"You can call me a pothead," slow-talking Harry Brown tells me, roughly 15 minutes into my visit to his 80-acre farm in Starks, Maine.
So I will. Harry Brown is a 60-year-old pothead. He's also an activist, an artist, and the host of next weekend's 19th annual Harry's Hoe Down, a festival that's being reincarnated this year to reflect the event's roots.
"It's gonna be more towards what the original intentions were," he says, down by the mainstage at the bottom of the hill where most of the festival's 2000-plus attendees will gather.
"To have a social, political event that helps define who we are."
And who are you?
"Candid, vulnerable, sensitive," he responds. "With the intent to effect peaceful social change regarding America's longest, costliest, and most ill-advised war — the war against some drugs."
Brown's been fighting his own war for decades, since he was first arrested with a pound of pot in 1968 in Ossining, New York. After attending the University of Hartford Art School (and dipping his toes into activist waters during a 1970 anti-war, anti-government protest in New Haven), he came to Maine via Seabrook, New Hampshire, where he was involved in the 1977 civil-disobedience protest against construction of a nuclear power plant there. During the two-week Seabrook occupation, he met a group of activists from Farmington; shortly thereafter, he moved to the farm he lives on today.
He celebrated his 30th birthday on this hill, and last month, he celebrated his 60th in the same place (there were, he recalls fondly, several "sophisto East Coast-type women" in attendance at both parties). At this farm, with his partner Cindy Hanson, he grows and sells organic garlic, keeps a small menagerie of animals (chickens, cats, dogs), and operates what Cindy refers to as "Harry's haven for hapless, hopeless men." (His farmhouse has something of an open-door policy for friends and friends of friends.)
Does he grow anything else? You know what I mean.
He bristles. "What kind of question is that?"
An obvious one.
"I'm approved for medical marijuana use," he says with a defiant glare. "I make sure it's cultivated for my medical marijuana needs."
Such issues will be at the forefront during the three-day festival that's being coordinated by Cow Pasture Productions (CPP), a group that has no legal affiliation with the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative (MMPI), but is closely associated with it — MMPI's executive director, Jonathan Leavitt, also heads CPP, and half of the revenue collected from the Hoe Down will be funneled to support MMPI's efforts to legalize marijuana.
MMPI recently spearheaded a successful campaign to get a medical marijuana initiative on this November's state ballot. In 1998, it became legal for certain patients in Maine to possess pot, if they have a prescription. But there's no system in place to keep track of who holds such prescriptions, nor is there a legal way for said patients to procure pot, or for approved growers to cultivate it.
The Maine Medical Marijuana Act would outline such a system, providing qualified patients with confidential "registry identification cards" showing that they can possess and use certain amounts of marijuana (2.5 ounces per 15-day period); the act would also create enclosed, locked, "non-profit dispensaries" that would pay a one-time registration fee of $5000, be subject to inspection (with notice), and "not be subject to prosecution, search, seizure or penalty in any manner or denied any right or privilege, including but not limited to a civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or entity." In other words, the dispensary and its employees would have some amount of legal immunity — for legal amounts of pot only.
MMPI plans to use the three-day festival as a forum for public education about the ballot initiative.
"This is one of the reasons Harry and his family made the switch," Leavitt explains, referring to Brown's split with former festival organizer and promoter Don Christen. "They had seen our ability to actually carry out a successful signature campaign ... The previous promoter had been doing these for 18 events under the guise of changing marijuana laws, without a single piece of legislation passed and/or a successful signature drive completed."
It's clear that factions have sprung up among Maine marijuana activists. Christen, an outspoken and somewhat less-polished pot proponent, has clashed with Brown in recent years, and now runs his own set of pot-friendly festivals in Harmony (see "Stoned in Starks — For a Cause," by Deirdre Fulton, August 13, 2008).
It's not hard to imagine that Brown is speaking in part to Christen and his groupies when he complains about recent festival attendees and their "nasty music." But he quickly moves on to offer a more general message. "When you give someone a piece of your mind, make sure to save enough for yourself to get by on," he says, giving a preview of what he'll tell the crowd next weekend — that they are less effective when their rhetoric and attitudes get too strident. Too many activists indulge in "ranting and raving," which he describes as "not very good politics."