How to do a smoke-in

The article below was written in 1980 or so but has been modified and updated to represent a useful perspective on organizing a direct action event.  We in no way encourage anyone to subject themselves to arrest unless they are fully prepared to face the consequences of their own actions.   Yippie!


Why are you guys still doing Smoke-ins?
 – we are often asked, by those who feel cannabis prohibition could be better eliminated by lobbying or such.  While Smoke-ins do have substantial attrition effect on the dope laws, more important is the perceptual change of the participants.  Police power comes only from the toleration of the policed, and this power is broken by a concious collective action.  Pot is de facto legal wherever comunity standards have forced the narcs to lay off.

The folks at Smoke-in Central have condensed the following most requested pointers in hopes of hastening the day the narcs lay off completely.  When a successful smoke-in demonstrates that community can overcome, people are more ready to move on to other fronts.  The smoke-in is a training ground that provides the organizers with wide ranging contacts and experience.  One of the most valuable things you can do during the Smoke-in is to collect addresses and phone numbers of fellow freedom fighters and people who want to help with future projects.  These should be collected at the information and literature tables.

When & Where

The first real step to putting on a Smoke-in is publicity.  This is primarily achieved through the use of posters and leaflets, etc..  But before you commit yourself on paper, you must figure certain things out,  like where? and when?  If the event is sent for a Saturday, you can have a Sunday rain date publicized with little difficulty. (a rain date is an important legal tactic as well).  Start at High Noon.  You may want to arrive to the location by way of a march.  (more on that later)

Many groups prefer to key their date to the availability of a big name band or special keynote speakers.  This is fine as long as it’s not next week. All successful events have plenty of lead time.  Prepare, plan, and prepare.  Give yourself at least three weeks from the appearance of your first posters till the event.  Six to eight weeks is best.  This gives you time to reach every cannabis smoker in the state your in.

Planning the event needs to include deciding who will be your public contact, what your address and contact telephone number will be.  This needs to be done as early as possible.  You will need this info right away.  This will enable other people who want to help (and there will be plenty) to reach you.  If you are unable to use your own phone or a friend’s, or can’t find a sympathetic organization or business, get an answering service from the local phone company.  That way you can also leave meeting times and place on the recorded message.  Also you may need a post office box.  Having a telephone number on the poster also lets reporters get a hold of you or your press manager.  This also let’s unknown assistants come your way and bands can get in touch (maybe for a warm up benefit?).  Has anyone got a computer?

Legal Tactics

Find a sympathetic lawyer.  This is important not only if there are busts (and there will be), but also before the event, for dealing with the authorities and others who are reassured by the presense of lawyers.  You will need to plan for filing legal action on the municipality you will be demonstrating in if they decide to flatly deny you the right to assemble.  This is also extremely good stuff for the media (ie. news radio, newspapers, local TV newscasts).

In picking your location the first priority is your political target.  State Capitols are an obvious choice.  On a local level the county or parrish courthouse, jail, local college campus, or even a symbolic park would be effective.  You may want to use the Smoke-in to build a community defense of the park where the local heat has been harrassing people.

Your political target may not be a good place to lay back and dig on the music and smoke.  In that case start the event at the political target and then march over to the park where you can get loose.


Most places require you to apply for a permit for parades, sound systems and stages, use of the parks, etc..  And while we need no permission to do what’s right, and what is constituionally guaranteed, having permits in order does limit the authorities options.  If they are going to bust the Smoke-in, make them bust for grass, not for ‘Operating a Sound System without a Permit’.

Strategy for obtaining permits varies with the political climate in which you are working.  In a ‘liberal’ city, in college towns, and some major cities, you can get a permit for a legitimate protest against the marijuana laws.  Recent court decisions have reaffirmed this, however the term ‘Smoke-in’ reinforces the argument that participants are there to break the law and here-in lies the rub.  The laws in the last few years have gotten harsher and harsher on those arrested at these events.  Those that allegedly ‘distribute’ the marijuana (the joints) may be charged with incredibly severe offenses like ‘distibution of a controlled substance’ or ‘conspiracy to distribute’.  These freedom fighters could face draconian penalties.  Even the participants in this open civil disobedience could face jail time, loss of privileges, lose their jobs, lose their drivers license, etc..

