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Pot shots (continued)

Lea Cox

When it comes to pot, retired teacher Lea Cox is " about as anti as you can get. " As president of the Hanover-based Concerned Citizens for Drug Prevention, Cox sees herself as a foot soldier in the war on drugs. It’s a war, she says, that is getting harder and harder to fight: " I’d be stupid if I said [the anti-prohibition lobby] haven’t made headway. These pro-drug propagandists are so good at what they do. They could teach Hitler a thing or two about propaganda. They are slick. They offer half-truths. They make good people believe their lies. "

Cox is particularly annoyed by those who argue for the medical use of marijuana. " People have to understand, marijuana is a euphoria-producing drug, " she says. " It makes people think everything is wonderful. It makes them feel great. But feeling great has nothing to do with medical benefit, nothing. They could take a shot of tequila and I’m sure they’d feel the same. To take something and call it a medicine because it makes you feel good is absolutely stupid. "

As passionate as she is about the issue, Cox insists that her anti-pot stand is founded on hard science. " I attended a symposium — very good scientists from around the world, " she explains. " We’ve known for years the damage marijuana can do. It impairs the immune system. It causes DNA damage. There are myriad things it does and kids have no idea because people like [Harvard professor and pro-pot advocate] Lester Grinspoon tell them that marijuana grows naturally and so cannot hurt you. Well, poison ivy grows naturally and that doesn’t make it beneficial. "

Grinspoon, as befits a nemesis, is happy to refute Cox’s claims. " What the government has done in putting these countless millions of dollars into studies that would demonstrate the toxicity of cannabis, " he says, " has ended up doing just the opposite. No drug has been studied quite as much — there’s no drug in the pharmacopoeia that has been studied as much — and what’s emerging is the impression that marijuana is not a dangerous drug. "

Cox remains unmoved. " Grinspoon, " she says. " He’s the worst of them. "

Her distaste for anti-prohibitionists notwithstanding, Cox is a regular at MassCann’s annual Freedom Rally. " When I go to the pot rally, I wear my pins — a marijuana leaf with a negation through it, and a no needles pin, " she says. " One time they were all shouting at me. This stuff is supposed to make you mellow, but I’ve never seen more argumentative people in my life. This one fellow steps in front of me and says, ‘She’s got more B-A-L-L-S than I have. Leave her alone. Let her speak.’  " She adds, " I don’t get as much hostility as I’d like. "

Other than her Freedom Rally run-ins, Cox prefers to steer clear of anti-prohibitionists. " Our previous president refused to debate them and she was right, " she says. " If we had held to that then they wouldn’t have the forum they have today. They wouldn’t have the credibility they have today. These are no longer tie-dye people — they’re people with credentials who look well. They’ve gained respectability that they never had before. "

So does Cox feel as though she’s losing the war? " Those people haven’t succeeded, " she says. " They’re the ones who have lost, not us, because we’re still here. Sometimes I wish I could get rid of this drug fight so I could devote all my time to my grandchildren. But I’ll fight until the end. This is important. We’re here trying to save our children and our country. You can’t have a country that thinks it can smoke pot on the weekend and function on Monday. "

Bill Downing

On September 15, anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people will take to the Boston Common for the 12th annual Freedom Rally, an event that is part celebration, part protest, and part pain in the ass — at least for Bill Downing, president of MassCann/NORML, who organizes it. " Since we started this we’ve gone from hundreds of people to tens and tens of thousands of people, " he says. " That can be very stressful. I get knots in my stomach. One year I had these knots so bad that at the end of the rally I just collapsed. "

This sort of thing happens when you find yourself going toe-to-toe with the Boston police, Beacon Hill Brahmins, and the mayor. Naturally, local pols — Thomas Menino included — do not take kindly to having thousands of potheads cavorting within feet of the State House, and every year Downing finds himself engaged in lengthy and costly battles to obtain permits for the event. " In 1998 and 1999 it got so bad that we actually had to go to court, " he says. " We won both times, got about 30 grand from the city. It didn’t nearly cover our legal expenses. "

Though getting permits has not been a problem in recent years, Downing still gets those telltale knots. " The continuing problem with the city is them sending in the police to harass rallygoers, " he says. " We found out they spend $30,000 for every rally. We hire park rangers. They do everything we need them to do — control the crowd, make sure sick people can be evacuated, keep out pirate vendors. We don’t need the Boston police. The only reason they’re there is to do illegal searches and intimidate people. They arrest about 75 people a year. Thirty thousand dollars to do that. "

Still, Downing considers the rally to be a " tremendous asset " in the fight against what he considers oppressive marijuana laws. " This year we have [Libertarian politician] Carla Howell as one of the main speakers, " he says. " She’s an excellent speaker and a strong supporter of relaxed marijuana laws. She recently announced that she’s running for governor of Massachusetts. So that’s very exciting. "

Bill Downing — eloquent, levelheaded, and smart — represents a new breed of pro-pot activist. For starters, he doesn’t like to be called pro-pot. " Our organization is not pro-marijuana, " he says. " We don’t support smoking marijuana. We’re against the idea that ordinary citizens who smoke should be branded as criminals. We’re trying to draw people into a broad coalition. I know people don’t want their money to be used locking up potheads. But they also don’t want to be a part of an organization that advocates smoking pot. So in order to avoid alienating people, we’ve got to send a clear message: stop locking people up. "

Yet there are many pro-pot — or anti-prohibition — activists who say Downing’s Freedom Rally itself is a liability for the cause, because it alienates potential allies in local and federal government. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in 1997, Janet Lapey, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Drug Prevention, painted a lurid picture of the rally: " Forty thousand young people were lured to Boston Common to hear rock music glorifying drug use and to smoke marijuana openly, " Lapey said. " There was a thick cloud of marijuana smoke over the Common, and children as young as 12 explained to reporters they were smoking marijuana because it is a healthy medicine. "

" The rally was meant to send a loud message to the State House, that we are here to reform the laws and this is how we’re going to do it — with mass demonstration, " says local activist Jim Pillsbury. " But it’s turned into more of a party than a political event. Politicians laugh at the rally. It’s turned into a kids’ fest. Parents do not want to see their kids smoking pot on the six o’clock news. And they sure don’t want to see them get busted on TV. "

Downing — who calls the Freedom Rally " my baby " — insists this kind of criticism is unfounded. " You ask me what I think about kids smoking pot on the Common, " he says, " and I’ll tell you it’s evidence that prohibition has no effect. Here we are spending $20 billion a year trying to control drugs — about a third of that goes to marijuana — and for what? " He continues, getting a little more heated: " What are you doing? What are you doing? You’re calling me and asking me questions. The rally generates interest and discussion about our cause and that’s the goal. Anyone who says it’s not a success should look at the print on this piece of paper. The only reason it’s here is because of the rally. "

Chris Wright can be reached at

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Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001