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Two years after Charlo Greene’s “fuck it” was heard around the world, the reporter-turned-marijuana advocate is facing up to 54 years in prison.
Alaskan KTVA journalist Charlo Greene (born Charlene Egbe) launched her marijuana advocacy career at the age of 26 and found viral stardom in the process. After reporting on an underground cannabis club for the station, she colorfully concluded her broadcast by outing herself as its founder live on the air. “Fuck it, I quit,” she said, and then walked off screen in a clip that that has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube.
Since then, Greene has devoted her life to cannabis community-organizing and connecting local marijuana patients. As a result, she has faced a months-long investigation by the Alaska Public Offices Commission, SWAT team raids with heavily armed officers pointing guns at her family, and now, 10 felony and four misdemeanor charges that could add up to more than 50 years in prison. The state calls Greene’s advocacy “misconduct involving a controlled substance.” She calls their prosecution a “modern day lynching.”
Beyond Greene’s moment of internet stardom is the story of a beleaguered advocate. She was inspired to launch the Alaska Cannabis Club on 4/20 in 2014 after taking trips to Colorado and Washington to report on their cannabis industries. During her investigation, Greene says she got to know the ins-and-outs of the two states’ weed cultures. She hoped they might offer a glimpse into the future of marijuana in Alaska, where legal recreational use was being considered. Even more, Greene says that during her reporting she gained a real understanding of the benefits of weed for people with chronic illnesses.
“That was the first time I really gained an appreciation [by] talking to these patients and hearing them explain why they were willing to risk so much to get this plant,” she tells Complex in her first interview since news of the charges against her went public.
The former journalist says her heart broke when she met people in Alaska dealing with debilitating medical conditions who had to undertake needlessly unsafe and difficult steps to find weed in a state where medical marijuana was legal. As she collected these stories and testimonies—including one about a grandmother with chronic pain from torn muscles after years of body-building—Greene’s passions for both marijuana advocacy and journalism came together and compelled her to action.
“They were talking about the stress they were under, and I knew that I was probably the only one with the empathy and assets needed to do something to help this group of people,” Greene says. “There were more than 2,000 medical marijuana users in Alaska with nowhere to go to get access [to marijuana] unless they had a caregiver.”
They were talking about the stress they were under, and I knew that I was probably the only one with the empathy and assets needed to do something to help this group of people.
A “caregiver,” Greene explains, is someone who can legally provide marijuana to medical marijuana patients—a rare find in Alaska, since it takes a lot of time and energy to grow that many top-quality marijuana plants.
“It was an injustice,” Greene says. “I needed to make a difference.”
Greene spoke to her local chief of police about how medical marijuana laws worked, interviewed state lawmakers, and consulted attorney after attorney to determine how she could lead safe and legal community organizing for Alaskan marijuana patients. That’s how she ended up writing the membership agreement for the Alaska Cannabis Club—as a compassionate journalist and local weed community advocate with legal consultation. She then created a Facebook page for the club which she says “took off overnight.” After seeing the impact the mere online presence of her club had, Greene moved to make it a reality.
“I reached out to my siblings and I let them know that I was going to be creating this cannabis club, and [asked] could they come back to Alaska and help me out,” she says. Greene is one of seven children. “And they all said yes. They came back one by one to help me build the club.”
Laser-focused on compassionate community-building, Greene did her due diligence by studying medical marijuana laws and “models around the world where people were able to create communities where it wasn’t for profit, but for the better good of that group.” She based the Alaska Cannabis Club on organizations in Sweden and California and essentially ended up with a co-op.
“Some cultivate, some consume, and some are able to contribute enough for the people in the group that need it,” Greene explains. “Everyone has a stake in it … As a part of this group, there isn’t any remuneration or anything happening. I had a ton of lawyers look over that stuff.”
Greene focused on trying to build both her journalism career and the Alaska Cannabis Club; her goal was to make the club sustainable enough so that she could walk away from her career at KTVA.
“We were operating quietly up until ‘Fuck it,’” she says. “When I was ready, I had the club send a press release to my news station knowing the story would be assigned to me.”
The story of an underground cannabis club was assigned to Greene in late September of 2014, and she knew that reporting on it was a conflict of interest that might force her resignation. But she didn’t know that she’d say the words “Fuck it, I quit” on air, an act that would make her both a minor celebrity and, as she sees it, a target.
Greene says that at the time of “Fuck it,” legalizing recreational weed use in Alaska seemed unlikely, given that public support of the initiative “was only around 40 percent.” So after she quit, Greene launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo to debunk myths about marijuana, encourage discussion about the drug and its uses, and urge voters to say “yes” to a ballot measure that would legalize recreational use.
