He Fought for Decades to Make Marijuana Legal. Now What?

Dana Beal stood in Union Square Park explaining the provenance of the pot being given away to a crowd of expectant people who were gathering near a bronze statue of George Washington astride a horse.

He acknowledged that it might not be of the “green, fresh, aromatic, piney, incredibly potent” variety that is most popular. But it nonetheless possessed properties that would deliver a respectable high.

On top of that, Mr. Beal’s shrug seemed to say, it was free. He squinted into the sunlight, his white hair and generous mustache making him resemble a contemporary version of Mark Twain about to dispense a pithy insight.

“It’s just expired from the standpoint that nobody will buy it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Over the next several hours, on April 20, volunteers organized by Mr. Beal, members of the group Act Up and others handed out more than a thousand joints to people who could show that they were at least 21 and had received a Covid vaccine. A similar distribution is planned for May 1 to coincide with an annual May Day marijuana march held in Manhattan.

People who could prove they had been vaccinated could claim free marijuana cigarettes at the event.Credit…Julia Gillard for The New York Times

The giveaways are lawful under a New York State law enacted on March 30 that says people 21 and older can smoke marijuana anywhere tobacco smoking is allowed and may possess up to three ounces for recreational use.

Judging from attendance on April 20 — an unofficial pot smoker’s holiday with hazy roots in a tale about Californians who used to smoke at 4:20 each afternoon — the new rules would appear to be popular. A line that wrapped around Union Square included people in jackets and ties, running gear and shirts emblazoned with images of marijuana leaves. One man rolled up a sleeve to show a tattoo of a seven-pointed leaf on his forearm along with the word “stoners.” Some people who received joints casually lighted them up almost immediately, an act that has been illegal for most of Mr. Beal’s 74 years.

His decades demanding pot legalization have included battles with the authorities, arrests, stints in jail and the loss of a home. Now that public policy is beginning to catch up with positions he has long espoused, Mr. Beal is facing a set of new challenges. To start, what does he do next?

A longtime leader of the Youth International Party, more commonly known as the Yippies, Mr. Beal is a familiar figure within drug policy circles. He has spent years championing the use of Ibogaine, a derivative of an African shrub that is banned in the United States, to interrupt addiction to opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines.

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But his most far-reaching legacy may be the hundreds of smoke-ins, marijuana marches, pot parades and similar events that he has organized in New York City and beyond since 1967.

Brandon Cuicchi of Act Up, an activist group that was started in the 1980s to address the AIDS crisis, said the organization had several reasons for taking part in the joint giveaways. Many people with AIDS or H.I.V., for instance, have turned to medical marijuana to ease the effects of antiretroviral medications, he said.Then there was the chance to work with Mr. Beal.

“Dana is the godfather of the modern pot legalization movement,” Mr. Cuicchi said. “His dedication has been unparalleled.”

Mr. Beal says it has also had a cost.

He has been arrested numerous times on marijuana-related charges. In 2008 the police in Mattoon, Ill., confiscated more than $150,000 in cash that he had been traveling with. Mr. Beal’s lawyer said the authorities had told him the money “smelled like marijuana.” (Friends said Mr. Beal had told them he was transporting the money to finance an Ibogaine clinic.)

While Mr. Beal may be widely acknowledged as a force within the pot legalization movement, he acknowledges sparring over the years with other marijuana advocates, including some at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), who Mr. Beal said believed the events he organized were too rambunctious.

Mr. Beal, pushing the wheelchair at left, in 1997 at City Hall in New York with other advocates for legalizing medical marijuana.Credit…Rosario Esposito/Associated Press

“For 50 years a lot of people were uptight about smoke-ins, so they were uptight about me,” he said, wearing a tweed jacket and scuffed black cowboy boots as he surveyed the crowd in Union Square. “When does it end?”

Steve Bloom, an organizer of this year’s marijuana march and the publisher of the website CelebStoner, said those differences had been largely stylistic.

“The Yippies are pranksters and street artists and guerrilla theater people,” he said. “NORML was a little more buttoned down and into lobbying and convincing Congress to change the laws.”

Mr. Beal got to know members of the Yippies in the 1960s before they adopted that name. He was living in the East Village then, part of an influx of younger people from across the country whose utopian ideas and unconventional behavior frequently rankled existing residents and the local authorities.

