"I'm not a very popular person in the drug reform movement, because I'm encouraging people to come out here and brazenly smoke pot!"
John Pylka might be right about his relative popularity, but you wouldn't know it from the bustling crowd of hippies, drug law reformers, and other marginal characters who cheered his frank proclamation at the Annual Fourth of July Smoke-In Rally. The event was held, appropriately enough, on Independence Day, directly across 16th Street from the White House, in full view of the U.S. Park Police. Also present: thousands of clear-eyed patriotic revelers who chose to celebrate without the benefits of THC.
Pylka and his merry band were trying to show a unified front against the War on Drugs. A police spokesman said that they no longer give crowd estimates, though Pylka guessed that the crowd at the Smoke-In was 20,000. Who could say for sure? All I know is that it amounted to a pretty big haze. While the Smoke-In, a subsequent parade, and dueling concerts delivered an amusing thumb in Big Brother's eye, the day's events also highlighted the sharp divisions that keep the anti-drug-war crowd from becoming an effective political force.
Conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. sent tremors through the political world some years back when he opined that the drug war probably wreaked more havoc on society than it was worth. It undoubtedly gave the movement a wider audience and more mainstream support. But needless to say, it was not Buckley who led thousands of drug-taking protestors directly through the heart of D.C.'s annual Fourth of July celebrations.
No, leading a parade of pot smokers that went from Lafayette Park to a concert stage near the corner of Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street was a woman calling herself Medical Marijuana Barbie. In addition to her Ph.D. in pharmacology, she came armed with flaming pink hair and a shirt that read "Legalize cunnilingus and cannabis now." She invited everyone along the parade route, including uniformed police officers and wide-eyed grannies, to come along: "We're going to smoke some pot. Join us." Barbie's long line of friends chanted "We smoke pot and we like it a lot," carried signs that said things like "Free the Weed" and "At least it's not crack," and openly passed joints among themselves to prove that they practice what they preach.
The notion that conservatives and hippies might have a hard time standing shoulder to shoulder to fight the War on Drugs comes as no surprise. Buckley may have appeared on Laugh-In back in the day, but most conservatives today still hate hippies with a Spiro Agnew-level intensity. Their contempt for the drug war stems more from its failure than the idea that people should actually be free to get high on something other than single-malt whiskey.
The rift on the left-wing end of the anti-drug war movement is more surprising. Pylka founded the Fourth of July Hemp Coalition, and for almost two decades he has walked the bureaucratic minefield to garner a federal permit to use Lafayette Park. He said he has been in federal court three times to secure the right to assemble in the high-profile venue. He earned his prison stripes in 1985, the year he said he got busted with a pound of pot in front of the White House, an infraction for which he served about a month. The fortysomething Pylka even looks the part of hippie zealot, complete with long curly hair, gray shorts, a purple tie-dye shirt, black dress socks, respectable brown oxfords, and a guitar (he kicked off the rally with his rendition of "This land is your land").
Yet despite those formidable hippie credentials, Pylka said he gets no respect from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which he openly criticized at the mike in Lafayette Park. He said NORML objected to his in-your-face tactics, and preferred its members to get high behind the scenes. He complained that "NORML would not endorse this demonstration… That's a sham. It is. It's an insult." He later referred to the group's organization as "their stupid NORML chapters." A few times during the tirade, warbling voices from the crowd contributed "Down with NORML!"
Keith Stroup, NORML's executive director, said in a Thursday phone interview he likes Pylka and admires his contribution to the cause, but admitted that NORML prefers a more toned-down approach. "I would love to see the [Fourth of July event] become more mainstream. Maybe John sees that as a bad word." Stroup said he was unaware that Pylka had approached NORML for an endorsement, or that the organization had turned him down. He pointed out, correctly, that NORML had a table set up beside the stage at the end of the parade. Still, Stroup said he was concerned that America's un-stoned millions, unaccustomed to such open displays of indulgence, might come away from the demonstration even more committed to the mistaken notion that the average pot smoker is "the long-haired hippie in the park."
"I would say that when you share the Mall with middle-class Americans, our goal is not to diminish their experience in visiting Washington. I don't want to somehow frighten them. I want to extend a friendly hand."
In the end, the Medical Marijuana Barbies of the world are going to have to agree on some common ground with the Keith Stroups and William F. Buckleys of the world if they are ever going to negotiate an end to the War on Drugs. That might be tough, given the different personalities, predispositions, and belief systems involved.
But there is hope. I noticed that Barbie's open invitation to smoke a little pot drew far more chuckles than angry retorts from the wholesome Americans who heard it along the parade route. I should also point out that the crowd was quite a bit larger at the end of the march than it was in the beginning. More than a few grannies, it seems, may have taken her up on the offer.