Interview with Chris Conrad 8/22/00

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For more than a decade, Chris Conrad has been active in the California cannabis reform movement. He is the author of "Hemp: Lifeline to the Future," and coauthor of "Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War," and also edited the
popular current edition of Jack Herer's "The Emperor Wears No Clothes." He is a founder of the Business Alliance for Cannabis Hemp, which pursues a three-pronged strategy for cannabis law reform based on legalization of industrial hemp, access to medical marijuana for patients, and legalizing the social consumption of marijuana for persons above a legal age of consent.

Conrad has testified as an expert witness in numerous California medical marijuana cases. In addition to his archival research, Conrad has extensive hands-on experience with all aspects of cannabis cultivation. He was curator of the Amsterdam Hemp Cannabis Hash Museum and studied at the central seed bank for Sensi Seeds, one of the world's largest legal marijuana seed suppliers. He has overseen a six-acre outdoor grow in Switzerland and observed hemp production in Germany and Switzerland.

The Week Online spoke with Conrad at the Los Angeles Shadow Convention:

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WOL: You've got this three-part strategy for hemp that includes support for medical marijuana and even social use. Some hemp activists say they want no part of marijuana law reform and that the association between the two is the bane of their project.

Conrad: When I first got involved, I thought the hemp issue would be an easy winner. All we would have to do is explain to the government that it doesn't get you high, it's been used for 10,000 years, Congress didn't mean to prohibit hemp, that it was a mistake. What I found was quite to the contrary. Not only do I believe the federal government will block hemp until we get marijuana legalized, but in fact the whole alternative being proposed by those who want to separate the issues could lead to some negative consequences.

First, let me say that I don't fault that point of view. Hemp and marijuana are not the same. I think the federal government is using marijuana as a subterfuge to suppress hemp, and that if we followed their standards it's possible that we could have hemp surrounded by 10-foot high electrified fences with razor wire, flood lights, and armed guards, and we could grow all the hemp we wanted that way, but we would still be growing hemp in a fascist state. I don't want to grow hemp in a fascist state, I want to live in a society envisioned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of our most famous hemp farmers, where liberty and human dignity are the cornerstones of our democracy. And if you try to pursue this by negotiating with the DEA you're going to end up growing it in a prison-like atmosphere.

WOL: Regarding California Proposition 36, which would divert nonviolent drug possession offenders from prison into treatment, some activists are complaining that while it is an improvement to keep people out of prison, we are still subjecting people to state control. Also, they say what about marijuana smokers, are they going to get sent to treatment for smoking a joint? I see that you're wearing a Prop. 36 button, so I assume you are supporting it.

Conrad: When I first heard about Prop. 36, I was initially concerned that as a person who knows a lot of people who smoke marijuana and who has smoked it myself, I don't want to be rehabbed and I don't think any of my friends need it either. Then I found out that marijuana isn't mentioned at all. I do think it was a good strategy because first, some hard drug addicts, especially those who have problems with the law, do need some help. I believe in treatment on demand anyway, so sending people to treatment instead of prison seems like a good thing. But Prop. 36 will have no effect on marijuana smokers. The state of California has passed a medical marijuana initiative, and I think California would pass an "age of consent" for marijuana if it were to be presented and articulated properly.

That implies some political courage; this initiative was not written from a point of view of political courage. This initiative was written from the point of view of focus groups and what they thought they could get the voters to go for. I think that's a bad way to write laws. If Prop. 215 had been written by focus groups instead of patients and doctors, then we would not have as good as a law. Many people in California would have accepted a legal age of consent measure. But the people who are running this campaign weren't sure of that, so instead we have triangulation. Part of the strategy here is to say, "if we're going to treat the hard drug users more humanely, then why are we still sending pot smokers to jail?" I think it's going to cause a state of affairs where the marijuana issue is going to be dealt with more humanely.

WOL: Are you suggesting that we could see a successful vote in the California legislature or on an initiative in the next few years?

