On Sunday October 6, the great big beautiful heart of Michael Malta cracked in his chest, and he dropped to the carpet. His last word, of course, was “Val…” -- I can hear him saying it -- and then the light left and he was gone.
The King of Pot is dead. Long live the King!
It is difficult to describe the importance of Michael Malta to the marijuana law reform movement in Massachusetts and by extension his unique contribution to national reform. He leaves behind his adoring wife, the photographer Valerie Malta, his two daughters, Jaclyn and Kristan, a stepdaughter, Samantha, a son-in-law, Peter, who revered him, his father, Daddio, and a soon-to-be-born grandchild whom he bragged about repeatedly the last time we spoke, whom I now know he’ll never see. His immediate family and his extended family were his greatest accomplishments.
Certainly K.O.P. was a take-no-prisoners activist, angry and articulate, who put his larger-than-life personality in the service of the plant that he believed saved his life. That’s why we honor him at HIGH TIMES. Michael gave his time, energy, passion, intelligence and cash to cannabis law reform in Massachusetts and because of him (and many others like him, over many years) the Bay State is now primed to legalize weed in 2016. But there was much more to the King of Pot than his extraordinarily inspiring dissent
Boston, with its 58 colleges, hosts a teeming marijuana law reform community powered by an enduringly young generation of noisy volunteers: a little brilliant, a little immature, very passionate and very stoned. When emotions boiled over, Michael turned down the heat. When factions snarled, Michael smiled and that wide bright toothsome grin reminded everyone to retract the fangs and sit the fuck down. Maybe the divisions in Massachusetts were inevitable because the activists were so effective. MassCann /NORML has gathered the cannabis community together at the Boston Freedom Rally for almost a quarter century and continued with the heavy lifting of polling and protesting throughout each year. The cumulative result is that in the 2012 presidential election 63% of Massachusetts voters said that they wanted marijuana legalized in their state.
Such success often divides, and when that happened in Massachusetts the single point the factions could agree on was that everyone would listen to Michael Malta. Without really trying -- by silent acclamation -- the Maltas became the de facto Mom and Dad for a community of unruly, super-smart activists, quarrelsome young adults who desperately needed parents.
“He totally kept us from killing each other,” said Kara Crabb-Burham, a member of the MassCann/NORML Board of Directors.
Former MassCann president Mike Cann, K.O.P.’s best friend and co-conspirator, nailed it in his eulogy:
“How many people got picked up with a ride by K.O.P. when you needed it?” Cann called out. “He gave you money for your project? He gave you promotion for your project? He talked to you? He inspired you? He gave you that little spark that you needed when you needed it?…”
As the hands began to rise, Mike pumped harder.
“Yeah! How many? C’mon! I want to see a show of hands. I want the family to know!” Without exception, every hand went up and not a dry eye in the house. “He gave us so much,” Cann exhaled, fighting back the tears. “He changed me and I know he changed a lot of us. He brought a lot of us together. He always brought people together, and his death, his passing, probably brought more people together, people who weren’t getting along. People have been united again by his spirit. He will not be forgotten… We will continue his work… It will not stop and it will always be in memory of him.”
Michael L. Malta AKA The King of Pot was born on September 24, 1961, the only son of Michael C. (Daddio) and Vera and grew up in Arlington, MA. He worked at the non-profit American Meteorological Society for 27 years where he was the Operations Manager until he was laid off last January. His mother suffered from a chemical imbalance that was marked by acute anxiety, obsessive/compulsive behavior, hypochondria and depression; and Michael inherited his mother’s disease.
“Around 1989 I went into a very bad depression,” he told one interviewer. “My depression overtook me in ways where I couldn’t even function. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t get out of my bed… I didn’t want to do anything but die!”
Nothing helped; not therapy and not pharmaceuticals: “Some of the medications they gave me… I would see things coming out of the walls… The room would pulsate. I started thinking I was in a dark abyss, slowly sinking to hell.”
Finally, a psychiatrist referred Michael to an experimental program involving “cannabinoids."
“Cannabinoids?” he wondered. “What’s that?”
“Marijuana,” the doctor explained.
Cannabis wasn’t a miracle cure; but, with marijuana, he slowly began to relax. “My work started seeing a difference in my attitude,” K.O.P. recalled. “My wife started seeing a difference in my attitude. I started taking an interest in my kids again. I started to get off the couch, and I started to get better.” He encouraged his Mom to try medical cannabis as well, but after some initial success she stopped “because she was afraid her doctor was going to find THC in her blood.” K.O.P. choked up. “There was nothing more I could do.”
Vera Malta died in 2005 and between his relief from his own devils and his grief from his Mother’s death; K.O.P.’s activist heart was forged.