But if you plan to proceed in applying for a permit it helps to have a representative of the local marijuana reform group or organization, or the Student Government, a sympathetic elected official, or other respectable persons or groups, 
co-sponsor the event, at least on paper.  (Organizers of recent events have modified this antagonism by labeling the events ‘Potfestivals’ or ‘Hemp Festivals’ or by linking the ‘Smoke-in’ in conjuction with one of these events)  You will still face the fact that people will light up in a self percieved right to protest.  God you’ve got to love them!

After recieving your permit application the authorities will try to set up a meeting with you.  Be cool.  Your right to assemble and demonstrate is one of our oldest and most cherished rights, even by most of the opposition.  You may get lucky a have a favorable reception to the idea.  NOT!  Bring along your lawyer, your steering committee, and representatives of other co-sponsors if possible.  Emphasize that you want to put on a legitimate peaceful demonstration, permit or not.  One of you negotiators should pose as a hard liner, subtly warning the officials not to F*#K with you.  Give a high number of expected participants.  Explain that the posters are already out in a five state area, and that there is no way to cancel now.

Smoke-ins by their very nature are confrontational and are a tool to achieve maximum exposure in public view and to embolden the volunteers.  An action like this instills confidence in most activists.  A march can achieve the same goal. 
Remember a frontal attack may not be the best tactic.  A sneak attack with a few hardened demonstrators may be just as effective.   Each demographic area and community requires unique approaches.  Be creative.

More repressive locales demand greater ingenuity.  In College Park, Md. in ’77, a member of the’Maryland Medival Mercenary Militia’ got that group a permit to hold a Maypole Ceremony on the south lawn of the campus.  The event was listed as open to the public.  The yippies meanwhile had advertised the Smoke-in for across the campus on the mall area.  By the time the police realized the Maypole Ceremony was a Smoke-in, they were too late to disperse an already assembled crowd of 400 demonstrators.

You may end up with no formal permit, but instead an informal promise to lay off.  This is obviously inferior as it may be a set up for a bust, or even leaves the way open for a clique of over zealot cops to ignore the hands-off policy, saying that they must enforce the law, because you had no permit.  Obviously, if they won’t grant the neccessary permits, proceed anyway, and hold a press conference pointing out: 
1.  The city’s refusal to grant the necessary permits constitutes a violation of your First Amendment right to peacefully assemble for redress of grievance.
2.  That you will file for a temporary restraining order in Federal Court against the city and it’s officials if necessary,
to protect your right to demonstrate.

This will guarantee you plenty of public scrutiny and press building up to the event.  Then get your lawyer busy.  They generally win these kind of cases and get paid by the defendant after you win in court (the city).  You may need some funds to initiate the TRO, but this is a good time to have a benefit while you have the publicity.

Without a Permit

An unsanctioned, outlaw event is a whole ‘nuther number.  Forget about electrified music.  Small bullhorns hidden in backpacks worked wonders  in College Park.  Don’t distribute any weed until you have massed enough people to protect yourselves.  Sometimes it is good to encourage the participants to bring only one for the “Points of Light” demo.  Choice of  site is vitally important for an outlaw event.  One of the first suburban smoke-ins was held at Paramus, N.J. (1972) in a park right near a shopping mall with a construction site in close proximity.  The potential of moving on the shopping mall, stopping along the way for bricks and such, was enough of a threat to keep the cops from trying to hard to roust us.  Don’t get caught in a fenced in area with few escape routes.

In Atlanta in 1997, the demonstrators weren’t allowed to assemble in the Olympic Park downtown, so they rented a public parking lot across the street and before anyone could do anything about it, they set up a mobile stage with a generator and began the demonstration right accross from the park.  The demo followed a march from the Martin Luther King Memorial. (NO permits at all)  After three hours, the parking lot dude offered to give us our money back if we’d leave quietly.  The objectives being achieved,  we packed up and left in fifteen minutes with our money in our pockets.

