INTERVIEW: NA Poe, Cannabis Activist for Philadelphia City Council

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PHOTO: Rachael Friedmann

Richard Tamaccio aka Nikki Allen Poe is a cannabis reform activist and founder of The Panic Hour, a Philadelphia comedy-slash-activism group that led monthly Smokedown Prohibition events at the Liberty Bell with PhillyNORML beginning in late 2012. His arrest at a Smokedown event in May 2013, subsequent incarceration, and continuing probation has been widely covered by alternative media, and his story continues to unite a growing movement of pissed-off people in Philly and beyond in the fight for cannabis legalization and First Amendment rights. Poe is also an Occupy veteran, a stand-up comedian, and a good friend of the Ladybud crew…And as of last week, much to the surprise and delight of his friends and fans, he’s also a candidate for Philadelphia City Council. Here’s what he has to say about running for office, the stupid shit DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart says, and why dressing like a grown-up is kinda cool.

Vanessa Waltz: I have to say, though I’m thrilled you’re running for public office, I’m kind of surprised. In the past, you’ve said you’re totally anti-system and anti-voting. What’s changed?

NA Poe: I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it – I’ve personally never voted before, to be honest. I actually registered to vote for the first time last week.

I saw that there was going to be a special election in Philadelphia and I learned that a 3rd party in Philadelphia is allowed to have one person on the ballot – that candidate would be from the Libertarian party, which I have some connections with. So I sat down with the Libertarian party organization in Philadelphia and I asked them if I could have the nomination and they said sure.

I was eying a run in 2016, but I thought: 60 days, shotgun campaign, guerilla style, guerilla media, out in the streets – I figured at the very least it would be good experience for us, an evolution of my work. Trying to beat the system from the outside is just tiring, to tell you the truth.

Vanessa Waltz: Have you dealt with city council at all in your activism work?

Poe with Ladybud publisher Diane Fornbacher Photo: Terry Wall

Poe with Ladybud publisher Diane Fornbacher at Boston Freedom Rally 2013
Photo: Terry Wall

N.A. Poe: Actually, what really inspired this run more than anything was that I and a few other activists were out there working with city council on a decriminalization bill. We got Neill Franklin to come down from LEAP, we got an ACLU lawyer to come, we got 6 or 7 people who had been affected by the drug war to testify…And it passed committee unanimously in favor of decriminalization and ending mandatory custodial arrest. There was supposed to be a hearing the next week, but next thing we knew, we’re told the hearing was shelved so the politicians can work administratively to see if they can reach a solution to the problem.

So when I heard that this city council spot was open, I decided I am running, and I’m going to run on the platform of decriminalization, I’m going to run on the platform of ending the racist stop-and-frisk policy, I’m going to talk about the fact that there’s a ban on people feeding the homeless in city parks, I’m going to talk about the fact that the city’s funding an Orwellian Fusion Center that’s collecting all our data. These are all things that aren’t addressed and I think that city politics is no longer working for the people of the city.

VW: Well, you certainly have a lot of allies in Philly. You’re great at bringing people together.

NAP: I’ve always considered myself a man of the people and I want to be able to get out and represent those people. I want to be the type of person where if you come to me and you say, “hey, they’re not picking my trash up in my neighborhood,” I can find a way to figure that shit out.

I am a real citizen of this city. I’m taking the subway every day. I’m out in the streets every day. These other guys are at $500-a-plate dinners. They’re disconnected with the people of the city. Because there’s such a one-party political machine in this town, no one ever calls them on that shit.

VW: How are you connecting with people who will vote for you?

NA Poe: We’re taking some interesting measures. Young people, African-American voters – we’re going to get out to them, and let them know that “hey, I’m just a dude and I just want to be a dude that can represent you.”

Photo: Kit Friday

Photo: Kit Friday

African-Americans have been voting for democrats for so long, just because they obviously aren’t going to vote Republican. I think a lot of times, especially in this city where there’s an African-American mayor, district attorney and police chief, and the people who are affected most by the criminal justice system are African-American. Of the 4000 arrests last year in Philadelphia for marijuana, 3000 of them were African-American. The stop-and-frisk policy isn’t happening in Rittenhouse Square, it’s happening in North Philadelphia. I think a lot of times African-Americans are preyed on by the democrats, and I just want to let people know they have an alternative.