He was an ardent admirer of Marc Emery, the imprisoned Prince of Pot, and one night while talking around the dining room table, a friend suggested that Mike also adopt a persona.
“You should become an activist,” his friend told him. “You’re always talking about the plant. You should give yourself a moniker and go out talk to young people.”
So as Marc Emery was the “Prince of Pot,” Michael Malta became the “King."
K.O.P. Productions was founded in 2006. Under his nom de guerre Malta produced and directed countless videos, podcasts, conducted interviews, blogged, agitated and organized exclusively for marijuana law reform and posted all of it on the K.O.P. website that he tirelessly marketed. His iconic K.O.P. logo was ubiquitous in Boston. He promoted everyone’s ideas with the same gusto that became part of his signature style. Sincerity dripped from the King. Enthusiasm fit him like a good suit of clothes. His popular “Meet The Movement” podcasts featuring news and interviews with the cannabis cognoscenti from all over the country led to a brief radio stint on Boston’s most popular and irie internet network, Unregular Radio. Once he got a taste for the live-stream, Michael was hooked, and he continued broadcasting “Live with The King of Pot” on his own terms from his basement studio in Tewksbury, MA.
But his paternal entrenchment in the personal politics that continued to bedevil Boston activism took its toll. “He was about the love, not about the fight,” Valerie Malta recalled. Wearying of the fight, in Summer 2011 he announced his retirement from the world of weed.
No one believed him, not even his wife, but in September just before the Freedom Rally, K.O.P. gathered some of his favorite guests including Mike Cann, Jodie Emery, High Times editors Bobby Black and Danny Danko, myself and others to record a five-hour marathon farewell radio show. He took his bow and took a break. The Boston Freedom Rally commenced several weeks later for the first time in 10 years without the King of Pot in attendance because Michael and Val were partying in Vegas. After that, he really did disappear for a while but not for long and he never left activism. Less than a year later new King of Pot videos and radio shows began to pop up online, and he had expanded his beat to include hardcore counter-culture journalism. As Boston reeled from the marathon bombings, K.O.P. recorded a radio interview with the parents of Mykayla Comstock, a seven-year old leukemia survivor and Oregon’s youngest medical marijuana patient.
A month later, as Americans were beginning to learn just how far their rights had been violated in the name of the war on terror, Michael produced a videotorial that told the story of Cameron D’Ambrosio, a.k.a. Cammy Dee, an 18-year-old Massachusetts high school student and aspiring rapper who was charged with making terrorist threats after he posted unquestionably asinine lyrics on Facebook.
The kid was held without bail for 30 days and faced 20 years in prison even though he made no specific threat, and his words were clearly protected free speech. K.O.P. became his champion and publicly pleaded for reason, as did 900,000 Bay State citizens who signed a petition demanding Cammy Dee’s release and a Grand Jury that subsequently refused to indict.
I saw the videos online but I hadn’t seen K.O.P. for far too long as the 2013 Boston Freedom Rally approached. As I made plans to go to Massachusetts I wondered if I was going to run into the Maltas.
This year, for the first time the annual protestival became a two-day event, and HIGH TIMES offered to sponsor an over-the-top, over-the-hump afterparty following the first day on Saturday night. The Boston pot community promised to over-attend but as the party was in South Boston, over the water, far from the Commons; and required walking up seven flights of stairs to get to the weed, only the most dedicated, the most inspired or the most stoned made the complete trip. It was packed anyway. Once I climbed those killer stairs, I was greeted at the top by The King of Pot.
His regular big brotherly hug was followed by an insistent, “C’mere!” barked with that broad Boston accent. “C’mere! I wanna show up something!” He led me across the room to a table filled with food where a rectangular cake was iced-up perfectly to look like an issue of High Times. The cover line promised to take you “Inside Boston’s Highest Party!” and the cover image reproduced the iconic, high contrast K.O.P. pictogram.
“Look!” he said proudly, “I finally made the cover of HIGH TIMES!”
“I thought you retired, old man?” I chided.
“I’m back! Bigger than ever,” he predicted. “I’m gonna kick it to the next level.”
“Well, your timing is perfect. It looks like we’re gonna legalize weed!”
“That’s what I hear!” K.O.P. cheered above the din of the gathering crowd, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world! C’mon! Let’s go smoke some pot!”
It was a raucous party of seasoned psychonauts, and at the end of the night I asked Mike the best way to get a cab back to the hotel.
“I’ll take you,” he said with Val nodding her own big-hearted approval. I knew they would offer me a ride just like I knew they were going in the opposite direction. When we got to the bottom of the seven-story mountain I saw an empty taxi approach.
