As many Coloradans know all too well, law enforcement agents of this country's less-enlightened states deliberately and systemically profile Colorado drivers in an attempt to bust them with legal weed. On June 13, beloved Denver comedian Jay Gillespie found himself targeted in Childress, Texas, where a routine traffic stop led to a search that uncovered a small personal supply of medical cannabis, including a vaporizer pen with a hash oil cartridge — a felony offense, according to the laws of Childress County. Gillespie was arrested and detained overnight in a cell at the Childress County sheriff's office.
"The fact that he'd face felony charges with ramifications as large as something like aggravated assault for having THC pens in his vehicle is beyond me," fumes Sexpot Comedy impresario Andy Juett, who began organizing the #FreeGillespie campaign after learning of the arrest. Starting with an indelible image from comedy poster wunderkind Geoff Tice, the campaign now includes a GoFundMe page and support from comedians and cannabis activists alike. "We hope we can mobilize people to help Jay," Juett adds, "but also shine light on a truly unjust law that only hurts our citizens and further perpetuates a morally corrupt prison industrial complex."
Broader political implications aside, the fact remains that this arrest is a major adversity for a singular comedic talent and human being. He's the former frontman of Ultra Sex Laser, a musical trio that performed comedic songs, their tuneful blend of childlike wonder and time-hardened sadness delighting and bewildering audiences that ranged from boozy open-mic crowds to children's birthday parties (under the more kid-friendly moniker Unicorn Star League). Gillespie, who now performs solo with a highly portable drum machine, is one of the most original voices on the scene, and comedians and activists alike are rallying to make sure it will continue to be heard.
Westword caught up with Gillespie after his return to Denver to discuss his arrest, the GoFundMe campaign to help with his legal expenses and, on a lighter note, the new songs he recorded with his former Ultra Sex Laser bandmates.
Westword: You do a lot of spontaneous comedy road trips, often traveling solo in decidedly unglamorous conditions. What are these trips like?
Jay Gillespie: Pretty intense. I travel on a very tight budget. I sleep in my car (which has a mattress in the back) and never get a hotel room. The trips have lasted anywhere from four to nine weeks, and I go wherever the mood strikes. Whenever I get tired, I pull over and sleep. I have spent more nights in Wal-Mart parking lots than most people would believe. I was in L.A. for four weeks, and that was the wildest. I just pulled over in my car on the side of the road where the traffic never stops going past my window, and there are all these rules and signs for parking. L.A. was hard. I spent a whole week at the Grand Canyon. For seven days, I never left the park. Because of their nature, these trips often lead me feeling that I have experienced a place in a way that I wouldn’t get from a more traditional vacation experience.
What's with all the visits to state capitol buildings?
It started with Ultra Sex Laser during a festival we did in Boise. We had time to kill in the afternoon, so we wandered over to their capitol building. We just wandered in. It was gorgeous; they offered us a tour and took our photo and were very nice and welcoming. When I began my solo adventures, I decided that visiting the capitol buildings is a good, free touristy thing to do. It's a nice mixture of history, architecture and air-conditioning. In North Dakota, I just walked up to the capitol and went inside. I don’t often take the tours or speak with anyone, so I was just going in there to wander around. I go look at the chambers, and there were these awesome giant wood pillars. I went all the way up to the top floor to look out over the city, but when I come back downstairs I realize I haven’t seen a single person the entire time I've been there. Not a security guard. No one. When I try to leave the door, I came in was locked, and I had to use a handicap door to get outside. As it turns out, it was Labor Day and the building was closed. I had broken into the North Dakota capitol building. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this.
Moving on to the conflict at hand, can you describe the initial arrest? What did you get pulled over for? What was the officer's pretense for searching you?
There was some work being done on the shoulder of the two-lane highway I was on in Childress, Texas — a town with a population of 6,000. I moved over to give the workers room. The sheriff immediately pulled out behind me, followed for a moment, and then when I changed lanes back to where I was on the road, he pulled me over for swerving too close to the people on the shoulder — which is bullshit, because I was well past them. When he approached my car, he asked for my ID and immediately had me get out of my car and sit with him in his vehicle. He ran my ID, which came back clean, said he was going to only give me a warning for the lane change, then said he could smell marijuana on me, and in Texas that was probable cause to search my car. I don’t know why I was even sitting in his vehicle in the first place! The whole thing felt like a setup to catch Colorado residents traveling through their town with small amounts of personal marijuana.
How much can you talk about the specific charges? Under what backward-ass Texas law is possession a felony?