I have a great staff, we have production capability, and we also have social media, which these other guys don’t know how to use at all. They’re not used to connecting people – they’re used to using the democratic machine. Philly’s a one-party town – they usually don’t even have to worry about this kind of thing. So at the very least, we’re going to scare the shit out of them.

VW: How has the mainstream press responded to your campaign?

NAP: We started to take this campaign seriously when it started off with 3 mainstream media articles that didn’t necessarily throw us under the bus. The beat writers, and the guys who have been dealing with these scumbags for so long…they’re fed up too.

VW: So do you actually think you have a chance at winning?

NAP: Well, at the very least, they’re going to have to get through me for the next 50 days calling them on everything that’s really going on. If that leads to me winning a job, then I will take that job and represent the people of Philadelphia.

VW: If these mainstream 2-party candidates have any skeletons in their closets – or even if they don’t – they have to totally watch what they’re saying and they’ve got to pander to people, and knowing you, that’s not your style at all, right? I mean, you’re clearly not afraid to be transparent and honest, and use profanity when necessary…

Moments before Poe's Smokedown arrest Photo: James Babb

Moments before Poe’s Smokedown arrest
Photo: James Babb

NAP: It’s awesome to be able to be so transparent. I wear my arrest and all that stuff on my sleeve. I like to say my skeletons are scattered around the room – come and get me. That’s kind of fun because the other guys really go out of their way to hide information from the public. It’s sickening, the cronyism that’s involved in this kind of stuff. If we can expose that to the public? At the very least, even if I don’t get elected, maybe these people will have to be a little more transparent about their back door dealings and what they’re doing and maybe it won’t be so easy for them any more.

VW: Have you reached out to any of the current city council members, or have they reached out to you?

NAP: No, they haven’t. I don’t want to even talk to them until I have to look over at them in a purple suit and they have to look at me and oh yeah, you’re the new guy – how did you get here?

VW: So if you’re elected, do you see yourself having to play the game and have power lunches with them and that kind of thing?

NAP: If city council becomes my job, I will take that job very seriously. But what I would also do is, if I was the one person who voted against things behind closed doors, I’d say hey, this was passed and I was totally not for it, and this is what these people are doing. I would make city council a lot more transparent. I understand that people can go in and watch city council sessions if they want, but plenty is done behind closed doors and most of this stuff is just done with impunity. No one’s making them accountable.

VW: Let’s talk national politics and cannabis reform. What’s up with Michele Leonhart talking about the dangers of legalization in terms of dogs being poisoned by eating cannabis? Do you see this as the last gasps of the war on weed, that prohibitionists are grasping at whatever straws they can to quash the progress that’s happening?

NAP: Michele Leonhart is one of the most incompetent public officials who’s ever served in the federal government. She just doesn’t understand what’s going on.

The prohibitionist propaganda is definitely on its last legs, to the point that the alternative media and marijuana media can immediately dispel the myths of what they’re saying. The internet and our side of the media has become a brilliant weapon against this – there is an “awake” part of this society that is engaged with what’s really going on and doing a great job at calling out these people in the bullshit they’re trying to pull. The war on drugs is almost over – I think that at this point we just have to continue marching forward.

NA Poe Smokedown Arrest

NA Poe the day of his arrest
PHOTO: Diane Fornbacher/Ladybud Magazine

VW: So if you’re elected, is the iconic purple suit going to be your signature office attire?

NAP: I’m almost 35 now. I love wearing a baseball cap and a Radiohead t-shirt. But I kind of like the idea of getting dressed up – and every once in a while, shaving. It’s funny because people will discount things that you say when you don’t look the way that you’re “supposed to.” And as soon as you do something like shave or put on a tie, all the sudden, every word that comes out of your mouth is gold. And if it’s that fucking easy? Why not? Putting on a shirt and tie and having these people actually listen to what I have to say and not be able to call me a stoner or a bum or whatever, it’s almost kind of funny.

And I mean, let’s be honest: I look really good when I wear a tie.

Contribute to Poe’s campaign here