SKOWHEGAN — Longtime marijuana advocate Donald Christen said he has lit up a marijuana joint on the steps of the Somerset County courthouse every Patriots Day for the past 22 years.
Monday, he said, will be no different, except that he also is organizing a rally there at noon for a public “smoke-in” to draw attention to efforts to legalize marijuana use further.
This year, Christen, 59, of Madison, said he is tapping into what he sees as a change in public sentiment toward marijuana legalization and is promoting the protest. Posters announcing the rally are being distributed around the state, he said.
“We’re trying to start renewing our efforts,” he said of his organization, Maine Vocals, founded in 1990 to promote the legalization of marijuana. “We haven’t put forth any public notice or anything about the rallies on Patriots Day for years.”
Skowhegan police, meanwhile, maintain that while there might have been a shift in public perception about marijuana use, smoking it in public still is illegal.
“We can’t let it go,” Deputy Chief Dan Summers said. “If it’s happening right out there in the public, we’re going to have to do something; we’ll have to take some kind of action. They’ll have to be cited.”
Summers said even if people have medical marijuana cards, they cannot smoke the marijuana in public. Anyone caught smoking could be issued a civil citation, punishable by a fine, Summers said.
He said a police detail will be at the event and police might seek assistance from the sheriff’s department and state police. Summers said he remembers a similar rally in 1993 when about 100 people showed up, so he wants to be ready.
Christen said he was surprised to hear that civil citations might be issued for smoking marijuana in public.
“This would be a first,” he said. “I don’t know what their problem is. It’s Patriots Day.”
Dale Lancaster, chief deputy at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department, said deputies will be available if Skowhegan police request their presence.
Christen said since the protests began, he has been joined by a few like-minded folks who have smoked marijuana with him on the courthouse steps on Patriots Day; but some years he has done it alone.
He said the rally’s object is to draw attention to an effort to achieve the full legalization of marijuana, not just for medical purposes. He said support for the effort is growing statewide, bolstered by a younger generation, which embraces the idea.
“Originally we didn’t really know about the medicinal end of it; we didn’t know much about the hemp end of it,” he said. “We just knew we weren’t criminals just because we smoked and grew marijuana.”
Christen was jailed for seven months for distributing marijuana-laced brownies to medical patients at one of his Patriots Day rallies and since then has faced possession and cultivation charges four other times. He said no charges are pending against him.
“People were pretty naive about things back then and thought we were all crazy, but things have progressed for the good since then,” he said. “Even legislators are starting to put up legalization bills, so we weren’t quite so crazy as people thought.”
Christen advised that passing a joint to another person Monday can be considered furnishing marijuana, which is a criminal offense.
“We recommend that you have your own joint and know that if you pass them, you are subject to charges,” he said. “I think that if people just come with a very small amount, nobody will have a problem, because it’s a day of civil disobedience and patriotism.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367