Conrad: There is a good chance that we could end up with some legislation coming through, but I think Gov. Davis, with his spineless, pro-prison stance, would veto it. If, on the other hand, the alternative is to have focus groups writing marijuana law, I don't think I'm going to like that too much either. What I'm hoping for is that something similar to Alaska's Proposition 5 can be brought down and get some money behind it. Prop. 5 is a full regulation of cannabis measure, addressing industrial hemp, medical use, and sets an age of consent at age 18. It doesn't allow for sales, but neither does it provide criminal penalties for sales. The state legislature would then have a choice: It could write reasonable regulations or it could do nothing, but it could not recriminalize it.

WOL: Are we reaching the point where the only people who can pull off these initiatives are precisely these folks who are using the focus groups, doing the triangulation strategy, and coming up with these politically palatable measure that may not be in the best interests of marijuana consumers?

Conrad: Yes, I'm afraid that this movement is caught up in the same political system as everything else. Trying to get a good presidential candidate is not easy, and neither is trying to get a good initiative on the ballot. There's a group of people who are very good at what they do, and they're very well paid for doing that and they're not interested in seeing that money go to grass roots activists, who could probably put together better language than we get from these focus groups. They understand that their ability to pass these initiatives is directly related to the educational work done by these grass roots activists, but that doesn't mean they want to involve these activists or use their experience and knowledge in drafting these measures. They're interested in how the average ignorant person who knows nothing about it might respond.

WOL: Some activists have also criticized medical marijuana measures written by Americans for Medical Rights that set tight limits on the amount of marijuana patients can possess. They say these measures are coming back to bite them here in California because prosecutors point to these low limits and claim that patient X or patient Y has too much for medical purposes.

Conrad: The California law does not put a limit on what conditions are covered, how much marijuana a patient can have or grow. Why is that? We didn't want to limit it to a list of conditions because we don't know what all those conditions are. The reason that no amount of marijuana is specified in Prop. 215 is that some patients will need a large amount of marijuana. The federal government provides its eight patients with six to eight pounds per year. But patients growing using the most efficient technique, the "sea of green," will have a large number of small plants, well beyond the limits set in other states. In Oregon, Arizona, Alaska, Washington, Nevada, those AMR-written initiatives limit the amount patients can have and require them to go before a board. That's an unfair restriction to the integrity of both the patient and the doctor.

When they say patients can only have two ounces, I think that's unfair as well. Or, if you can only have three plants growing, well, you can't get enough marijuana out of that to get the six to eight pounds. Most people are growing sea of green and you're saying they can't grow the most practical way, they can't have the amount they need, they can't use it in the safest possible way, they can't use it for all the conditions they need it for, and if they have enough to get by on they're going to get arrested. Why? Because the focus groups said that sounded reasonable to them. But it doesn't sound reasonable to the patients or the doctors or the caregivers or anyone who's done the research. This I why I think there is a serious and fundamental problem. They're doing it to send a message, but Prop. 215 was not to send a message, Prop. 215 was to keep patients out of prison.

WOL: You said that in some ways, we are worse off in the wake of Prop. 215. What do you mean?

Conrad: We're not in a worse position in terms of legality and the protection of patients. In fact, we just had a hung jury in the case of a patient growing 370 plants, we've had acquittals of patients growing 240, 89, 131 plants. Where we are worse off is as a movement. Before Prop. 215 we were unified. We had an educational program based on the three points of BACH and we were all moving along together, we all saw that every advance helped all of us. But 215 created this big division between people who were for medical, people who were for industrial hemp, and people who were for the whole ball of wax. So the divisions and bitterness that came up as a result of that has still not healed in this state. One thing we did wrong was that we didn't go into the campaign with a real understanding of what happens after we win. We thought it was just kicking this wave off across the country; we didn't realize the entrenchment, the political and legal battles we would have to fight. We didn't realize how successful the drug warriors would be in splitting the patients away from the rest of the movement because their whole argument about the "legalizers hiding behind patients" was not effective in convincing voters, but it was effective in convincing some medical marijuana advocates to distance themselves from the broader issues.

The same thing has happened with the hemp issue, for example, with the North American Industrial Hemp Council, which has a very strong prohibitionist stand on marijuana. At the same time, the Hemp Industries Association has quite the opposite position. I really urge any group that's going into this kind of campaign to remember two things. First, you're going to end up with divisiveness and infighting. You have to be ready to forgive. There'll be plenty to forgive later on, so you better get used to it. You have to realize that campaigns create pressures that change the way people act. And second, you have to prepare for what comes after election day. As you run through the campaign, you're totally fixated on election day, but ultimately it's the other side of the election that will determine what will happen. If we had had the resources to put together a legal defense team for those first few patients that had the problems, then we wouldn't be fighting as many cases as we are today.

