The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) held its 37th annual conference last weekend in Berkeley, California, and what better locale than the pot-friendly San Francisco Bay area? Just across the bay from San Francisco, just a few miles up the road from Oakland's Oaksterdam, just a couple of hours down US 101 from Northern California's marijuana-growing epicenter, Berkeley is the kind of place where NORML is, well, normal.
The setting, too, was superb, in a hotel on the Berkeley marina, with views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline to one side and the Berkeley hills to the other. Hotel employees and security guards limited their policing to making sure people smoking stayed away from building entrances: "We don't care what you're smoking, just don't do it within 25 feet of the door," they pleaded.
Tie-dyed, long-haired, pot-bellied, aging-hippy mountain pot growers proudly bearing mason jars full of their best home-grown buds rubbed shoulders with suit-and-tie East Coast politicos. Research scientists mingled with hard-core legalizers. Media types met media critics. Lonely activists from the far provinces found their movement peers... and realized they were not alone. And loads of remarkably normal looking people roamed the halls, perused the vendors' tables, listened to conference sessions, and periodically wandered out back to join the non-stop medicating and just plain relaxing going on in the outdoors (in accordance with California's strict anti-smoking laws).
Compared to some other drug reform conferences, with their dizzying array of panels, often four or five at the same time, the NORML conference agenda was blessedly succinct. For the most part, it was one session per time block. On Friday, it was "Pot, Politics 2008 and Beyond," "The Legal Marijuana Generation -- Growing Up and Raising Children in the Age of Legal Pot," "Getting the Story Wrong -- How the Media Lie About Cannabis," followed by a trio of breakout sessions on activism Friday afternoon. On Saturday, it was "What if We Arrested 20 Million Americans -- and No One Noticed?," "The Politics of Marijuana and Health," lunch with a keynoted speech by California Assemblyman Mark Leno (D), "Drug Testing and Cannabis Use: The Case Against Legally Sanctioned Discrimination Via Forensics," and "Oaksterdam, USA (Cannabis Freedom is Closer Than You Think)," "Pot Culture." Sunday was devoted to sessions on setting up and operating dispensaries in California.
"This is not your parent's prohibition," said NORML board chair Steve Dillon, quickly hitting the conference's theme in his remarks opening the event. "It's much worse, much more costly. It's costing us the loss of freedom, our property, and our access to compassionate care. But marijuana prohibition is doomed to fail," he said to cheers. "It's totally illogical and counterproductive to continue to try to prohibit marijuana, but our government will have to be forced to end prohibition. We must elect new leaders and restore our damaged Constitution," he said.
"Marijuana prohibition is deeper and more entrenched than ever," said NORML executive director Alan St. Pierre, reprising the theme. "We'll be arresting a million people a year for pot by 2010 or 2012," he predicted. Marijuana prohibition is becoming harsher and more intensive."
But the prospects for positive change are the best in decades, St. Pierre argued. "If Barack Obama is elected, we will have the best chance for reform in the past 35 or 40 years. Maybe we can actually have an MD for a drug czar, or maybe Dr. Ethan Nadelmann," he daydreamed, to loud applause.
Also speaking at the opening session was Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who told the crowd it will take a long, hard, social, cultural, political, and legal battle to do away with "these stupid, absurd, insane marijuana policies." The people are way ahead of the politicians on marijuana legalization he said, urging people to put the pressure on their elected officials.
The day's second session, on the current state and future of marijuana reform politics was wide-ranging, with topics being discussed including the lowest priority initiative in Fayetteville, Arkansas, California Attorney General Jerry Brown's recent directive to law enforcement on medical marijuana, and the role of local activists in fending off an electoral backlash in Mendocino County. The session also saw attention to the big picture, with Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) head Rob Kampia, and Oregon NORML head Madelyn Martinez discussing current and future state-level efforts. (See a detailed story on those plans here.)
An especially illuminating panel took place Friday afternoon, with former NORML head and MarijuanaNews.com founder Richard Cowan moderating a panel on the press that included NORML's Paul Armentano, MPP direction of communications Bruce Mirken, Oregon activist and XM talk radio host "Radical Russ" Belville, and long-time pot beat reporter Ann Harrison. "We've been lied to and lied about," snorted Cowan, as he prepared to get out of the way and let the panelists explain how and why.
Armentano shone with a dissection of press coverage of the results of scientific studies on marijuana. "Less than 5% of cannabis studies are reported at all by the mainstream media," he noted, citing hard numbers from last year, "and those the media does focus on are the studies that focus on the dangers. Studies with health findings that do not support the dangers of cannabis are typically ignored," he added, listing a number of studies and how and with what frequency they were reported.
Armentano also created a typology of marijuana reporting in the mainstream press. "News reports must have alarmist headlines," he enumerated. "They must be based on press releases prior to publication of the actual research. They must be highly selective. And they must make no reference to earlier contradictory data."
Belville echoed Armentano's analysis of marijuana story types, presenting a list of common pot stories: "It's not your mother's marijuana," "Medical Marijuana Can Cause Adverse Effects, Researchers Say," "Teen Marijuana Use Linked to Later Illness."
Citing the work of political theorist George Lakeoff, Belville then explained how such headlines fit into a "frame," or pre-designed narrative form in which marijuana is associated with vice and filthy hippies. "We have to change the frame," he said in his finest radio announcer voice. "Say cannabis instead of marijuana -- it doesn't have all the bad associations."
Although Ann Harrison has now moved to working on human rights issues, the veteran reporter had plenty of advice for journalists continuing to cover the marijuana. "There was a surge in 2007 marijuana arrests in California," she noted. "What are the costs? How much are the feds paying? That's what reporters need to be asking." But reporters need to find that human angle, she reminded. "Stories run on emotion," Harrison said.
MPP's Mirken had advice on how to influence the media, especially when unhappy with its coverage of the marijuana issue. "Start with the reporter, be polite, take a positive approach, and be specific and factual with your complaint," he said. "Perhaps he will make a retraction or positively update the story, perhaps not. But the idea is to start establishing relationships" that can guide the reporter in the right direction, he said.
An exhaustive recounting of all the conference sessions is beyond the scope of this article. Readers who want more should check out the NORML blog and others who blogged on the conference, because there is much much more that was worthwhile and informative there.