Nearly 500 people showed up in San Francisco as the nation's oldest organization working to end marijuana prohibition, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) held its annual conference April 17-20, three days of standard conference plus a day of student activist training. The NORML pot hippie contingent -- paunches growing larger, ponytails grayer -- came out in force, mingling with hempsters, activists, movement honchos, MDs and PhDs, patients in wheel chairs, and a sizable student delegation -- in other words, a normal NORML conference.
In his remarks opening the conference, NORML executive director Keith Stroup sketched out an ambiguous political present and urged listeners to learn the lessons of the past. "The political climate is very strange right now," said Stroup. "We've got more public support for our issue than we've ever had, but on the street level, the feds have been kicking our butts out here." But the very success of the government in persecuting marijuana users can only strengthen the reform movement, Stroup argued, citing the effect of the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision on the growth of campus NORML chapters and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org).
Indeed, appeals to learn from the past and to seek out new approaches were a steady refrain. Sometimes the advice was contradictory, but often differing prescriptions dovetailed in common strategic purpose. At times the commentary was bitter, but that bitterness was leavened by a healthy dose of humor and ridicule. And sometimes the advice challenged the conventional wisdom of the pot world.
"We have to think bigger than marijuana," argued Kevin Zeese, executive director of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org). "Single issue politics is not the way to go. We have to form coalitions with the undercurrent for progressive change that is coming, with anti-corporate and anti-militarist movements, we have to be active with the Greens and the Libertarians, and we have to target those politicians who are not responsive. We cannot reward people who claim to be our friends, but who don't act like our friends," Zeese said, citing California Sen. Barbara Boxer, whom he called "an absentee senator when it comes to medical marijuana."
For Zeese, the viciousness of the Bush administration presents a political opening. "The Bush administration's extremism and resort to force is a sign of weakness. They are going further than the public wants to go," he said. "The harder they push, the stronger we grow. Heightening the conflict is part of the process. We need to continue to take this to the public, we need more initiatives, even if they fail."
Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) executive director Rob Kampia and the Campaign for New Drug Policy's (http://www.drugreform.org) Bill Zimmerman had a few words to say about that. Both had been chastened at the polls last year, with an MPP-sponsored marijuana legalization initiative losing in Nevada and two Zimmerman-led "treatment not jail" efforts failing to make the ballot in Florida and Michigan, one losing in Ohio, and one passing in Washington, DC, only to disappear into political limbo. Neither was prepared to fail again.
"I was humiliated by the results," said Zimmerman, who had previously won 12 of 13 initiatives. That was the problem, he said. "Now that we have succeeded to the extent we did, we are provoking some significant opposition and energy on the other side. That is a sign of our success, not our failure, but we know now we need to be wary of the political situation, we need to know where the opposition is going to come from." Zimmerman showed no taste for again going into hostile territory. "States like Ohio, where they have the capacity to raise money against us, are dangerous. Likewise, in Florida, I'm afraid Jeb Bush could mount an effective campaign against us."
Nor is Zimmerman interested in leading public opinion. "You win by analyzing what public opinion is and then crafting an initiative that gives the people what they want. These are political campaigns, not educational campaigns," he said. And even that's not enough. "Not only do you have to start with a majority, you have to have sufficient funding to deliver a message to voters and to overwhelm counter-messages."
Rob Kampia knows this, and he acknowledged taking a risk in Nevada. "We were polling only 46% and we knew we needed to get out the vote," he said. Kampia presented a careful dissection of what went right and what went wrong in the expensive and closely-watched effort. "We thought we would need 200,000 votes to win and we got 196,000, but the other side came out in force," he said. "Sadly for us, we found that the more regularly someone votes, the more likely he was to be hostile to our issue. At the end of the day, we went down in flames."
Kampia identified several factors that contributed to the measure's defeat. "The Republicans did a really good job of getting out the vote," he noted. "Then we had three horrible marijuana DUI tragedies, including one that killed an editor of the Las Vegas Sun. The Sun subsequently opposed us. And then there were those stupid ads the drug czar is running. While we laugh at those ads, they really hurt us. The repetition of images of teens killing teens and teens raping teens was just too scary for voters. They said screw it," Kampia continued. "Those ads really hurt us. They served as opposition ads."
Still, said Kampia, the effort wasn't a total washout. "Nevada helped increase the national debate on ending marijuana prohibition," he said. "We got extensive national press coverage, we had marijuana on the cover of Time magazine. People were talking about the possibility of it passing, and while it failed this time, now a successful initiative is a real possibility." And the effort helped broaden MPP's base, he said, pointing out that some 3,000 new members made contributions to the initiative.