“Hey! I’ll grab this cab!”
“Are you sure?” the King of Pot implored. He would have driven me to New Jersey if I asked.
“Yeah. I got it…” I said and as I saw them dwindle in the distance I remember thinking, Ah, I knew I wasn’t gonna get stuck. No matter what, I told myself K.O.P. got my back.
The last time I saw the King of Pot was the next day, Sunday at 4:20pm. We were standing atop Mount Mary Jane in the shadow of the Soldier’s and Sailors Monument, sharing a bullhorn and a joint. The second day of the Freedom Rally was shut down early at 3pm in a feckless attempt by the authorities to curtail our communal minute and, of course, a cluster of NORML Mass/Cann activists quickly organized a 4:20 civil disobedience at Mount Mary Jane, literally and figuratively, at the highest point on the Boston Commons.
Originally called Flagstaff Hill; in recent years this popular elevation had been rechristened Mount Mary Jane by the widespread Boston pot community, the center of gravity for ganja in Boston and the preferred site for every April 20 celebration. It seems like there’s always somebody getting high on the hillside.
That Sunday hundreds were gathered on Mary Jane’s gently graded slope to smoke marijuana at the precise moment the authorities sought to disallow. There’s a video that shows Michael at my back as I call off the countdown and a picture snapped a moment later of Danny Danko, K.O.P. and myself: three stoned mugs smiling through the haze, absolutely certain they’re about to legalize their life’s work. I turned when someone called my attention and a moment later when I came back around K.O.P. was gone, swallowed up, I was certain, by an admiring crowd.
The last time I spoke with Michael was three weeks later, three days before he died. We talked about his plan to expand his production company into a full-service content provider, and he told me he cut a deal with I Heart Radio to broadcast his radio show three times a week. He wanted to promote a broad-based Counter Culture Radio Network on the web that would produce multiple shows with multiple DJs including his own show as well as Mike Cann’s popular “Two Hotheads” radio hour. He was finally entering into a full-time partnership with his old friend, and he told me several times with a beaming smile in his voice that he was about to be a grandfather for the very first time.
“I heard you wrote something nice about me on Facebook,” he said. “I didn’t see it but thank you.”
He had posted the picture of the three of us at the Freedom Rally, and I commented that Danny and I were standing next to a Boston legend.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. That was nice of you to say.
“Nothing but the truth, my friend. You are a Boston legend.”
And although I still find it hard to believe, that’s the last thing I told him before we got off the line.
Less than a week later Michael was interred in a narrow slip on a mausoleum wall 30 feet off the ground. “If you put me in the ground I’ll come back to haunt you,” he told his wife but Val had her misgivings. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to see his name. I wouldn’t be able to touch the stone…” Nonetheless, Val scrambled to honor her husband’s final wish, and crowds of young people showed up to stand on the grass and watch as a forklift raised the coffin to its vault. As his nameplate was finally bolted in place, a wild cheer was followed by a spontaneous chant: “K O P! K O P! K O P! K O P!...”
As the voices rose, all of Valerie’s concerns dissolved. “My God,” she recalled with real awe in her voice. “It was like he was being lifted up the gods instead of being sucked down into the group.
The next day the hardcore marijuana law reform community of Boston assembled on Mount Mary Jane with family and friends to rechristen the hilltop Mount Malta.
I was not there and neither was Dr Keith Saunders, a leading Massachusetts activist who originated the idea. We were both in New York City at the HIGH TIMES office where the NORML Board of Directors voted unanimously to create a special award to honor the King of Pot. Back in Boston a shaken Val offer a few brief words and thanked everyone for their support. His daughters were there and one of them spoke as well. Lots of people spoke straight from the heart, but it was Mike Cann who, once again, gave voice to my deep feelings for K.O.P.:
“Inside of me” Cann said, “I want to be more like the King of Pot. How can I be more like him?”
I ask myself the same question. I think that’s because Michael Malta continues to inspire those of us who knew him to be not just better activists but also to be better human beings.
Three years from now in the presidential election of 2016 it is likely that marijuana will be legalized in Massachusetts if it hasn’t already happened. There will be a huge party somewhere in Boston that night and I plan to be there. I’m sure it will be like a whirlwind
But on the day after election, after the whirlwind subsides, I’ve promised myself that I’ll take a walk down to the Common, climb to the top of Mount Malta and spark a joint of the best weed I can find in loving memory of an extraordinary man who helped make it all happen, who held it all together when it threatened to fall apart.
And I’ll bet you anything I won’t alone.
The Rise of the King of Pot:
For more photos, please visit our gallery.
Rick Cusick is the associate publisher of HIGH TIMES and member of the NORML Board of Directors