Medi-pot activist takes protest to jail

Chico Cannabis Club leader challenges lack of safe access

Joel Castle is prepared to go back to jail to protest Butte County’s lack of safe access to medical marijuana.

Joel Castle is prepared to go back to jail to protest Butte County’s lack of safe access to medical marijuana.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Joel Castle winced as he described some of his experiences inside the Butte County Jail. Being placed in a pod filled with sex offenders and “baby killers” was bad. Being put on suicide watch, despite no intention of self harm, he swears, was worse—no clothing or sheets, no toilet paper, no showers (unless you ask, and then you get watched by two guards while you wash).

Castle has spent a good portion of 2010 behind bars for something he believes the police entrapped him to do. And, although he was a free man a few days ago, out on his own recognizance, as he stood outside Angie’s Poker Club smoking a joint, he talked about his plans to go back to that place he despises. All he needed, he said Tuesday afternoon (Nov. 9), was his suit, which was being altered over at Men’s Wearhouse.

Those who are unfamiliar with Castle are likely scratching their heads, wondering exactly which screw is loose. It’s a perfectly good question: Why would anyone willingly go back to jail? For Castle, though, his mission has always been to provide safe access to medical marijuana. This act is just part of that mission.

Seven years ago, Castle started the Chico Cannabis Club. If not the first medi-pot collective in the area, it was certainly the most prominent. A CN&R photo from 2008 shows Castle outside the fence surrounding his house, also the club’s home base. Emblazoned on that fence was a mural depicting a man smoking a doobie next to the words “Chico Cannabis Club.”

Back then, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey made his interpretation of Proposition 215 known—selling of marijuana, even to legitimate patients, is strictly illegal. That stance has not changed, and in January 2010, shortly after Castle moved out of his Chapmantown house with the colorful fence, he was arrested for selling marijuana.

To hear Castle tell the story, he was approached by a man—later determined to be an undercover cop—who begged Castle to help him. He needed his medicine and was willing to trade an old guitar for it. Castle viewed the man as legitimately needing help and agreed to the trade. That decision has turned his life upside down, however, and the trial isn’t set to begin until January 2011.

Police reports, however, indicate that Castle initiated the trade via Craigslist, triggering the sting. In his motel room, detectives located more than five pounds of pot, packaging materials, and a firearm.

In the months following his arrest, the 62-year-old Castle has bounced back and forth between the streets—he’s now homeless—and jail. He’s challenged the judge’s orders requiring him not to smoke pot, asking his court-appointed lawyer, Larry Willis, to invoke part of Prop. 215 that requires the judge to explain why the right to smoke is being revoked.

“Butte County refuses to recognize anybody’s Prop. 215 rights,” he said.

He was arrested twice in June for disobeying a court order—he was caught in City Plaza with a joint both times, he said. Being homeless, he contests, he had nowhere to go to smoke privately. When he asked a policewoman where he should go to smoke his medicine, she told him to “go under a bridge.” That answer was not good enough, he maintains.

The last time he was in court, Judge Clare Keithley ordered him to not smoke marijuana or hang around with people who smoke marijuana.

“I’m going to go tell her I couldn’t find anyone to talk to,” Castle joked.

By going back into jail, he said, he is protesting Butte County’s lack of safe access for medical-marijuana patients. He has plenty of friends who support him, as was evident by the numerous drive-by waves and honks during our recent interview. He worries, however, that his message might not be heard on a larger scale.

“My case has been reduced to bare bones that will not expose the issues,” he said. He’s prepared to contest Keithley’s order, calling it cruel and unusual. He’s also prepared to request a new judge, feeling he won’t get a fair trial from Keithley.

“Cannabis saved my life,” said Castle, a disabled veteran. “I was an alcoholic, and cannabis saved me from that. I don’t take pills because of my hep C. If cannabis saved my life, why can’t I let the world know?”