The spirit at last weekend's conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) in San Francisco was assertive and combative, hinting that the political vanguard of the nation's 20 million pot smokers is ready to take the campaign to legalize marijuana to a new level. The permanent pot party that faced bemused tourists riding the Powell Street cable car outside the Crowne Plaza Union Square Hotel notwithstanding, attendees and panelists alike took a serious, militant and increasingly outraged stand against marijuana prohibition in particular and the drug war in general.
With California medical marijuana movement supporters predicting imminent raids by the DEA, the movement began for the first time to seriously discuss mass civil disobedience. In fact, the Cannabis Action Network, and its newly formed Americans for Safe Access (ASA) campaign, took the opportunity of the conference to do their first civil disobedience action, dropping a banner in downtown San Francisco Friday morning that read: "Ashcroft: No War on Patients. Californians Say Yes to Medical Marijuana." And NORML is threatening to take seriously comedian Bill Maher's call for a mass march on Washington sometime in the next year -- although whether it should be without pot smoking as Maher suggested remains a bone of contention.
NORML came into the conference with a full head of steam from its successful advertising campaign featuring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the ad's theme, "It's NORML to Smoke Pot" was the underlying theme of the meet. According to NORML's Alan St. Pierre, attendance was an all-time record high 570, along with 35 to 40 press people.
While St. Pierre avoided words like "militance" or "combativeness" to describe the mood in San Francisco, he was quick to note that attendees were interested in "self-preservation" and were taking the issue personally. "It's one thing to talk abstractly about damage to this or that community," said St. Pierre, "but it's another thing to think about yourself personally, your loved ones, your friends. If we can put a human face on pot smokers, the other side loses because it attempts to dehumanize them."
"A lot of the panels spoke to self-interest and self-preservation," St. Pierre told DRCNet. "If they're going to keep arresting someone every 43 seconds, it's a good idea to let people know how to keep out of the jaws of the law. As for the panels on how to grow, it seems incumbent on us to educate people, even though we may be visited by the IRS for it," he said.
One sign of the more aggressive attitude in evidence at the conference was the panel on "coming out" as marijuana users. NORML head Keith Stroup set the tone for the discussion by noting that NORML supported medical marijuana, but "that doesn't affect most pot smokers, who smoke for the fun of it." Saying that marijuana users need to "bring the culture out of the closet," Stroup called on tokers to "be open and honest about our pot smoking." Until they do, the message will not get through to elected officials, he said. Marijuana users need to tell their elected officials: "I'm never again going to vote for a candidate who treats me like a criminal," Stroup said.
Panelist and long-time California activist Mikki Norris presented a concrete way for smokers to come out, through the Cannabis Consumers Campaign (http://www.cannabisconsumers.org), which, she explained, is designed to "upgrade" the image of marijuana users. The campaign is building a list of 100 well-known, successful cannabis users -- "not the usual suspects," said Norris -- and will initiate a major media campaign around them. As the conference wound through the weekend, dozens of photos of self-outed marijuana users began appearing on conference room walls, courtesy of Norris.
"We are good people from all walks of life," Norris told an enthusiastic crowd, "and we are tired of being treated like second-class citizens in our own country. I want to see a time when we are judged on the content of our character, not our urine," she said. But, Norris warned the crowd, "We need to become a political constituency. We need to shed the shame, we need to own up, we need to present ourselves with dignity. The least we can do is come out to our family, friends, and colleagues," she said.
Fellow panelist John Gilmore, a computer entrepreneur/cyber-activist who has vowed to spend $10 million over 10 years to end prohibition, felt the same way. The bearded, bespectacled movement patron took the opportunity to come out publicly as a marijuana user and then some. "I'm a millionaire," Gilmore said. "I smoke pot. And every once in awhile I eat mushrooms. And I've taken LSD and various other things. That has informed my world view," he told the crowd to laughter and cheers. "I'm a better person in the world because I took those drugs."
The up-front assertiveness wasn't limited to Silicon Valley gurus. In a particularly withering shot at US drug policies and the Bush administration, former NORML head and marijuananews.com (http://www.marijuananews.com) publisher Dick Cowan dissected the uses of words like "evil" and "terrorism." Cowan, a funny and energetic speaker, chided Bush for his "ill-advised use of the word 'evil'" and railed against the administration's drugs equal terrorism ad campaign. "It is unspeakably evil to attempt to hijack the righteous anger of the American people" with that campaign, Cowan said. "The level of cynicism involved can only be called evil -- sorry, guys, but you brought it up."
"The US is engaged in a policy of terrorism called the drug war," he continued. "It is state terrorism against cannabis users," he thundered to loud applause.
Acting on the maxim that the best offense is a good defense, other panelists instructed attendees on how to avoid arrest, what to do if arrested, and the finer points of jury nullification. Florida attorney Clay Conrad, a jury nullification specialist from the Fully Informed Jury Association (http://www.fija.org), instructed listeners on how to get on a jury. "Resign from any political organizations you belong to before you go to the courthouse," he said. "Well, maybe not the NRA." Would-be nullifiers should answer prosecutors' questions carefully, said Conrad. "If they ask if you believe in the war on drugs, tell them 'I have questions about how effective the war on drugs is,'" he recommended. "Tell them, 'Yes, I can put my convictions aside,'" Conrad continued. "That doesn't mean you will."
In a particularly theatrical oration, famed San Francisco defense attorney Tony Serra hammered away at the war on drugs' impact on cherished freedoms and legal traditions. "The war on drugs has deprived us of so much," he roared. "It is destroying the beautiful flowers of our legal system. "Bail is gone now," said Serra. "What we have is preventive detention. A beautiful flower destroyed," he yelled, smashing a bouquet of flowers on the podium. "Our federal system is tainted by informers at every level," he continued. "We swim in a sea of snitches." Another bouquet of flowers destroyed. "Our independent judiciary has been swallowed by the executive and the legislature," said Serra. "Our judges are emasculated," he roared, destroying yet more flowers. "But a new flower is growing," he beamed, holding up a fresh bouquet. "Medical marijuana."
And medical marijuana was the issue of the hour, as could be expected in a NORML convention in California as the feds go about picking off medical marijuana clubs and providers. The situation was perhaps best encapsulated by Debbie Goldsberry of the Berkeley Patients Group. Goldsberry related how through a combination of organization, perseverance, and polite inflexibility, her group was able to negotiate the treacherous thickets of officialdom. But, said Goldsberry, all that work could come to naught if the DEA cracks down.
"I'm afraid of imminent arrest," she told a somber crowd. "I'm afraid my friends will be arrested, too."
All indications are that the people at the NORML convention are growing increasingly tired of being afraid.