With an unsanctioned Smoke-in you may want to use someone else’s crowd for cover.  When the first Washington D. C. July 4th Smoke-in was teargassed in 1970, attendees took over the Bob Hope sponsored Honor America Day site. 
Police were unable to act as effectively against a crowd interspersed among the family types.


Your most effective media tool will be your poster.  Aside from ‘rumor’ it is the most reliable means of spreading the word.  Should your event be boycotted by the corporate media, the poster will be your main news tool.  Even with fair media coverage, a good poster will do wonders to legitamize your organization.  Although posters can be done relatively cheaply, it is not a wise place to cut your costs.  A two-color 11″x 14″ (offset) poster is good.  It is possible to use a really BOLD 81/2″x 11″ as both a poster and a leaflet.  You can reduce the poster to 25% and paste it 4-up.

You are only as powerful as you appear to be, and an ubiquitous, eye catching poster will be the building block of that power.  There are no set rules to follow in poster design, but generally try to keep it informative and graphically direct and simple.  Get the best local artist you can get to volunteer his or her skill in design.  Be sure to include somewhere on the poster the words ‘Free Pot’ or ‘ Free Herb’.  This phrase can be played up as big or little as you want but it is your most volatile political message.  This also has a double meaning such as ‘Liberate Pot’.  If your Smoke-in includes live music put this and the list of speakers on the poster.  Don’ forget the contact number.

The number of posters to be printed is best determined by individual circumstances, however it is always best to overprint than underprint.  1,000 posters is a minimum.  Surplus posters can always be sold at the Smoke-in as collector’s memorabilia, or as a large rolling paper, to recoup some of the printing costs.

Posters can be put up on almost anywhere with the right materials.  However your targets and accompanying materials should be chosen wisely.  Telelphone poles love heavy duty tacking staples with at least a 1/2″ point. 
You must be aware there will be those who want to start collecting the poster as soon as it goes up, so staple it profusely.  Then there are others who just want to tear them all down because they don’t like the event.  Or still others that just want to keep the streets clean of handbills.  Or you may run into the municpality that fines you for posting.  The trick is to fine the best poster spots and be repetitive bfore the event.

In addition to your poster, print a large number of leaflets.  The 81/2″ x 11″ format is good, though to cut corners, you may decide on half that size.  (Print two images on one page and then cut in half, duh!)   With 10,000 pieces, you can cover a state.  Find a friendy printer who will give you rerduced price for printing.  Find free printable paper.  (People will be willing to provide you reams if you look in the right places)  The leaflet can be distributed at rock concerts, thru headshops, hemp stores, resturants and food co-ops, on street corners. amd especially at high schools. (They have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to brainwash these kids over the last few years)  Finding three or four people at a school to take a hundred each, and moving to the next school, a flying team casn saturate eight schools in a day.  Like the poster, the leaflet needs a visible pot graphic. 

Other hard-to-staple surfaces like cement and glass, wheatpaste or evaporated milk provide super adhesion.  There will be some business establishments that you have selected that will object to having you poster as part of their window display and will attempt to strip them off.  For these deserving jobs, (ie; businesses who endorse Zero Tolerance for marijuana or listed as a member of an anti-drug coalitions) science has produced a material called liquid glass (sodium silicate solution, available from chemical supply stores) that actually melts the glass and enshrines the poster in it for the lifetime of the glass, or the store, whichever comes first.  (However, this is another possible misdemeanor)

Both the poster and leaflets should be distributed over as wide an area as possible, preferably statewide.  We will put you in touch with activists in your state is you give us a call or email us.

Here’s a poster check list:
[] Raindate
[] Day & Date of the Week                     [] Bands
[] Time                                                          []  Smoke-in / Free Weed

[]  Location, City, Map if needed         []  Interesting Graphics
[]  Contact phone, address                  []  Yippie!

