Rich Paul has become a martyr for the legal marijuana movement, risking a life in prison rather than accept that something he loves should be a crime.
As Harry Cheadle of Vice reported earlier this year, the New Hampshire libertarian was arrested last May on four charges of selling marijuana and one of selling LSD. Paul refused to bargain with the FBI or accept a plea bargain — even when offered a deal with no jail time — and when his trial came Paul tried in vain to convince the jury not to convict him.
At his sentencing on Friday, Paul faces a maximum of 100 years in prison, even if he is likely to get far less.
While his story has been held up as a paragon of ludicrous drug laws, the 40-year-old claims that he’s really being targeted because of his membership in a libertarian political group.
It may sounds crazy, but when you hear some of the strange elements of his arrest — and the recent scandal over the IRS targeting Tea Party groups — you have to wonder if he has a point.
Paul was arrested in Keene County after being recorded selling around a pound of marijuana and a substance he had described as “acid” to an FBI informant on a number of occasions.
Paul claims that rather than be booked for his crimes, he was taken into a room at the police station with an FBI officer named Phillip Christiana. The officer allegedly told him the charges would go away if he wore a wire to meetings of the Keene Activist centre (KAC), a libertarian club of which he was a member. Paul also claims that he was asked to entrap other members of the group in drug deals or even acts of violence — despite the group being explicitly non-violent and engaging only in civil disobedience.
An FBI spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider that an officer did discuss cooperation with Paul, but he refused to comment on investigations into the Keene Activist centre.
In a phone call to the New Hampshire jail where Paul is now housed, we asked why a non-violent group would be targeted so aggressively. “The same reason that the IRS wants to revoke the tax free status of libertarian groups,” he responded. “We are critics of the federal government in general, and the Obama administration in particular, and the Obama administration does not like critics.”
Paul says he knows of three other activists approached by the FBI. “This was really never a drug case,” he told the FBI. “This was a political case.”
Paul refused to accept the plan, and was released without charge —an experience he says was so bizarre that he thought to himself “my God, this guy is going to shoot me in the back” as he walked out the station. A few months later he was indicted on four charges of selling marijuana and one of selling LSD. The FBI agent had told him in May that he could face 81 years in jail if he didn’t go along with the plan, Paul says. He would later learn that the sentence could actually be up to 100 years. To put that number in context, Robert Platshorn, accused of smuggling 500 tons in the late 1970s as part of the notorious Black Tuna gang, was sentenced to only got 64 years.
After his indictment, Paul decided to fight the law rather than accept a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.
“What happened to me is wrong, and the way our system is set up, the only way to get it out in the public is to get it out to trail,” Paul told Business Insider. “Effectively I have to bet my life that someone will say ‘this isn’t right’.”
The activist calls his trial a “travesty.” He used a public defender named Kim Kassick, who he says advised him not to testify in his own defence, a decision he now regrets, and that same public defender apparently did not call the other activists approached by the FBI as witnesses. Paul has always fully admitted selling the weed (though he does say that the hallucinogenic he was selling was actually a legal high), and his defence rested on the practice of “jury nullification,” a legal concept which allows a jury to acquit people who have broken the law if they think that the law itself is wrong.
Jury nullification worked last year in New Hampshire, when a Rastafarian named Doug Darrell had marijuana had felony drug cultivation charges for growing marijuana plants behind his house nullified by a jury who decided he was just trying to follow his religion.
The plan didn’t work for Paul, however, who was found guilty on all counts.
Paul plans to appeal his conviction using a private attorney paid for by donations from supporters. He hopes that the ambiguity over the jury nullification will help him. In a relatively new quirk of New Hampshire law, defence lawyers are allowed to explain to the jury that they have the option of jury nullification. In this instance, however, Judge John C. Kissinger didn’t allow adequate explain of jury nullification, presumably finding the Kassick’s arguments “too strenuous” and overruling them (Cheadle explains the logistics of this law well in a follow up post at Vice).
The nature of the FBI involvement in the case also seems unusual — Paul’s lawyer told Business Insider she had never seen such a level of involvement for a minor case, and she too suspected something bigger was at work.
Even now, who started the investigation targeting Paul remains unclear. At Paul’s trial, FBI agent Christiana said that he was brought onto the investigation targeting Paul at the request of the attorney general’s drug task force, due to surveillance equipment he had at his disposal. At a later point, however, members of the drug task force contradicted this assertion. Christiana told the court that he had asked Paul to cooperate, but could not answer anymore questions on the subject.
After we spoke on the phone, Rich forwarded an email to Business Insider that helped explain his rationale, detailing why Rich (a former alcoholic) had turned to marijuana after a tragic period in his life:
“After my late girlfriend, Julie, died of cancer in 2002, I slipped into a deep depression. It worsened when the startup company I had spent 5 years building failed. By 2008, it had ended my career. I was no longer able to focus on my work; for a computer programmer like me, being unable to focus meant being unable to work. I also lost my ability to socialize. I had not dated since Julie’s death, and having moved, failed to make new friends. I wanted to die, but could not commit suicide, knowing how it would hurt my family.
In 2009, things changed. After moving to New Hampshire, I found an anti-depressant which works for me. The pain and loneliness which had been my constant companions since Julie’s death began to abate. I slowly, and with much effort, became a social being again.
In 2011, after a couple of abortive attempts at relationships, I fell in love with my current girlfriend, Wendy. We love each other deeply. I believe that Julie would be happy for us. I have also made new friends, who love me. Thanks to my miracle drug, life is good . . . or at least it was good.
Unfortunately for me, however, my miracle medicine was marijuana. In order to provide myself with my medication, I helped others to obtain it. I am now in jail, awaiting sentencing on four counts of sale of marijuana.
As I sit in jail, deprived of the medicine I need, I can feel my desire to live slipping away, displaced by the old rage and despair. I have some hope that I will be released to seek refuge in a state, like Michigan or Colorado, which tolerates people like me, but with my depression untreated I expect the worst. All I want is to fulfil our state motto: ‘live free or die.’
What I ask from you is to take up the fight for tolerance of people like me. My use of marijuana neither picks your pocket nor breaks you leg, and neither does selling it to adults who seek it out. I should not be looking at hard time without ever having violated the golden rule.”