Weed Activists in the Path of Totality Have Big Plans for the Eclipse

The path of totality cuts through some of the strictest places in the country for cannabis legalization. Activists want to get their message out.

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Aug 17 2017, 2:00pm

The coast-to-coast solar celebration that is Monday's total eclipse of the Sun kicks off in one of the most 420-friendly places in the country: Oregon. With over 400 marijuana shops across the state and recreational-legal status, eclipse chasers looking to get celestially high will have plenty of options. Dispensaries in Oregon are stocking up for the expected influx of a million tourists in that state alone, with special spacey strains and sales.

Once it leaves Oregon, however, the path of totality cuts through some of the strictest places in the country for cannabis legalization, and activists are seeing it as an opportunity to get their message out. Between two and seven million people are expected to flock to viewing points along the path, in what's being called the greatest temporary mass migration of humans in US history. Many eclipse chasers will be journalists, descending with camera crews, notepads, and recorders. Advocates for weed reform aren't letting a megaphone this size slip away. It's not every day the national news shows up to your town.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr user DonkeyHotey / Composition: Samantha Cole

I talked to marijuana activists in several of the 11 other states outside of Oregon in the path of totality, to find out what they're planning around the solar eclipse. Mainly, it's an excuse to meet with the community and have some astronomy-based fun, but some are taking the opportunity to make noise about marijuana reform.

The Moon's shadow makes landfall in Oregon on Monday around 10:15 AM PDT, speeding along at more than 3,000 mph. It exits the state around 10:27 AM and begins its trek east, missing marijuana haven Colorado altogether, and continuing through the heartland before departing the US through South Carolina's coast.

Image: Wyoming Cannabis Activists

The path travels through the middle of Wyoming, where between 48,000 and 192,000 visitors are expected to gather—including Mr. Eclipse himself, retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak, who will give a keynote address in the city of Casper, where the group Wyoming Cannabis Activists has been holding a demonstration rally every other weekend nearly year-round since 2014. In Wyoming, anyone caught with up to three ounces of pot faces a misdemeanor conviction, with a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000.

Activists there view this as a recruitment opportunity. "With the eclipse coming there will be more traffic, so we thought more people from other parts of the state would see us and will want to be more involved," Marcia Stuelpnagel, Secretary of Wyoming Cannabis Activists, told me in a Facebook message. "We do have chapter leaders in a few other places in the state but not all over, and with Casper being the most publicized place for the eclipse, we thought why not."

They're also hoping for the chance to talk to visiting legislators face-to-face about cannabis reform. "Our legislators failed all of our bills that we helped with," Stuelpnagel said. "We are still continuing the good fight."

Of all the states beyond Oregon to get corona-blazed in the totality path, Nebraska might be your next best bet. Marijuana is illegal but decriminalized there—and this is expected to be the state's biggest-ever tourism event. The path crosses 468 miles of the state, and estimates suggest that as many as 466,000 visitors will clamber to get a look there.

Read More: How to Make a Pair of DIY Glasses to View the Solar Eclipse

The Legal Marijuana Now Party of Nebraska is hosting a watch party in the city of Grand Island, where they expect a couple hundred watchers, Mark Elworth Jr., the party's vice presidential candidate in 2016, told me in a Facebook message.

Image: Wyoming Cannabis Activists

"We're touring statewide collecting signatures, we've been staying very visible," Elworth said. "We have a candidate for governor [Krystal Gabel] who will be at the event. At least two media sources say they are sending news crews out. It's just a huge event and we shouldn't miss out on it. We want to be part of the action."

I asked Elworth if he is concerned about folks attending the viewing party using it as a chance to light up in public. Since marijuana is decriminalized and unregulated, "anything goes," he said. The most someone could be fined for smoking in public is $300—a price some might be willing to pay for this unique moment.

"Our message is to legalize medicine and hemp farming, but if people are so fed up and want to light up we will not stop them," Elworth added. "I have to admit even I smoke regularly in public right on the street corner while I collect signatures. It's my life and I'll enjoy it."

A spokesperson for a Georgia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had the opposite reaction to my inquiry about whether they'd use the eclipse-mania for their own message, telling me that even the scent of marijuana is enough to arouse suspicion in the state. Possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in Georgia is a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum fine of $1,000 and one year incarceration, according to NORML. More than an ounce is a felony, and could mean up to 10 years in jail.

Tennessee could see between 360,000 and 1.4 million eclipse-chasers flood communities across the state, with the totality line drawn within driving distance of four major cities: Nashville, Knoxville, Ashville, and Chattanooga. Marijuana possession of a half-ounce or less is a misdemeanor with a $250 fine for the first offense, but Tennessee is a legal hemp-growing state as of 2014

Cecily Friday Shamim, executive director at the Tennessee Cannabis Coalition, told me that while she wasn't aware of cannabis activist groups planning viewing parties, the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association (TNHIA) is sponsoring a booth at the three-day celebration Total Eclipse Music Festival in Adams. Kevin Colvert at TNHIA told me they were expecting 3,000 people at the event, and that while they're not an organization of cannabis activists but rather hemp farmers, a booth at the event just made sense for visibility.

Image: Wyoming Cannabis Activists

In Missouri, Blake Bell, executive director of St. Charles NORML, told me over email that they're planning a viewing event and expect several thousand people to attend. They'll be live-streaming the party and talking to people about cannabis, the eclipse, and whatever else comes up in the two full minutes of darkness Missouri will experience.

Some states' marijuana activists aren't planning viewing events this year, but also aren't ruling it out for the future. Wayne Borders, President and Executive Director at Columbia NORML in South Carolina, told me they're sitting this one out to focus on organizing their chapter. "Maybe next time there's a solar eclipse we'll at least be medical legal." Another solar eclipse won't cross through South Carolina—let alone carve a path across a dozen US states—in this lifetime.

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