On Memorial Day in 1967, police officers beat and arrested hippies in Tompkins Square Park who had ignored orders to stop playing bongos and chanting. Two days later a group of what witnesses cited by The New York Times described as “at least 20 Spanish-speaking young men” tried to tear the clothes off a 29-year-old woman who they believed was a hippie.

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Mr. Beal’s response was to organize his first smoke-in, holding it in Tompkins Square and aiming to unite hippies and Puerto Rican youths.

“We realized there was something these people who were fighting had in common,” Mr. Beal said recently, adding: “Weed.”

Another smoke-in that Mr. Beal helped organize, in 1970, was meant to counter a Fourth of July event in Washington called Honor America Day, which had been arranged by supporters of the war in Vietnam.

A report describing the event in The Times described fights between “long-hairs” and “crew-cuts.” The police deployed clouds of tear gas.

“They were confronted by thousands of hippies blowing smoke,” Mr. Beal said of those who attended the official event on the grounds of the Washington Monument. “It was really a pie in the face for Richard Nixon.”

The following year, Abbie Hoffman described Mr. Beal, who had written articles calling for militancy but criticizing elitism and lack of humanity in more violent groups, as “a unique blend of a street person and a theoretician.”

Most of the marches and smoke-ins Mr. Beal has been involved with since then have been relatively tranquil, but tensions have occasionally flared.

In 1998 the City of New York blocked pot advocates from gathering in Washington Square Park for what had become an annual smoke-in by issuing a permit for an event there called Family Day that included mimes, jugglers and corporate sponsorship from Rolling Stone magazine.

Mr. Beal pronounced the turn of events Orwellian. “It’s ‘1984’ in 1998,” he said at the time, lamenting “the passing of the Village as we once knew it.”

He was certainly prescient on that point. By the turn of the millennium, the three-story brick building at 9 Bleecker Street that the Yippies had rented since 1973, using it as their home base and staging ground for protests, was a valuable property in a gentrifying New York.

Mr. Beal with a New York Stock Exchange security guard at a Wall Street protest by Yippies in 2001.Credit…Richard Perry/The New York Times

The building’s owner wanted to sell 9 Bleecker to a developer, Mr. Beal said, but he and another resident fought back, arguing that they should be given the chance to buy it.

They prevailed in 2004, purchasing the building for $1.2 million with the plan of bringing in revenue through a cafe and a museum. But according to court papers, the new owners, Yippie Holdings and a nonprofit called the National Aids Brigade, failed to make mortgage payments on time. Foreclosure proceedings followed, and a judge ordered residents to vacate the building in 2014.

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When the deadline to move out arrived, however, Mr. Beal was in prison. He had been arrested in Nebraska in 2009 and in Wisconsin in 2011, both times while traveling with more than 100 pounds of marijuana.

Mr. Beal said during a court hearing in Wisconsin that he was transporting medical marijuana from California to Michigan, New York City and Washington, D.C.

A judge in Wisconsin sentenced him to more than two years in state prison. But a few days later Mr. Beal had a heart attack while in a county jail awaiting transfer. His heart stopped for about three minutes. He spent the next six days in a medically induced coma.

“I was dead, man,” he said. “I’m in the second reel of a movie that wasn’t supposed to have a second reel.”

Since leaving prison in 2014, Mr. Beal has lived in a garret above a Midtown synagogue. That arrangement is not permanent, however. Mr. Beal said that he had been ordered to leave and remains only because of pandemic measures that have delayed evictions.

Mr. Beal is living above a Midtown synagogue, a temporary, but comfortable, arrangement.Credit…Julia Gillard for The New York Times

He has recently felt pressure to provide for his future, observing that there is no pension plan for political activists. Still, Mr. Beal was in an expansive mood during a recent visit to his quarters, musing on the trajectory of his career and his plans from here on out.

He paged through a thick book titled “Molecular Neuropharmacology” which he had read in prison. He unfurled a poster from the 1970 Washington smoke-in that showed a blue peace sign and green pot leaf superimposed on a background of horizontal red and white stripes.

Mr. Beal said he would continue campaigning for national legalization of marijuana, pointing to the new laws in New York State as a precedent. And, he said, he will lobby the New York City Council to allow medical marijuana users to grow their own supply on empty city-owned lots.

Beyond that, Mr. Beal said, he has ideas for how to attract investors to help him open a string of Ibogaine clinics overseas that can treat addiction and also help him attain a degree of stability.

“I would say we’re right on the verge of all these things happening,” he said, sitting at a desk in the corner of the garret, his cowboy boots propped on a chair. “Maybe this is my time.”

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