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A Legal Pot Pioneer Was Busted in Idaho With 56 Pounds. He Has a Plan.

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In retrospect, the Idaho shortcut might have been a bad idea.

The mission had already begun to go sideways when Dana Beal — a pioneer of New York’s marijuana legalization movement but someone who has never obtained a driver’s license — enlisted a ketamine enthusiast to chauffeur him across America.

Or perhaps the fateful moment was when Mr. Beal decided to avoid the cold by staying in the minivan conked out on the shoulder of Interstate 84. That forced the helpful state trooper to come over and get a noseful of the 56 pounds of weed that Mr. Beal was bringing back to New York.

In reality, there were any number of chances for Mr. Beal, 77, to avoid his current situation: facing felony drug trafficking charges carrying a potential 15 years in prison.

Mr. Beal has spent nearly six decades challenging pot laws and is a fixture of New York’s graying counterculture, famous for handing out joints at rallies. He has undertaken many weed-buying odysseys and has wiggled out of scores of arrests. Usually, anyway. Now, despite the broad legalization of cannabis, he has managed to get arrested in one of the strictest states in the country and finds himself in his most serious jam yet.

After his Jan. 15 arrest, he spent nearly two months in jail and a fortune in prepaid phone time to mobilize his network of activists to raise a bond payment on his $250,000 bail, which freed him on March 9. He has rejected an offer to plead guilty and serve a year, and says he will “roll the dice” at trial.

He now says he will stick around Idaho. He has a plan.

“My legal strategy now hinges on me helping to legalize marijuana in Idaho,” Mr. Beal said.

Mr. Beal has made a life out of penurious activism. He was an early member of the Youth International Party, the Yippie movement known for its Dadaesque pranks and theatrical Vietnam War protests, and he lived for years in the group’s Greenwich Village headquarters, before the place was foreclosed upon in 2014.

He led civil rights demonstrations and furnished medical marijuana for AIDS and cancer patients. He helped organize Rock Against Racism concerts and the Global Marijuana March. He put together hundreds of smoke-ins, demonstrations, marches and parades, and made cross-country smuggling runs to both finance his activism and procure pot to hand out at events where he could be found carrying a giant inflatable joint.

“Nobody has pushed for the legalization of pot in New York for so many years as Dana,” said John Penley, a friend of Mr. Beal’s and a legalization advocate.

And, in 2021, he succeeded when New York legalized marijuana, as much of the rest of the country has.

But legal weed was no panacea: The prices at medical and recreational dispensaries were too steep for Mr. Beal and his longtime circle, many of whom live on fixed incomes. Mr. Beal himself was couch surfing in Manhattan after being booted out of the attic of a Midtown synagogue where he spent the pandemic lockdown.

So Mr. Beal continued his weed runs in the name of affordable pot for all, and also to raise money for his other legalization crusade: a banned psychoactive vegetable substance called ibogaine that has long been studied as a treatment for opioid addiction, Parkinson’s disease and many other ailments.

His latest scheme was to produce ibogaine abroad and then bring it to Ukrainian soldiers suffering from battlefield trauma and brain injuries. He had just finished one such mission in December before heading out to Oregon to buy a large amount of marijuana to resell in New York to fund another one.

It may have been his career finale.

Mr. Beal’s misadventure started one day in mid-January, when his ride out of southern Oregon fell through. “The truck was stolen by some speed freaks and the driver relapsed,” Mr. Beal said in a call from jail earlier this month. “Somebody put fentanyl in his ketamine.”

So Mr. Beal said he found another man headed east, albeit with a vehicle that “wasn’t up to snuff.” Thus he and his 56 pounds of pot were entrusted to a stranger who drove a 2003 minivan with a dying transmission.

Still, he had his urgent ibogaine plan to accomplish, so Mr. Beal pushed to cut through Idaho. Sure enough, the transmission expired on the interstate and the two men and the illicit cargo glided to a stop on the shoulder just outside Twin Falls.

“I thought we were going to pull over and then call for a tow,” he said, but were instead espied by a state trooper. “In less than 10 minutes, this guy pulls up on us.”