Try and line up ads in any college, community, or entertainment and alternative music newspapers in the area.  Radio is even more helpful.  Submit public service announcements to the stations with plenty of time to have an impact.  A press conference a few days before the event may help with straight press. particularly if rightwingers are already attacking you.  Letters to the Editor attacking the deviate, Yippie, red-inspired, Smoke-in plans can spur a public outcry and free publicity.

Finding Weed ….
and Keeping it Secure

Weed is the sine qua non of any smoke-in.  You want to line up a main stash, rolled up ahead of a time.  This is because it’s best to past out lit joints, one at a time, with a lot of voluteers.  The weed lasts longer, and no attention is drawn to the distributors, who should have a couple of escorts for protection.

The New York Spring ’74 Smoke-in became a disaster when the two shopping bags of joints so laboriously rolled were ripped off from a poorly concealed courier, leaving other Yippies to explain to 10,000 angry potheads why the promised ‘FREE WEED’ was being sold at the edges of the crowd for a dollar a joint.  Don’t let this happen to you.  (only in New York!)

Have a couple low-visibility houses, not known to the police, throw rolling parties a few nights in advance.  The stash should be split up from there, so that it can never be found in one place.  Ideally, on the day of the smoke-in, 50 people – each with about an ounce in joints – should be circulating slowly through the crowd.  Make sure some weed is saved till near the end of the event.

Busts, if any, come down around the fringes of the crowd.  Urge people to pack tight, and only distribute near the center.  If being chased, always run into, not away from, the center of the crowd.  A quick trade of clothes and tie your hair back, and you’re back in action.  Be warned, the police will arrest you for ‘interference of a police officer’ or ‘resisting arrest’, so a clean get-away is a must.  Also remember that there are possibly children and babies in the crowd as well, so don’t be a cad and endanger anyone, just to get away.

Confuse the Enemy

We must at all times keep focused on our objectives.  We are here to win.  It is easy to divert the attention of the authorities if they see what they are expecting to see.  A special strategy is needed in some instances when only ‘the point’ has to be made.   Once that is done, it is best to leave the scene with as little damage done as possible.

Try holding five smoke-ins at different locations at the same time!  How about 50 marches at the same time!

Often we have used ‘symbolic’ joints, hand rolled legal herbs of various types.  You have to be careful to warn folks of what is in the blend, because some people are alergic to some legal herbs.  We place large bowls of these ‘legal joints’ in plain view of the police, on or near the information tables.  We even leave some loose for people to roll their own.  we have the papers there.  This is quite disheartening to the police who expected easy pickings among the demonstrators.  Now it is hard for them to distinguish the ‘marijuana joint‘ from the ‘symbolic joint‘ and they have lost the argument of probable cause, unless they go and officially verify that the cigarette being smoked is actually cannabis sativa.

Then again, they may just arrest without regard to legality, and a large number of arrestees will be dismissed by the judge when the crime lab report comes back. (they may also have grounds for false arrest).  It is best that you advise folks that if they have been arrested before, they will NOT be eligible for first offender treatment or just pay the usual city fine.  Second offenses can be felonies.

Stage and Music

Even in the absense of a permit – even when police are tearing up your permit – your event will have a focus, whether an unapproved bullhorn or a cluster of banners, etc., that will in effect become the stage on which you dialougue is played out to the surrounding crowd. (In Atlanta ’97 the protesters used the literature tables as the stage until the portable stage could be fired up, in Washington D.C., in front of the White House, we have to routinely use a ‘soap box’ to speak from)

Your success or failure in precisely those situations which least resemble the conventional, controllable stage show, depends on your ability to animate the crowd.  Keep your show moving.  Speakers should be brief (5-10 minutes), unless they are really sharp and the people really dig them.  The main political raps should be right after each other so that reporters can be tipped off to what time to come for good quotes.  The stage show can include theatrical riffs, such as the ‘blue ribbon’ award for the best homegrown si\nsemillia, or any other idea you dream up.  The point is to keep interest focused, keep it funny, and keep the event from drifting apart.