There were lessons to be drawn from Nevada, Kampia told an attentive audience. Noting the appeal of the drug czar's anti-marijuana ads, he suggested reformers get right down in the gutter with the drug czar to compete. "While it's important to make good solid arguments, at the end of the day emotional arguments work better than logic," he said. "We need to appeal to emotion. We also have to address competing values -- people really are worried about kids having access to pot, about DUIs -- and beyond values, we have to face downright bigotry from some. They don't like the counterculture, they think marijuana is morally wrong. We need to learn from other social movements, especially the gay rights movement, how to make this personal. We have to show the voters that it is their family members, their friends, their coworkers who smoke pot. If they agree that those people in their lives shouldn't go to jail, then maybe we can convince them that other people shouldn't be going to jail either."
In so many words, Kampia was addressing a theme that resonated throughout the conference: the cultural divide symbolized by marijuana. While political victories may be scarce, attendees heard repeatedly that marijuana had already won the culture war. High Times magazine senior editor Steve Bloom regaled the audience with slide after slide of High Times covers featuring toking musicians. Bands clamored to be on the cover, blunts in hand, Bloom said. "They were coming to us," he said.
Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign (http://www.cannabisconsumers.org) told attendees about her personal culture war and her effort to normalize marijuana use by persuading users to come out of the closet. Academic Keith Saunders explained how "marijuana users were seen as race-mixing deviants, but they collectivized and created their own popular culture with their own marijuana knowledge."
But while some celebrated cannabis culture, others were not so quick to declare victory. "Marijuana prohibition only makes sense it you consider it as part of religious war," said Mike Gray, author of "Drug Crazy" and producer of a forthcoming documentary on medical marijuana struggles in California. "The current administration is attempting to eradicate the 1960s from our cultural history. They want us to forget Vietnam, they want us to forget the counterculture. Their ads are absurd on their face, and everyone knows it, but they are desperate," he said.
And in one of the more entertaining presentations at the conference, sex advice columnist and Seattle Weekly editor Dan Savage ripped into both the bigotry of the prohibitionists and the timidity of the pot people. Drawing on his experience as a gay man, Savage told the audience that if marijuana users are going to come out of the closet, they need to embrace the stereotypes. "Don't deny the existence of tie-dye wearing Deadheads," he said. "They are the vanguard. They are like the leather dykes. They couldn't or wouldn't hide, they had to fight, and they changed the world."
Again alluding to the gay liberation struggle, Savage urged pot people to heighten the contradictions with their friends and families. "We need to tell them 'you can love me or you can be a prohibitionist asshole, but you can't have both. And if you don't want to see me thrown in jail, why should you want to see that happen to anyone else.'"
In a Saturday luncheon address, actor, activist and NORML advisory board member Woody Harrelson also mixed humor and cultural politics, with one-liners zinging audience-members and prohibitionists alike. "There's a lot of very hungry people here," he noted. "This is a war on non-corporate drugs," he said. "What is Coca Cola but the corporate speedball?" he asked to roars of laughter.
But Harrelson got serious, too. "Anything you're doing that doesn't hurt someone else or their property should be A-OK," he said. "What does it mean to live in a free country? I didn't smoke pot until I was in college, but I took a hit and... wow... I felt so great. To this day, I have a problem with a government that doesn't want you to smoke something because it makes you euphoric. When did euphoria become a bad thing?"
Perhaps President Bush would be better off smoking pot, Harrelson suggested. "The shrub monkey -- what could his drug be?" he asked. Imitating the sound of someone snorting a huge line of coke, Harrelson roared, "I wanna rule the world!"
Harrelson's star power and comic timing overshadowed an important if less humorous luncheon address by American Civil Liberties Union head Nadine Strossen. Strossen placed drug war legal struggles firmly in the context of broader struggles for social justice and asserted that victory will eventually be had. Citing a 1986 Supreme Court ruling upholding Georgia's sodomy laws as akin to some of the rulings supporting the drug war, she told the audience that the law will eventually catch up to justice. "The ACLU never loses a case," Strossen said, "although sometimes judges make mistakes."
But if political and culture struggle were the general themes of the conference, medical marijuana was the star -- not a shocker given the central role of California and the Bay area in particular in the ongoing battle between the Bush Justice Department and medical marijuana users and providers. And while it was a NORML conference, it seemed to be Americans for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccessnow.org) who garnered the most attention and the most kudos. ASA, an umbrella group providing proactive defense for the medical marijuana community and led by Steph Sherer and Hilary McQuie, was honored for its efforts at a pre-conference party in Berkeley, where speaker after speaker praised the group for spearheading the counter-offensive to the Bush administration's attacks on medical marijuana. Similarly, speaker after speaker at NORML lauded ASA for raising the public stakes on the issue and particularly for the coup it scored in turning jurors in the Ed Rosenthal trial into critics of the justice system and allies of the movement.
