SKOWHEGAN — The air outside the Somerset County courthouse in Skowhegan was fragrant with marijuana smoke Monday for the 26th annual Patriot’s Day smoke-in on the courthouse steps, but there wasn’t a police officer in sight.

About 20 people attended the marijuana legalization rally, some of them bringing their own joints to light and share, first with Maine Vocals founder Donny Christen, who has organized the event for the past 26 years, then with others.

The atmosphere was festive with smokers — most of them card-carrying medical marijuana holders — appearing to have a good time.

Skowhegan police, under whose jurisdiction the courthouse falls, did not make an appearance at the gathering.

“I came here to support Donny because he’s my icon,” Ardis Looker, of Bradford, said, as he smoked a joint. “He gave medical brownies away in the early ’90s and was arrested for that, and he became my icon that day. It was the most important thing that’s ever happened in the state of Maine that day. He’s an icon.”

It is a crime to possess marijuana in Maine without a medical marijuana card. Penalties vary according to the amount possessed and may be increased for aggravating factors. A person who possesses more than 2.5 ounces is presumed to be in possession with the intention of selling marijuana.

Possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana is a civil violation in Maine, punishable by a fine between $350 and $600. Those with medical marijuana cards can possess under 2.5 ounces. Smoking pot in public and passing marijuana joints around on the sidewalk are not legal activities in Maine.

Did that worry Christen and his followers on Monday?

“It’s a protest,” Christen said. “Of course it’s against the law. I think (the police) would have tolerated it. As long as there wasn’t big pounds of pot sitting out here and somebody really doing something wrong or some young kid involved.”

Police Chief Don Bolduc said in an email Monday afternoon that police were aware of the rally.

“The event is being monitored,” Bolduc said. “If we feel there is a need for our presence, we will be there. If there is a complaint, we will address it.”

Christen served seven months in jail for distributing marijuana-laced brownies to medical patients at a Patriot’s Day rally in 1991. Since then, he has been charged with possession and cultivation four times, but has not been charged in recent years. In all, he said last week, he has served about two years behind bars for marijuana crimes.

Jody Brown, of Madison, got the rally off to a start following opening words by Christen by walking up to him with a rolled joint, which she lit and passed to him, who obliged her with a puff.

“I am a medical patient, and if wasn’t for Donny Christen, we wouldn’t be where we are in the medical care community today, so I wanted to come here and support him because he supported all of us for so many years,” Brown said. “We need to open our minds and look for alternate medicine.”

Maine is one of 34 states that allow some form of medical cannabis. Maine legalized medical uses in 1999, and the state’s first dispensaries opened in 2011. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., have passed state laws legalizing recreational pot.

A poll in the spring of 2015 by Critical Insights, a Portland market research firm, found that 65 percent of Mainers support legalizing marijuana. If it is legalized, 79 percent of people believe it should only be sold in licensed establishments, according to the poll.

“I’m on time — not bad for a stoner,” Christen joked on his arrival at the courthouse with a mason jar full of marijuana buds.

“If there is a medical patient here with a card who is in need of a little bit of weed, I’m going to give out some marijuana if they want — which is a legal thing to do now, different than when I got busted 25 years ago,” he said handing out marijuana buds. “This is something that should have been a done deal a long, long time ago. This is a law that never should have been. It’s wrong. There’s no science behind it. There’s no facts that back up what they have to say.”

Christen 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.

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.

Christen said he opposes the proposal because it is loaded with restrictions and regulations. A real marijuana bill, he said last week, would give Mainers the freedom to cultivate and use pot where and when they choose.

“The more that comes out on the medical issue, the better it is on the total legalization issue, which is what I’m working for,” he said to the crowd and members of the media. “I could never have imagined having to stand here 26 years later still fighting to have marijuana legalized.”

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, Christen said.

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

“It just goes to show that 26 years later, a guy’s got to come and do the same old thing for a law that’s a piece of garbage,” Christen said. “There’s no facts behind it, no real science. It’s like the witch hunts. What’d they do? They stopped burning witches. This is the same thing.

“Let’s stop burning the witches.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.