At the ’79 July 4th Smoke-in the Park Police, on orders of the soon-to-be Chief of Staff, Hamiltoin Jordan, changed the permit on us, and moved our stage away from the White House side of Lafayette Park, from which the Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition (CAMP) coordinators had expected to keep the attention of 6,000 hardcore tokers defying the downpour.  Instead, either spontaneously or with a little prodding from provacateurs, much of the sodden crowd bolted through the space where the stage should have been, across Pennsylvannia Avenue (which just happened, for the first time in anyone’s memory, to be devoid of cops) to cavort in the rain on the walk in front of the White House.

Harmless enough, except that as planned the Park Police used this as a pretext to tear up the permit and clear the park with clubs and horses.  The CAMPer on the microphone, overwhelmed by the senseless police violence before him, could not help recalling the lessons of Altamont:  That no show can go on when security crumbles; that stage security is only as good as crowd security – is in fact an extension of security throughout the crowd.

The fact that your crwd is the greatest instrument which, when resonating properly, forms your ultimate deterrent, means the opposition always tries to destroy that resonance by disrupting your show.  So, if all you have is a bullhorn, surround it with people you know – esdpecially behind the speaker.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to speak when you are being heckled from behind!

Even with a stage, hecklers can be a problem.  The solution is to have your regular crowd security – not stage crew – approach the heckler and divert him with animated conversation.  He may be just a drunk or a serction 8, but he could be a paid provacateur.  Even if you don’t have any formal parade marshals, affinity groups of friends could circulate – especially on the fringes where mishaps can occur.

If you are able to secure a permit, or think you can get by without one, rock and roll.  Line up any good local band who will gig.  We’ve found that five bands is about the limit for your stage manager and crew and gives you a reasonable amount of time between the bands for your speakers.  Even if you have a permit, don’t rely on the city for electricity.  A 2,000 watt generator can be rented for $35 to $50 a day.  Make sure you have enough fuel on hand.  Take a minute to TURN OFF  the generator when you refuel (or you might BLOW the event).   You can always use it as a back -up if the city tries to turn you off.  CAMP/Atlanta has been in Federal Court since 1995 (Cypress Hill show) over access to power and stage in a city park.  Consider the acoustics in picking a site.  Stages can be rented or built, on site or on a flatbed, but it’s nice to have something in place.  If it comes to it, try hammering together a pile of skids four feet high, covered with plywood.  A flatbed truck is also an excellent stage, and cheaper to rent than a conventional stage. (plus it can be moved in and out quickly)

Banners, Props, and Press

Large props can compel photo coverage in the local press.  Giant paper mache joints have hi-lighted many Smoke-ins.  But don’t let your creativity stop there.  Muslin or cotton makes fine banners to help you get your demands across. 
Lettering is neat and quick if you can block out the letters with masking tape, then paint inside.  Allow to dry, then peel up the tape.  Banners over 5′ x 12′ require extra poles, with sewn sleeves to hold against the wind.  You can also cut little flaps about every 2 feet or so for the wind to pass through.  A 1 3/4″ closet pole is the best we’ve found for those big banners.  For slogans may we suggest:   Civil Rights for POTHEADS! – STOP GOVERNMENT SPYING! – FREE THE HEADS, JAIL THE FEDS! – POLICE OUT OF POT, OUT OF OUR LIVES!  (These are old tried-and true, but you could come up with some great new slogans and chants, I’ll bet!)

One person should be appointed press officer for the event.  The job includes getting news releases to local media outlets and the wire services, and being available at the Smoke-in to make sure reporters understand what you are trying to project.  Many people complain to us that the press quoted the wrong person at their smoke-in, usually saying something idiotic.  Don’t give them the chance.  The straightest, most skeptical stringer still tends to give you credence if your the press officer he’s been dealing with all along.

Remember, the Smoke-in is a blank canvas.  Be sure your message appears in the final picture.  Your media person should be in contact with us at CAMP or CURES NOT WARS, email us or call us with reports on your event.  Contact us if you need advise or help.  We are here for the long haul.  Good Luck!

(This article was written by Vinegar Ben and is used with permission from the Youth International Information Service,
c. 1982 Blacklisted News, Secret History..from Chicago, ’68 to 1984)  With updated material and modifications. ED/

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