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May 4 was more than just another Saturday night at Fitzgerald's. Roughly 500 people gathered at the gritty rock 'n' roll venue to mark Liberation Day, an international event for the decriminalization of marijuana. While bands jammed on the upstairs and downstairs stages, drug-reform advocates dutifully distributed information on medical marijuana and postcards to send to politicians and editorial boards. An occasional whiff of ganja sweetened the dark, smoky air.
"It was a liberation fest. It wasn't a crack house," says 26-year-old Taunya Poole, a volunteer for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I've seen more drugs at a rodeo or a Willie Nelson concert."
For the police, the event made an irresistible target. The posters, distributed around town by the thousands, had billed the occasion as the "Million Marijuana March" and promised "a fat sack of some of Houston's finest rock performances." A large marijuana leaf adorned the promotional art for good measure. Police spokesman Robert Hurst says that officers were well aware of the planned event.
"Officers had developed some information through undercover intelligence-gathering that there would be some people inside the club during the event that might be selling controlled substances or marijuana," he says.
The police designated no fewer than 20 officers to stop the reefer madness.
From the beginning of the evening, the crowd of mostly twentysomethings detected strangers in its midst. It wasn't so much that these individuals were older or dressed in a forced-casual style. It was their crazy desperation for drugs. Some attendees say the strangers repeatedly badgered patrons to sell them pot, coke, ecstasy -- anything, man.
Trent Moss, the bass player for the band Geek, had just left the stage and was hanging out on the balcony with friends. The 19-year-old had spent the week working construction, thinking of sweet moments like this when he could kick back with a beer after another rockin' set. An African-American man who appeared to be in his thirties approached him and asked if he had any weed. Moss brushed him off with a noncommittal "maybe later."
After that, Moss could not go anywhere without an annoying tap on the shoulder and the reminder, got that weed? Moss says the man really wanted to buy, but Moss wasn't selling. The young man finally gave him half a bowl to just go away.
"I said, 'Dude, if you want some so badly, I'll smoke this with you.' "
Throughout the bar, others had similar encounters. The undercover sniffing became an out-and-out raid sometime around 10 p.m., when several squad cars and a paddy wagon converged on the bar at Studewood and White Oak. Narcotics officers stormed through the crowd, zeroing in on selected individuals and slapping handcuffs on them. Officers patted down suspects -- women included -- without reading them their rights or telling them what they were being arrested for, says Sara Fitzgerald, who has run the Heights-area bar for about 25 years.
"Is this not an overkill?" she thought to herself. "Why are you ruining these young people's lives?"
Jennifer Johnson, 26, says she was thrown up against a wall and handcuffed to her friend John Holmes before the cop realized he had mistakenly detained her and let her go. Holmes would be charged with selling an ecstasy tablet.
As the officers worked the room, alarmed patrons urged their friends to get rid of their drugs. The police made two more sweeps of the bar that night. All told, eight people were arrested and seven charged with drug offenses, according to spokesman Hurst. The total booty coaxed from the offenders: about one gram of marijuana -- enough perhaps for a few joints -- six ecstasy tablets, two Xanax and a dozen tablets of the prescription drug Tenormin, a beta-blocker that a 15-year-old girl sold to an undercover cop.
The charges were "very damn minor for such a rampage on a peaceful setting," says Dean Becker, one of the event's organizers and vice president of the Houston chapter of NORML.
Moss got busted for the delivery of one-third of a gram of marijuana. Another quarter-gram was found in his shoe. He was packed into the paddy wagon with the others and spent the night in jail. He is charged with a class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
"He's pursuing a career in music, not trying to be a fucking drug dealer," says friend and bandmate John E. Corrigan, who believes Moss was entrapped by the pesky narc. But spokesman Hurst says undercover officers who suspect illegal activities "will do anything they can to see if it's true."
"They're good actors," he says.