … in regard to how they want to go about helping change the situation,” he said Sunday evening. “They’re just doing a lot to attract attention right now, and I don’t think that that gains them much of anything.”
But with attention comes awareness, according to Miller, a Free State Project activist who has been filming the protests.
Asked why he doesn’t move his protest efforts to the seat of government in Concord, Miller said, “I’m here.”
He also pointed to the back-and-forth discussions the Keene City Council has had about sending a resolution to urge lawmakers to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana as evidence of how sluggish the governmental process can be.
While councilors spend weeks debating whether to send what he called a “letter,” Miller said, “people are sitting in concrete boxes in prison over this drug war that’s a failure. … I don’t want to believe that the best answer is to use the system and hope that in the next decade or so, these laws will be repealed.”
Free State Project activist Ian Bernard echoed him.
“I can say that for me and many other activists, we’re not going to beg permission from politicians to live as free men and women,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’re just going to do it.”
In the meantime, the spectacle has drawn a refrain of honking from drivers showing their apparent support. But it’s also drawn flak from others.
Erik Olsen, a 17-year-old student at Keene High School who checked out Sunday’s rally, said that while he supports marijuana legalization, the belligerent attitude many activists have taken toward police “is not even remotely helping the cause.”
Resident David Curran rode his bike to the police station Sunday and told activists he doesn’t have a problem with their movement. But he described the torrent of profanity he’d just had to listen to as they marched past his house.
Jay Patterson, 35 — who is about to move to downtown Keene from Peabody, Mass. — watched the gathering from the corner of Central Square Saturday.
“I think that it’s a little inappropriate,” he said. While people have the right to freedom of expression, Patterson added, “the getting-in-the-cops’-faces stuff isn’t really that cool.”
A man, who declined to identify himself but said he formerly served in the military, also took issue with the American flag that’s been tagged with the words “Legalize Freedom” and what appears to be a marijuana leaf.
“They need to stop,” he said. “That flag is freedom, not marijuana.”
But many activists show no signs of letting up.
A man who has declined to identify himself — but was the one who put the 4:20 sign on the Central Square statue and was the person arrested and then released Sunday — indicated to WMUR-TV that the protest would continue “every day until they end the drug war and free all drug prisoners.”
There has been talk of pro-pot activists attending the next scheduled City Council meeting on Oct. 1. And according to Bernard, a Keene contingent will be heading to Manchester to take part in a similar protest he said is starting today.
“I don’t imagine it will be too popular when it’s really really cold out, but it’s my understanding that it’s intended to continue on a daily basis” in the Elm City, he said.
And as activists’ smoking slogan proclaims them to be lighting up “in remembrance of lost liberties,” one 18-year-old Keene resident said he’d be protesting until they’re regained.
The teenager — who said he’d been in and out of the court system on marijuana-related charges since he was 14 — declined to give his full name.
“It’s my body, it’s my choice for me,” he said of his continued cannabis use. As for whether he’ll lose steam when temperatures fall, he said, “I’ll put on my coat.”
By Anika Clark