Rosenthal himself attended and addressed the conference, vowing to continue the good fight even if it entailed his going to prison for five years. But Rosenthal was also involved in the only serious public dispute at the conference -- and that dispute reflected the stress and pressure the movement is under as the feds continue to prosecute and imprison lawful medical marijuana providers. The row erupted after Rosenthal publicly labeled San Francisco cannabis dispensary manager Bob Martin as a "snitch" for testifying under subpoena at Rosenthal's trial. Martin, who was not at the conference, was told of Rosenthal's remarks and rushed down to confront him. Crowds gathered as Rosenthal and Martin squared off in a shouting match that generated more heat than light. While that conflict ended when Martin was escorted out of the conference, it erupted again the next day when Martin supporters again challenged Rosenthal supporters in angry arguments.
"This shit doesn't do us any good at all," complained one observer. "They have to figure out that they're on the same side."
Medical marijuana was also the subject of several panels, with experts like Dr. Ethan Russo and Dr. David Hadorn updating conference-goers on the latest science, and California activists like the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club's Jeff Jones, California NORML (http://www.canorml.org) head Dale Gieringer, and movement attorney Robert Raich laying out the patchy progress of the state's Compassionate Use Act so far.
And attendees willing to make the trip across the bay got to see legal medical marijuana in action in a square block of Oakland known as Oaksterdam. At the Bulldog Café and the Lemon Drop, visitors saw card-carrying patients come in to buy and smoke their medicine. On Sunday afternoon, the sidewalk in front of the Bulldog resembled a party, as barbeque cooked and jazz bands played in the warm sunshine and patients tarried to soak it all up. While shop owners understand that the feds could swoop in at any time, they report no problems at all with local or state authorities, and Oaksterdam now stands as a model of peaceful, lawful medical marijuana distribution for the rest of the country.
But conference-goers were interested in the rest of the world, too, and packed the hall to listen to Canadian Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who led the parliamentary committee whose exhaustive report called for the legalization of marijuana, Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy head Eugene Oscapella, and global scene-watcher and Marijuana News (http://www.marijuananews.com) editor Richard Cowan. Nolin was especially refreshing for US citizens used to moralistic huffing and puffing from American politicians.
While marijuana's risks are relatively low, said Nolin, it does present some risks for the health and well-being of users, and the state is thus justified in intervening in some manner. But such state intervention must be guided by a set of principles. "We must respect the principle of autonomy for our citizens," said Nolin. "We must respect the principles of public governance not solely to control our citizens, but to promote their well-being. And we must respect the legal principle that only actions involving significant harm to others should be subject to criminal law."
Marijuana does not reach that threshold, he said, citing the voluminous study completed last year by his committee. "We cannot confuse the use of illegal drugs with their abuse merely because they are illegal," he said. "The criminal law has only limited use and more harmful than beneficial consequences. We arrest 25,000 people a year for marijuana possession. For 30 years we have deployed massive police resources and unleashed draconian police powers, and we have changed nothing. Canadians now have access to cannabis any time they want. We are not encouraging the use of cannabis, merely acknowledging it."
The Canadian government is expected to present legislation this summer that, while it does not go as far as Nolin's committee recommended, will call for the decriminalization of marijuana possession. But according to Eugene Oscapella, the malevolent gaze of US drug czar John Walters is giving some Canadian politicians the heebie-jeebies. "Many are apprehensive that if we move forward with drug policy reforms we will exacerbate the strains in our relationship with the US," he said, pointing out that Walters and other American politicians have threatened dire consequences on the border in the event of marijuana decrim. "Walters said we tightened up the border to deal with terrorism, but we're really going to tighten it up to deal with marijuana," Oscapella groaned. "It is a situation not of the one-eyed man leading the blind, but of the madman leading the blind," he said.
But it was Richard Cowan who pumped the crowd full of that old-time religion with a passionate speech denouncing the pernicious role of the US in global drug policy. "US narco-imperialism is a shame and a disgrace," he bellowed, his voice tinged with anger. "Its crimes go unseen. It is not addressed by the peace movement or the anti-globalization movement, and that too is a shame and a disgrace. US drug policy results in mass murder and we should not be silent anymore."
If the NORML conference is any indication, the silence is ending, but the path to success remains unclear. To go it alone or ally with other social movements? To put on the suit and tie or let your freak flag fly? To take a chance on educating the public or to follow the public as far as it will go? To take the struggle to the streets or to the courts? To public opinion or political leaders? The questions are being asked, the tactics debated, but only time will tell which are the correct answers.