Reporter who quit on air to fight for pot legalization could face decades in prison
The Guardian – Sam Levin – 9/28/2016
Charlo Greene did not plan to curse on live television, but on 22 September 2014, the words came pouring out.
Then a reporter for KTVA, a station in Alaska, Greene ended her segment on marijuana by revealing that she was a proponent of legalization – and was the owner of the Alaska Cannabis Club, the subject of her news report.
“Fuck it, I quit,” she said, before abruptly walking off camera. The 26-year-old’s stunt shocked her colleagues and made her a viral sensation overnight.
Greene quickly became a full-time cannabis advocate, working to help Alaskans access pot after the state became the third in the US tolegalize recreational pot in November 2014.
But despite the voter-approved initiative, Alaskahas not helped her start a legitimate marijuana operation. On the contrary, the state launched a series of undercover operations and raids at her club, ultimately charging her with eight serious criminal offenses of “misconduct involving a controlled substance”.
If convicted, she could face 24 years behind bars.
“It’s almost dizzying when you try to make sense of it,” Greene said in an exclusive interview with the Guardian about her upcoming trial. “It could literally cost me the rest of my adult life.
The 28-year-old’s case – which she has called a “modern day lynching” – has raised a number of questions about the ongoing war on drugs and could have broader law enforcement implications as more US states move to legalize cannabis and regulate it like alcohol.
While reporters across the globe rushed to interview the activist after her comical on-air resignation, the Anchorage woman has struggled to get people to pay attention to her prosecution. Advocates say the charges against Greene, who is black, are particularly alarming given the government’s history of disproportionately targeting people of color for minor marijuana offenses with tough-on-crime policies that fueled mass incarceration.
Greene, whose legal name is Charlene Egbe, said she first became interested in marijuana in college when she discovered that it was a much healthier alternative to alcohol. After working at news stations in Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia, Greene returned to her hometown in Alaska to work for the CBS affiliate where she was assigned to cover crime and courts – and eventually marijuana.
After meeting activists in Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, Greene became passionate about its medicinal value.
“It was something I had been taking for granted – that this could literally be changing these people’s lives.”
Alaska has a complicated history of confusing and contradictory marijuana rules. The state was the first to legalize cannabis for in-home use in the 1970s and passed a formal medical law in 1998. Officials, however, never created a system for licensing medical dispensaries, meaning users had few legal options.
“No one could ever agree on what the state of the law in Alaska actually was,” said Robert MacCoun, a Stanford law professor.
But once weed became legal, Greene grew determined. She was particularly moved after meeting an older woman with a neurological disorder who was forced to buy marijuana on the streets – at one point leading her to be robbed at gunpoint.
The reporter organized a private patients’ association, which soon became more than just a hobby. Eventually, she decided to use her media job to unveil her cannabis club.
“I just spoke from my heart for the first time,” Greene recalled, noting that the infamous “fuck it” line was unplanned.
The 2014 measure – which legalized the manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana – went into effect in February 2015. The state, however, had not yet finalized its regulations for retail operations and in the interim, the Alaska Cannabis Club allowed people to purchase “memberships” – supplying marijuana when members made “donations”.
Detectives immediately targeted the operation, with six undercover purchases and two raids in a five-month period, records show.
“The fact that they were watching us for so long, I kind of felt violated,” said Jennifer Egbe, Greene’s 26-year-old sister, who helped out at the club. “I was really just heartbroken. I never assumed it would go this far.”
The raids, which brought armed officers to their property, were especially stressful for Greene, who was worried police might shoot one of her four siblings at the club.
“I saw all my siblings … with these guns that my tax dollars paid for pointed at them for what was now legal.”
Court records show that Greene was not directly involved in any of the undercover transactions, but state prosecutors solely charged her, noting that the club was registered under her name.
Greene pleaded not guilty, and a trial is expected in the coming months.
The state attorney general’s office declined to comment.
Cynthia Franklin, director of the state’s alcohol and marijuana control office, said that Greene’s club and two other businesses are facing consequences for launching before regulations were in place.
“These people got ahead and said, ‘We’re not going to wait.’”
Alaska’s weed industry is only getting off the ground now. The state has approved a total of 83 licenses – only 17 of which are for retail businesses, and they haven’t yet opened, Franklin said.
Greene doesn’t have a lot of vocal supporters in Alaska, even among pro-marijuana activists.
Tim Hinterberger, who chaired the 2014 legalization campaign, said, “The vast majority of people who are interested in growing or selling … have followed all of the timelines and have been waiting patiently.”
But even if Greene’s club was premature, critics said she should’ve been issued a fine or citation in line with the punishment for selling alcohol without a liquor license.
“This is a substance that we’ve decided can be safely consumed by adults,” said Tamar Todd, director of the office of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
While experts say it’s very unlikely Green will ultimately face decades in prison, the activist struggles not to worry about how incarceration could destroy her life.
“It casts a cloud over every laugh and every triumph and everything that I’m building and looking forward to.