She and members of the cannabis club immediately started campaigning. “Anytime anyone would ask me for a selfie or anything, they would have to register to vote on the spot,” Greene says. “That was part of [our] advocacy, in addition to our outreach events.”
Anytime anyone would ask me for a selfie or anything, they would have to register to vote on the spot.
Her efforts seem to make an impact. More than half of voters supported the legislation. The measure was passed on November 4, 2014 and was set to go into effect on February 24, 2015. But the high didn’t last long.
Greene was subpoenaed by the Alaska Public Offices Commission; they were investigating her IndieGogo campaign to determine if she “violated campaign finance laws.” The APOC investigation lasted for months. “They start[ed] chipping away at the idea of me in public,” Greene says.
“They basically asked for phone calls, emails, financial records—everything for the last few years, which was absurd to me. I fought it,” she says. “That would have meant me failing all of my patients, my club members.”
Greene took her fight all the way to the state superior court, which sided with her. In February 2015, she was cleared of all allegations, charges, and wrongdoing. But despite APOC’s investigation turning up nothing, she remained a target.
“Last fall the legislature proposed an initiative called the Charlo Clause—the nickname for it,” she says. “What it did was make it illegal for anyone to participate in the industry [if they had] ever run a cannabis club before Nov. 4—which is just me. I’m the only person in history. That’s the law in the state. It’s been approved and voted for.”
On March 20, 2015, the Anchorage Police Department sent officers to raid the Alaska Cannabis Club.
“Twelve police officers in all-black SWAT gear with massive guns, rushing into the front door, unannounced,” Greene says. “At the time, it was [me], two of my younger sisters, older brother and older sister, and four patients that were all being held up by our own police. It was terrifying. My biggest concern was my brother. Black men were getting shot for nothing. My brother was in a position that if he were to flinch or say the wrong thing, his life would be over.”
Last fall the legislature proposed an initiative called the Charlo Clause—the nickname for it. What it did was make it illegal for anyone to participate in the industry [if they had] ever run a cannabis club before Nov. 4th. Which is just me. I’m the only person in history. That’s the law in the state. It’s been approved and voted for.
No charges were filed against Greene or anyone in the club as a result of the raid. But in August, the club was raided again.
“Each time, the officers acted outside the scope of the warrant,” Greene wrote in a blog post. “Conducting unlawful body searches on patients, threatening all patients and Club volunteers with arrest if they didn’t consent to taking mugshot-like photos on the scene, destroying cameras, seizing vehicles not included in the warrant and not leaving the lawfully required notice behind.”
Again, no files were charged, but Greene was incensed. She decided to challenge the state on the legality of the raids in hopes that they would stop.
“[My attorney] said that if I wanted to continue to press on it, she’d have to contact the Attorney General who would have to ask questions which might lead to official charges,” she explains. “I told her I would prefer a day in court over them coming in and terrorizing my family every couple months.”
After Greene’s lawyer contacted the Attorney General, the 28-year old was indeed charged with a set of felonies and misdemeanors that could send her to prison for decades. She initially faced up to 24 years in prison, but when Complex contacted the Alaska Attorney General's office regarding Greene’s case on Thursday, she had been charged with six additional felonies, each carrying up to a five-year sentence. In total, she’s facing up to 54 years in prison for operating her club.
I would prefer a day in court over them coming in and terrorizing my family every couple months.
Greene says she recently argued with a friend about how race and the respectability politics of her “fuck it” moment have played a part in the state’s case against her.
“My friend, who is black, told me it was a mistake, that white people hate when they see an educated, black woman take a stand for something,” she says.
In BuzzFeed’s investigation of the marijuana industry’s racial disparity, “How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom,” Amanda Chicago Lewis writes that, while there are no “official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership,” her investigation concluded that “fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people—about 1 percent.” And the few black people who do manage to launch businesses still find themselves “subject to discriminatory law enforcement.”
“It feels like I’m in this alone and it shouldn’t,” Greene says. “I’m supposed to be part of this huge community and it doesn’t feel like it.”
Greene faces trial in Alaska in January. Instead of soliciting donations from supporters to pay her legal fees, she’s staying true to her grassroots organizing background and raising funds to launch an initiative to “legalize cannabis clubs and create a boutique industry” in Alaska. Ultimately, she plans to place money raised from the initiative into a system much like Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which provides annual payouts to residents, except the money will be in support of weed, not oil.
“This could create the justice that the legalization initiative should have brought with it,” Greene explains. “No one should be going to jail for a plant, period. Not for a legal plant… If it can happen to someone as visible as I am with the resources that I have, then you know it’s happening to people everywhere. If I can use the position, I’m going to stop it.”