A prominent pro-pot activist is crying foul this month as Boston police pursue distribution charges against him.
Police have sought charges against Bill Downing of the anti-prohibition group MassCann, who has built a reputation for antagonizing and subverting state and law enforcement officials. The department alleges he sold illegal drugs to customers out of an Allston storefront.
But Downing and his legal team claim the products he sold at his shop, CBD Please, were legal herbal remedies – not marijuana, but hemp-derived oils, creams and hygiene products which don’t contain THC and which consumers can’t use to get high. And, he said in an interview, he accuses police of unfairly targeting him.
“They just wanted to nail me,” Downing told Metro last week. “I’m a leader of the activist movement in Massachusetts. How do you kill a dog? You cut off its head.”
A police spokesman declined to comment because Downing’s case is ongoing.
CBD is shorthand for “cannabidiol,” a cannabis derivative which proponents believe could have medical benefits for epilepsy patients, or could be used as an anti-inflammatory or a remedy for anxiety. CBD products often come in oil form, to be absorbed under the tongue or vaporized and inhaled.
A clerk magistrate on Tuesday, Jan.19 delayed a decision on whether to issue the charges BPD seeks against Downing. The clerk, Stephen Borelli, could decide by as early as this week, said John Swomley, Downing’s longtime attorney.
Downing told Metro on Monday his lawyers had not yet filed written legal arguments the clerk requested, but planned to do so soon.
Swomley said he is confident the clerk will decline to let the charges go forward. But Swomley, who represents Downing for free, said in an interview last week that the activist’s curious case raises questions about how police deploy resources in a state where marijuana is decriminalized, medical marijuana is legal and where voters could approve full recreational legalization by the end of the year.
“Devoting scarce taxpayer dollars to go after Bill, it’s just mind-boggling to me,” he said. “This is just an enormous waste of everyone’s time.”
According to Downing, police said in court the department conducted several undercover buys at Downing’s store last year, then tested products in a lab – finding “teeny tiny” amounts of the intoxicating substance THC, he said.
Then, acting on a warrant, police raided his store and home, seizing his inventory and roughly $126,000 in cash he had stored in a safe, Downing said. He claims a SWAT team burst into his home “with submachine guns drawn and flak jackets.”
Swomley said he would consider seeking damages for emotional distress.
“They did not need to send people with machine guns into his house,” Swomley said. “It’s like taking a sledgehammer to kill a fly.”
Downing, well known to police and regulators, has earned a reputation in Massachusetts for publicly testing the limits of state drug laws.
For more than two decades, he has organized the annual pro-pot Freedom Rally on Boston Common, where many openly smoke marijuana.
Frustrated with the pace of implementing the state’s 2012 medical marijuana law, he opened his own pseudo-dispensary called Yankee Care Givers and sold drugs to hundreds of marijuana patients – he claims he stopped after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from health officials in 2014.
When he opened CBD Please, he flaunted the move in media interviews and quickly attracted attention from regulators.
“They can throw me in jail,” Downing told CBS Boston in December, 2014. “I know I’m doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Indeed, police detective Kenneth Conley told the clerk the investigation into Downing’s business began after higher-ups read about it in the Boston Globe, according to a Globe story from a reporter who was there for the hearing last Tuesday.
Boston defense lawyers Metro interviewed said it’s been common over the years for shops and entrepreneurs at the fringes of anti-pot laws to tangle with law enforcement and community members opposed to them. Downing’s case seems to be another example of that, they said.
“I’ve handled a lot of these cases before. What happens generally is that sometimes they’re politically motivated,” said Steve Novick, an attorney with Novick and Associates and criminology professor at Bunker Hill Community College. “Somebody doesn’t want that kind of a place in their neighborhood.”
“Obviously, the political trend is toward legalization,” said attorney David Yannetti, of a criminal defense law firm that has represented stores, store employees and business owners. “These prosecutions appear to be the last dying gasp of law enforcement trying to penalize people.”