Fear and Loathing in Babylon

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Philadelphia NORML chapter’s marijuana advocacy fundraiser at Underground Arts last night. Photo: Dustin Slaughter

Giant plastic pot leaves adorn the stage, which is draped in Christmas lights that barely penetrate the dim and cavernous auditorium deep in the bowels of Underground Arts in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia NORML chapter’s fundraiser for marijuana advocacy is about to begin.

N.A. Poe and Steve Miller Miller, two local comedians, kick off the fundraiser by calling out someone from the crowd as – you guessed it – an undercover cop. The sketch continues as this “cop” is brought onto the stage and interrogated. Eventually an eavesdropping device is discovered. To wrap up the opener, Poe straps a gas mask onto the snitch’s head.

Photo: Dustin Slaughter

Photo: Dustin Slaughter

Your guess is as good as mine.

Philadelphia NORML’s event contains some predictable elements one expects at a stoner fundraiser: reggae sets which never seem to end. A bong raffle during intermission. A tinge of paranoia amongst assembled enthusiasts. And a guaranteed contact high for squares like Yours Truly. I even got called out as a cop behind my back by one attendee.

I’ll leave the peacoat at home next time.

The paranoia-laced evening is mainly driven, though, by the sometimes funny but always self-deprecating N.A. Poe.

Poe, a comedian whose material touches on a range of bizarre and dark topics including lizard people, secret societies, crippling depression and distaste for breeding, is also the creator and host of The Panic Hour, a podcast he launched around the time Occupy Philadelphia found its home at Dilworth Plaza in October of 2011.

The show didn’t exclusively piggy-back on that scene at City Hall, and he makes it clear to me that he wasn’t really involved in any form of activism up until that point. But while that sprawling Occupy encampment is long gone, The Panic Hour – and the willingness to dip his toes into marijuana advocacy – has grown since then.

Hell's doorman or comedian? You decide. Photo: Jesse Andreozzi

Hell’s doorman or comedian? You decide. Photo: Jesse Andreozzi

He doesn’t mince words about marijuana activism, which he sees as a toothless endeavor that “plays within the system” when it comes to fighting to legalize the leaf.

“I bring a kind of radicalism to this and want to push the envelope,” he says.

And push the envelope he does. Along with his irreverent partner in crime, Steve Miller Miller, they pulled off the first of what they hope are many “Smokedowns” on Independence Mall in January. The event, which brought out approximately 120 stoners, was the largest marijuana-focused act of civil disobedience since 1979. They anticipate February’s event will not only be bigger, but as arrest-free as the first.

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From left to right: Steve Miller Miller, N.A. Poe, and Rachael Friedman at a “Smokedown” in January. Photo: Chris Goldstein

“We want to show people that they don’t have to be afraid, and that they have a right to smoke.”

You can debate the merits and effectiveness of civil disobedience and “playing within the system” all you want, especially in an atmosphere of increased government interference  with marijuana legalization. But what isn’t debatable is a common theme that runs throughout his comedy and is even a segment in his podcast: “This is Babylon. We make our own rules.”

The Declaration will bring you coverage of this month’s Valentine’s Day “Smokedown” at Independence Mall. Gas masks are optional.

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