“It was all bad timing,” he said.

With temperatures well below freezing, Mr. Beal, wearing his usual tweed jacket and cowboy boots, stayed in the vehicle — another mistake, he lamented — forcing the state trooper to come to them and wind up getting a whiff of the cargo. (Mr. Beal said he regretted not having packed an air freshener.)

Mr. Beal tried his Ukraine story on the trooper, who was not buying it.

“I told him, ‘I was bringing them the medicine they really need, and now it’s on you,’” Mr. Beal said.

Mr. Beal acknowledged that the bags in the car belonged to him, the trooper said in a sworn complaint. The driver was released with a summons.

Idaho is surrounded mostly by pot friendly states and is strict about people driving through with the stuff. The authorities are especially vigilant in “corridor counties” along Interstate 84, of which Gooding County — where Mr. Beal encountered the state police — is one.

Under state law, carrying more than 25 pounds of marijuana is a felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years; the maximum is 15 years, with a maximum fine of $50,000.

“It’s one of the worst places in the country to possess marijuana, definitely,” Michelle Agee, Mr. Beal’s court-appointed lawyer, said. “Idaho is stuck in the 1950s as far as marijuana goes. It’s definitely the wrong place, wrong time for a person to be accused of having marijuana.”

Many longtime comrades view the Idaho debacle as just another Dana Beal mishap, but he fears that his prominence might tempt prosecutors to make him an example.

Reached for comment, Idaho’s attorney general, Raúl R. Labrador, a former Republican congressman who helped found the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said that legalization in neighboring states had done nothing to deter the strict enforcement of the laws in Idaho.

“We’ve watched how those decisions to legalize drugs have ruined other states, and Idaho demands just a bit better for our citizens and communities,” he said. “If you are trying to transport marijuana across state lines through Idaho, take the long way instead. It’ll save us money on your incarceration.”

Mr. Beal is no stranger to the cell, having been arrested during countless trips to buy weed over several decades.

In Nebraska in 2009 he was arrested with more than 100 pounds of pot. In 2011, he spent two years in a Wisconsin prison, during which he had a double bypass operation after a nearly fatal heart attack and spent a week in a medically induced coma.

In 2017, he was busted with 22 pounds of illegal marijuana in Northern California after the authorities spotted him in a rental car weaving slowly across a road. He served no time then, nor after he was arrested in 2020 in Oregon, he said.

Mr. Beal was finally bailed out of the Gooding County Jail this month by the marijuana activist Adam Eidinger and Don Wirtshafter, a lawyer who founded the Cannabis Museum in Athens, Ohio.

In hopes of leniency, Mr. Beal said he was also trying to get Idaho prosecutors his medical records from his episode in Wisconsin.

Mr. Beal’s legalization efforts are a decided long shot. Idaho has steadfastly refused to legalize weed. But Mr. Beal said that, after a trip back to New York to regroup, he will maintain a presence in Idaho for the fight, and not just to bolster his own case.

“It’s a moral stand, man,” he said. “I’m not, like, the average guy passing through.”

Last week, he was crashing with a fellow activist in Boise and was visiting the State Capitol to wangle a meeting with a Democratic state legislator to pitch his vision for legislation.

Mr. Beal said he had teamed up with an old acquaintance whom he worked with organizing the annual Global Marijuana March, and had gotten in touch with organizers at Kind Idaho, a group advocating legal medical marijuana. He is already scheduled to speak at the Boise Hempfest on May 11 and hopes to pack the courtroom with activists when he appears at a court hearing shortly afterward.

“If they didn’t want to change the law in Idaho,” he said, “they shouldn’t have stopped me.”

Mr. Wirtshafter was not so sure. Mr. Beal is in tougher political terrain than he is used to navigating, he said.

“But he’s irrepressible,” he added. “He’ll make himself enough of a pain in the ass that they’ll either be more vengeful in their prosecution, or just get rid of him.”

If so, Mr. Beal said, he will resume the ibogaine mission now sidelined by his hasty decision to cut through Idaho.

“Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said. But, he explained, “I was in a rush, man. I had to get back to Ukraine.”


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