Pubdate: Sat, 27 Mar 2010
Source: Telegraph, The (Nashua, NH)
Copyright: 2010 Telegraph Publishing Company
Author: Joseph G. Cote


NASHUA -- Smoking a little weed is hardly the point of a series of 
protests on Library Hill that started a week ago, organizers said.

Those puffs of smoke are emblematic of larger qualms the protesters 
have with what they call government interference in their lives and 
violent tactics employed by police.

"Doing drugs is stupid. Stupid shouldn't be illegal," Eric Freeman 
said. "The ultimate point is we're peaceful people trying to prove a 
point, and (the police's) first response is violence."

Freeman was one of about 10 protesters stationed at the top of Main 
Street on Thursday carrying signs with slogans such as "No Victim, No 
Crime" and "Don't Fear the Reefer," and waving to passing motorists. 
A joint or two was passed around, but didn't attract police 
involvement -- at least not that day.

"Ultimately, it's an issue of sovereignty," protester Monica Granger 
said. "Ultimately, you always have the choice to do the right thing."

Granger and Freeman said pot smoking is like anything else: If there 
isn't a victim, there isn't a crime.  Smoke marijuana, drive drunk, 
or speed down the highway. Do whatever you want, really. None of it 
should come with penalties until or unless someone else is injured, they said.

"Ultimately, it comes down to that. Where's the victim?" Freeman 
said, citing the Zero Aggression Principal founded on the belief that 
it's never permissible to initiate violence without consent.

"Ultimately, I think that's the core of our message."

Law enforcement's attitude has so far been straightforward: Marijuana 
is illegal and smoking it will result in arrest.

Nashua Police Sgt. Denis Linehan said police have no problem with 
protests in general, as long as they're peaceful and don't involve 
illegal drugs. Otherwise, arrests will continue.

"They're trying to antagonize," Linehan said. "We have a 
responsibility to enforce the laws. We are going to enforce them."

Protesters' response to that is simple: Don't enforce bad laws, laws 
that ban acts that lack a victim.  "Common humanity" should be a 
stronger tie than a police officer oath to uphold the law, Granger said.

Nashua Police Chief Donald Conley wasn't available to comment.

A recent study by a University of Massachusetts professor challenges 
the notion that no one gets hurt if laws are lax.

Leland Ackerson, a UMass Lowell Community Health and Sustainability 
Department professor, linked states' accidental death rate to the 
number of freedoms states allow. The study found that a person is 
less likely to die in an accident if his or her state has laws 
restricting "negative freedoms" such as seat-belt and tobacco use.

In social science circles, the freedom to do things such as ride a 
motorcycle without a helmet or own a gun are called negative 
freedoms, Ackerson said.

"There are other factors, as well, other freedoms that might be more 
important," he said. "It doesn't mean good or bad. It's a different 
way of thinking about freedom."

Ackerson, who grew up in New Hampshire, said negative freedoms are 
important, but may pale in comparison to so-called positive freedoms, 
such as the freedom to live in a country that bans certain behaviors 
and to raise one's children in a safe environment.

Several of the protesters on Thursday said they've given up working 
"within the system" to change laws governing marijuana use. They said 
years of setbacks have pushed them from council rooms and legislative 
chambers to parks and intersections.

Even recent progress isn't enough to continue that route, Granger said.

Massachusetts decriminalized small amounts of the drug last year. 
California residents will vote on whether to legalize marijuana in 
November, and a bill to decriminalize it has passed the New Hampshire 
House of Representatives and will be heard by a Senate committee in April.

Gov. John Lynch has promised to veto that bill if it's passed by the Senate.

"It's too long, too little," she said.

The smoking protests run contrary to the New Hampshire Coalition for 
Common Sense Marijuana Policy, a group advocating for marijuana to be 
decriminalized here.

"It's certainly not something that we encourage," Matt Simon, the 
group's executive director, said of the protest in Nashua.

Simon said he didn't know what the protesters' goals were, "but if 
the goal was to change the law in New Hampshire, I don't think that's 
a good way to go about it."

There was no pressure from the police Thursday even though some 
protesters were smoking in plain view, but that wasn't the case earlier.

Last Saturday, a much larger group gathered to protest at the "420 
Celebration." The term "420" refers to the consumption of marijuana, 
although its origins are disputed, with theories ranging from a group 
of California teenagers who would smoke pot at 4:20 each afternoon to 
420 denoting a police scanner code for a suspected marijuana possession.

Police arrested three people, including Lewis Labitue, 17; Nicholas 
Krouse, 28, of Keene; and Catherine Bleish, the executive director of 
The Liberty Restoration Project, a national pro-liberty organization 
that was represented at last weekend's New Hampshire Liberty Forum at 
the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

On Tuesday, police arrested another man, who refused to give police 
his name, after he allegedly handed an undercover officer a joint, 
Linehan said.

The protests have continued since then with crowds of varying sizes 
and vociferousness.

On Thursday, police cruisers drove by the park several times and a 
few protesters shouted when they spotted what they believed were two 
plainclothes officers nearby, but no arrests were made.

But that didn't take the sting out of the scenes that played out 
earlier. The protesters characterize the arrests and police presence 
as acts of intimidation and violence.

"They weren't hurting anyone, but they were aggressed against," 
Freeman said. "That's the other part of our mission, to show the violence."

Online videos of the first protest, on March 20, show police 
arresting Labitue and a group of protesters chivying them.

The tension ramps up significantly when a man, presumably Krouse, 
stands in front of the cruiser Labitue is in, blocking its exit. 
After several warnings to move, police try to handcuff Krouse, who 
goes limp and clutches his hands together.

The crowd starts shouting and crowding the officers and Krouse as the 
officers struggle with him, eventually threatening to use pepper spray on him.

In the meantime, more officers arrive, including a K-9 officer, and 
start trying to move people out of the road and back into the park. 
Eventually, Bleish, who has spent several minutes screaming at 
police, is arrested.

Until the cruisers leave, the crowd, including one man with a 
bullhorn, chant and yell and plead with police to let their fellow 
protesters go free.

Following Tuesday's protest and arrest, Kelly McGuire said she had 
planned to hold the protests on Tuesdays at 4:20 p.m., but changed 
that to daily following the arrests. What she wants, she said, is to 
be ignored.

"We're going to be out there every day -- at least I am," McGuire said.

Freeman said Thursday that that victory has already been won.

"We already got the result we want," he said. "The cops showed up, 
saw us and left. We just want to be left alone." 
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