I don’t want to talk about any specifics of my case, but in Texas the law is very vague about what constitutes a “controlled substance.” Each county can interpret that law however they want. In Childress County, marijuana flower is a misdemeanor possession ticket that I was charged with, but any other marijuana product — edibles, hash oil, wax — is a “controlled substance” that is a felony offense in that county. So I was charged with possession of a controlled substance, which is punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and two to ten years in state prison. Hopefully it won't come to that.
Where do you go from here? Are you stuck in Texas for the foreseeable future?
As far as the future goes, I am looking into my options regarding defending this case. I don’t want to be branded a felon for the rest of my life because of a weird law in Texas. For now, I am back in Denver and trying to handle things from here, but if I have to spend any time down in the Lone Star State, I have friends and family all over who are more than happy to help. More than anything, the support that I’’ve received from everyone has been amazing. From friends to family and all of the comedy scene in Denver, the overwhelming response has been, “This is bullshit, and we want to help in whatever way we can. “
Do you know who designed the #FreeGillespie logo?
I don’t know who designed the logo. The whole #freegillespie thing began while I was locked up in jail. When I got out and checked my Facebook, I had thirty messages saying, “Do you need me to send you money?” from other comedians — who I know are just as poor as me. I had 100 comments on my post beginning with questioning whether it is a joke to realizing it wasn't — which led to people calling the police station so they could provide more information to everyone. The original Facebook post where this started just said, “in jail childress tx,” and after being handcuffed and placed in the police car, the sheriff handed me my phone, and while we walked around to his side of the vehicle, I opened Facebook and posted that message before he saw what I was doing and yelled at me to put my phone away. I think that is the best use of social media. I would have posted it on Twitter, but I don’t have enough followers.
I saw you post about meeting up with your former Ultra Sex Laser bandmates. Did you guys work on anything new?
You can’t put me and the rest of Ultra Sex Laser in a room without a new song being written. Or six. We had an hour to kill, so Ryan sat down at the keyboard, I pulled out my drum machine and Juls grabbed Pi Po Pi and we got down to business. We hadn’t played together in a year, so for a second I wondered if the whole thing would still work — but sure enough, I started singing about my arrest, Goo is pounding the keys, Jul’s hits the chorus “He got a felony!” and the song is recorded two minutes later. Afterward, Juls said ,“I didn’t know if you were ready to sing about it, and then you just launched in.” We then wrote another five tracks while we waited for our friends, including a great new summertime jam. These tracks will be made available as part of the GoFundMe campaign. I have never enjoyed writing music with anyone as much as I do with Ryan and Juls. My dream would be to live on the same block as them and have no obligations to the world but writing and recording music as the mood possessed us. We recorded 22 full-length albums together, and we're nowhere near the end of that ridiculous creative well.
Have you performed on music open mics before? Do you feel like you generally translate better to a comedy stage despite being wildly different from most standups?
I’ve never done a music open mic before, although I’ve been in bands and come from more of a musical side than comedy. I never intended to be a standup comic. Ultra Sex Laser just wrote a lot of songs. Some were funny and some were not, and we just pursued that avenue. We have talked about what would have happened if we had gone the rock-and-roll route and taken it in that direction, although being a part of the Denver comedy scene has been amazing. I think what I do seems wildly different than standup, but the way a lot of my songs work is the same as any joke. I also love unleashing what I do on an unsuspecting comedy audience. The host often can’t even warn them adequately. "The next guy is crazy, but we love him: Jay Gillespie." I wouldn’t want to perform in any other way. When they love it, everything is great, but when they hate it, it gets them down in their soul. Either way, they remember the act. I am looking forward to hosting the first comedy open mic in prison. Show up, go up — no lottery system.
What's the status of your GoFundMe campaign? What expenses and challenges lie ahead?
The GoFundMe is going live.... As far as expenses and challenges ahead, I have to find a lawyer who is on the right side of this. The law is ridiculous and unfair and also changing. The whole country is losing the stigma associated with marijuana. A felony charge for doctor-prescribed medical marijuana is absolutely insane. That being said, who knows what could happen? I am terrified of serving time in a state prison. I am terrified of a probation that prohibits my use of pot. I have a medical card. A doctor has said the pot would be helpful — and it is. How can a court supersede that? A lot is up in the air right now, but having so many people on my side makes me realize that everything could be a lot worse.
Gillespie's friends in the Denver comedy community have teamed up with Sexpot Comedy to mount a GoFundMe campaign to assist with his legal defenses. Remaining funds will be donated to the victims of the Orlando massacre. Donor rewards include #FreeGillespie stickers, buttons and T-shirts, gift cards to Sexy Pizza and Illegal Pete's, and the peace of mind that comes from being on the side of justice.
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