WOL: Is the California medical marijuana battle going to have to be settled county by county?

Conrad: Well, I'm not expecting any huge battles in Alameda County or San Francisco County, but otherwise yes. It's trench warfare now. My position now is that I get to come into court with the facts, with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and make sure that this patient comes out with the right verdict. I can't guarantee that juries will do the right thing, but I can provide expert testimony to help them do so.

WOL: Are we on the verge of a sea change in drug policy?

Conrad: Well, look at this Shadow Convention. The presence of people with the stature of Tom Campbell, Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel, John Conyers -- you're talking about some of the top leadership of the Democratic Party, and the GOP, too, if Campbell gets elected. I think we're watching a quantum shift right now. It's hard for people like ourselves because we're impatient. But I have to say that when I got involved in this in 1989, no one even knew what hemp was. Today I don't even have to explain the term. Same with medical marijuana. Now, by educating ourselves and then others, we're at a point where 20% of the population lives in states with medical marijuana laws, not because of the politicians, but because of the voters. I think that the age of consent argument is something that will resonate, if our side has the courage to adopt that. Our side has this built in reluctance to confront certain issues, to talk around them.

More than anything else, I think the whole argument has changed in the last ten years. The fact that we have these Democratic officials coming up the street from their convention because they know it needs to be talked about, this is a good sign. The fact that Tom Campbell is running against Dianne Feinstein, the fact that Republicans are coming out. What we're learning is that this is not a partisan issue. Within 10 minutes of talking to anyone, you can get them to agree with you, with a couple of important exceptions.

WOL: And those would be?

Conrad: Those who have a vested financial interest in maintaining the status quo. The other group that we can't convince are those who are wallowing in their own hysteria, and that would include people like Carroll O'Connor and Martin Sheen. They've had problems with their children, and I totally sympathize and understand why they are concerned. But that doesn't mean other people's children should have to go to prison. There's a group that's so emotionally scarred by their own experience that they're unable to step back and see what is for the greater good of society.

WOL: What about the people I would call puritans, the ones you referred to earlier as wanting to punish people for doing something pleasurable?

Conrad: It depends. If their puritanism is based in Christianity, then there is a profoundly strong argument that they should back away from the drug war. Remember, Jesus' first miracle was to create wine out of water, and not for a religious sacrament but for a wedding celebration. In other words, he brought the drugs to the party. Jesus said it was not what went into your mouth that affects your soul, but that which comes out of it, so those people who say "I should send other people to prison because I don't like what they're doing," those are the people Jesus said faced greater damnation because they are spewing out this hateful stuff. Jesus talked about forgiveness, he didn't talk about incarceration. Jesus broke the law in order to heal sick and dying people. If these people are coming from Christianity, then they have no place to turn in the Bible and they have to admit that what they're doing is wrong.

If they are simply sadistic individuals who believe that pleasure is bad and people who need help should be suffering, I think those people need some kind of psychological treatment. Again, this leads to thinking about the post-reform era. We need to prepare to create a national movement of reconciliation in which the people who have been victimized by the drug war and those who perpetrated the drug war have the opportunity to confront one another, not from malice and hatred, but in terms of trying to rehumanize one another and to forgive one another.

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Issue #150, 8/22/00 Los Angeles Shadow Convention Energizes Reformers for November and Beyond | Chronic Pain Doctor and Pharmacy Under Assault in California Case | Interview with Chris Conrad | Apprendi Sentencing Ruling Begins to Bite | Heroin Injection Center Wins Approval in Sydney | Appeals Court Denies Government's Request for Emergency Order Halting Oakland CBC from Distributing Marijuana | RESOURCES: Drug War Facts Updated, Drug War Feature This Week, Alternet, Spanish Language Documents, More | Benefit Screening for Jack Herer | Errata | Alerts: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Job Listings (NYC): Streetwork Project | Editorial: No Fringe Group
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