SKOWHEGAN — The dude abides.

Donny Christen, among the first in Maine to publicly advocate for the legalization of marijuana, has protested for pot for more than a quarter century through four county sheriffs, three district attorneys, three felony arrests and one summons.

He’ll be back on the steps of the Somerset County courthouse Monday — Patriot’s Day — for another in a series of marijuana smoke-ins there. The rally is set for “high noon,” as Christen puts it.

Christen’s first courthouse smoke-in was in 1991, and he’s banking on his supporters being there with him Monday, like the old-timer in “The Big Lebowski” who says: “The Dude abides … It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.”

While changes in the public perception of marijuana use have shifted toward more support in the past couple decades, the bottom line is that marijuana for recreational use still is illegal in Maine and Christen and his group, Maine Vocals, are still trying to change the law.

Few at the smoke-ins smoke. In 2013, for instance, Christen ate marijuana-laced cookies, which he’s allowed because he has a medical marijuana prescription. He also carried a mason jar full of marijuana.

Christen served seven months in jail for distributing marijuana-laced brownies to medical patients at a Patriot’s Day rally years ago. Since then, he has faced possession and cultivation charges four times, but has not been charged in recent years.

Christen, 62, said the road to change continues to be a bumpy one.

“I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t change a thing, but I thank God that he has chosen me to do what I’ve been doing,” he said. “My activism is the right thing to do, and for all the reasons that it needs to be legalized for the medicinal uses, for the agricultural uses and for the freedom issues, it’s just plain the right thing to do.”

‘IT’S HIS RIGHT’

While the planned smoke-in could be on Somerset County property, law enforcement jurisdiction will be with the Skowhegan Police Department, said Jim Ross, chief deputy at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department.

Ross said Sunday he is not convinced of the science behind legalizing marijuana, but will let the state Legislature be the guiding hand.

“It certainly is his right to do it,” Ross said of the smoke-in. “I know he’s always been very involved with the marijuana movement, and I haven’t heard much about him or from him lately. When the Legislature tells me what the laws are, we’ll enforce them. I’ve not seen the science to back up the claims, but it’s smarter people than me I guess that are making the laws, so I defer to them.

“I’ve always had the question of, if cigarettes are so bad, how can marijuana smoke be so good? If somebody can show me the science, then I’ll be all for it, but until then I haven’t seen it.”

Skowhegan Police Chief Don Bolduc said Sunday that his department had not been alerted to the planned smoke-in, but he will have officers on duty to make sure the rally goes smoothly.

He said it’s still against the law to smoke marijuana in public, he said.

“Even if they have medical marijuana cards, they have no right to smoke in public,” Bolduc said, adding smokers who light up could be issued a civil citation. “We’re going to have ample people, and if there are any issues we’ll deal with it. As long as they don’t block a public way or are not disorderly then they can have their rally.

“They have a right to their opinion, but I still am of the opinion that marijuana is a gateway drug, and I am not for legalizing marijuana.”

‘SET THE PEOPLE FREE’

On the first Patriot’s Day smoke-in on the courthouse steps in 1991, Christen, along with glaucoma patient Carol Hurley, arrived with marijuana joints already rolled and ready to be lit.

“We smoked on the stairs and the police confiscated the joints and cited us for a civil infraction,” he said. “But we paid $300 for a civil trial by a jury of our peers and waited for a year. Then the courts called us and said they lost the joints and were dismissing the case.”

Christen, a former plumbing and code inspector in the Madison area, said his position all along has been that prohibition is wrong and needs to be ended “to set the people free — period.”

He said pot continues to be illegal because, despite more acceptance of the substance by a growing number of consumers, corporate and government officials still want the hemp industry and all the products that come from it to not compete with existing production.

He does not, however, support the petition for legalization — The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol — which got new life this month with a judge’s ruling and revived the campaign to get a marijuana legalization referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“It’s 30, 40, 50 pages of regulations, which are not going to end prohibition, but just put more stipulations on and you could still go to jail for weed, which is not what we want,” Christen said. “If the law was wrong in the first place, then they need to revisit the reasons why they need all these restrictions and regulations.”

The legalization bill would allow adults to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and to cultivate a limited number of plants. Retail stores and social clubs would be allowed with municipal approval. Adults would be prohibited from using marijuana in public with violations punishable by a $100 fine. The bill also would place a sales tax of 10 percent on retail marijuana and marijuana products.

“Of course people want to legalize, but the people will vote for a good bill as well as a bad bill,” he said. “The thing is we haven’t been asked what we really want.”

NOT ANOTHER STONER

Christen, who said he has spent about two years in total behind bars for his various pot arrests, including marijuana cultivation, acknowledged that along the way people have looked at him not as a credible leader, but as just another stoner.

“Of course they did, at first,” he said of the stoner tag. “But after 26 years I think people have figured out that maybe I wasn’t so off key that they thought in the first place. Even a lot of the law enforcement see it that way.

“What’s happened is that the education that has been brought forth over the years has changed a lot of people’s minds. They’re realizing that what we were saying in the very beginning has turned out to be the truth. I did what I believed in and thought was right.”

Christen, who moved from Madison to Starks in the past few years, has been on the courthouse steps every year on Patriot’s Day since his first protest there — sometimes all by himself.

This year he printed up posters and advertised the event. He said now that he has a medical marijuana card he is allowed to possess marijuana, but he believes that not all people who qualify for a medical card can just go to their own doctor and sign up.

That’s one of the restrictions he said he wants to ease.

Christen, a grandfather of four, said everyone is invited to join the group Monday. It could run up against general smoking restrictions on Somerset County property, but he is ready.

“I’ve been here all along, sometimes all by myself, but I’ve been here,” he said. “I was the first to become vocal, as far as really getting out there and saying we want to legalize weed. Yeah, I was the first one.”

Maine Vocals was founded in 1990 with a few dozen people. The group grew to include hundreds of members so that by the first Hempstock festival at Harry Brown’s farm in Starks in 1994 there were 12,000-15,000 people in attendance, he said.

He said he and Brown later parted ways and now have separate music and hemp festivals — Brown’s in Starks and Christen’s seven different festivals on Carson Hill in Harmony.

So has Christen made a difference in the past quarter century as Maine’s most vocal advocate for public legalization of marijuana?

Well, yes and no, he said.

“I’m sincere — it’s real simple,” he said. “I feel bad that it hasn’t progressed more than what it has. It’s been way long enough that this should have been a done deal by now.

“If people are willing to vote for the legalization of marijuana, why hasn’t a bill been brought forth with what the people really want instead of a whole bunch of regulations that we just can’t abide by and prohibition is just going to continue?”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow