WAHOO, Neb. — Back in the '60s, Dana Beal was one of the original Yippies — the radical, counterculture group known for disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention and advocating legalization of drugs and a nation powered by people and not profit.
Years later, Beal organized marches calling for the legalization of marijuana and helped open a New York City clinic that dispenses pot to AIDS patients for medicinal purposes.
He's also the poster boy for the legalization of ibogaine, a plant extract that he contends can inexpensively and quickly cure addiction to heroin and methamphetamine.
But these days, the New York man says he's fighting for his life.
Beal, 65 and only nine months' removed from a serious heart attack, sits in a small-town Nebraska jail in an orange jumpsuit. He faces up to five years in prison after being arrested in 2009 near Ashland, riding in a van holding 150 pounds of baled marijuana.
Five years, he said, would amount to a death sentence because of his heart disease and would halt his work with ibogaine, a substance he says has saved countless lives.
So he has enlisted a novel legal argument: that he had a good excuse for breaking the law.
His attorney, Glenn Shapiro, is asking a judge to allow supporters to testify that Beal was choosing the lesser of two evils. It was either allow AIDS sufferers and others to go without the appetite-increasing benefits of marijuana, or break the law by hauling a load of pot across the country.
“I'm not a run-of-the-mill drug runner. I'm a medical advocate,” Beal said, in an interview Monday at the Saunders County Corrections Center. “I had to do it. It was either this, or patients would have been left with moldy marijuana.”
Saunders County District Judge Mary Gilbride took the matter under advisement after a brief court hearing Monday.
But Deputy Saunders County Attorney C. Jo Petersen called the argument “ludicrous” and “plain and simple, irrelevant.”
Petersen told the judge it doesn't matter why someone is hauling marijuana or that its purported destination is not the streets of Nebraska but a clinic in the Big Apple.
What matters, she said, is that possession of marijuana is illegal here. Petersen said Beal's attorney is misreading a Nebraska statute that allows a “choice of evils” defense. That statute, she said, applies only to cases involving the use of force, not to marijuana trafficking.
Beal's life has been as colorful as a tie-dyed T-shirt.
The Ohio native, who sits on the board of the Yippie Museum in New York, has marched with the likes of Abbie Hoffman, been defended by famed lawyer William Kunstler and founded the “Yipster Times,” which chronicled the highly theatrical and loosely organized Yippie movement. When he was busted in 1967 for possession of drugs, 3,000 people marched in protest in New York City.
Beal was on the run in Canada when the Democratic Convention in Chicago turned bloody in '68, but he later returned to organize pro-marijuana “smoke-ins.”
In recent years, Beal has crisscrossed the country to obtain medical marijuana.
In 2008, he was arrested in Illinois after police found two duffel bags containing $150,000 under a parked van in which he had been riding with three others.
Beal was eventually found guilty of misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He said the money was destined to help pay for a new medical clinic in New York, though he admitted that it was raised through sales of medical marijuana.
A couple of months after resolving the Illinois charge, Beal and two others were arrested in Saunders County after being stopped on U.S. Highway 6.
Things got worse for Beal in January 2011, when a van he was riding in with an Omaha man, Lance Ramer, was pulled over near Barneveld, Wis., holding nearly 170 pounds of marijuana.
Both times, Beal said Monday, he was hauling pot because a medical marijuana buying club he services in New York had almost run out. The club is organized by a group he founded called “Cures Not Wars.”
A longtime friend, Dennis Brennan, said Beal began handing out marijuana free to AIDs patients in the early '80s in New York and has prided himself on obtaining low-cost, high-grade cannabis for people who couldn't afford it otherwise.
Brennan, who suffers from hepatitis C, said marijuana helps him and those with AIDS recover their appetite.
“Dana's been an amazing man,” he said. “He's trying to save this world through herbal medication. He's not a man about profit.”
A representative of the Marijuana Project, a national group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana, said Beal is known for his risky rides for pot.
“It's really unfortunate that he's facing long-term prison time just because he's trying to help sick people in his own jurisdiction,” said the representative, Morgan Fox.
Beal said he has been involved in obtaining marijuana for medical purposes since the early '90s.
“I've lost my edge, and I'm too sick,” he said. “I wouldn't have got caught when I was 40.”
Beal hopes the Saunders County judge will consider his bad health as a mitigating factor. His heart stopped during his heart attack last September, as he was about to begin his Wisconsin prison term. He had a heart stent installed in February after a second, milder heart attack.
Taxpayers won't want to pay for more hospital bills, he said.
He offered to help Nebraska addicts get ibogaine treatments if he is sentenced to a few months of prison, concurrent with the remainder of his sentence in Wisconsin, which could extend into next April.
Both his attorney and the prosecutor said they've never seen a marijuana case in Nebraska in which the defense seeks to convince a jury that the trafficker had a good reason to break the law.
If the judge allows the lesser-evil testimony, the case would provide a platform for testimony about the virtues of marijuana as a medicine. That remains a controversial subject, even though 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for medical purposes. (Nebraska and Iowa are not among the states.)
As he sat on a plastic chair in a jail interview room, Beal said he has learned his lesson. He's too old and sick to haul marijuana again, he said, and wants to spend his waning years proving that ibogaine is an effective treatment for addiction, not wasting away in prison.
“What kind of a drug runner comes up with a cure for drug addiction?” Beal asked.
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