Another 4/20 has come and gone, and with it the annual national convention of the nation's oldest drug reform group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org). Somewhere around 350 people attended this year's conference set in downtown Washington, DC, down by about 200 from last year's conference in San Francisco, but that is always the case when NORML meets on the East Coast instead of the more pot-friendly Left Coast. Similarly, medical marijuana patients taking their medicine on sidewalks outside the hotel ran into more problems in downtown DC than they do in San Francisco, but those problems were resolved peacefully and without arrests (although presumably with some embarrassment for the straight-laced presidential scholars meeting in the same building who tried unsuccessfully to sic the cops on Irvin Rosenfeld, one of only seven Americans who have federal approval to smoke marijuana for medical reasons).
While, as always, the NORML convention was packed with panels and presentations on all aspects of marijuana law, culture, and politics, and in particular, presentations related to the conference's theme, "We're here, we smoke, we vote," the single biggest bit of news from this year's conference was the announcement by NORML founder and long-time executive director Keith Stroup that he would step by the end of the year.
"It is time for some younger blood," Stroup told a stunned crowd. "I'll be gone by the first of the year," he said. But Stroup isn't sinking silently into his dotage, he told DRCNet. "I'll still be involved, I'll still be on the board, and I want to make sure that some of the celebrity and contributor connections I've developed over the years are not lost."
The group has not announced a timeline for replacing Stroup, said NORML assistant director Kris Krane. "The board of directors has a committee set up to look into candidates," he told DRCNet, "and there will be an announcement for potential applicants within the next month or two," he said. "Keith will leave by the end of the year, and we will have a replacement by then."
In what was Stroup's swan song to supporters, the silver-haired veteran came out swinging. "We're here, we smoke, we vote," Stroup shouted out, hitting the conference theme early. "We won't support candidates who treat us like criminals. If everyone who smoked pot took that pledge, we could change those laws in two election cycles," he said.
Stroup saw good news and bad news as he surveyed the state of NORML. "We've never been in better shape in terms of public support," he said. "Almost one-quarter of the American public knows what NORML is, and among pot-smokers we've polled, 87% have a good impression of NORML. Good will and name recognition are among our biggest assets," Stroup told the crowd. "The bad news is that we have never found the key to adequate fundraising. The question is how we use our assets to increase funding." Not by hiding the group's message, Stroup said. "We speak for pot-smokers and we don't apologize for our choice of intoxicants."
If there is good news and bad for NORML, said Stroup, the same holds true for the larger marijuana reform movement. "We have stronger support than ever before," he said, citing large majorities in favor of legalizing medical marijuana and punishing recreational users only with fines. "We've won half the battle, but we can't seem to get more support from legislators because they fear they will be defeated. We haven't reached the tipping point. That will come when tens of millions of pot-smokers take the pledge," he said.
Stroup also identified key issues facing the movement, including the push by federal authorities for drugged driving laws nationwide (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/329/driving.shtml). "We will have to fight these laws," he said, "because they really target pot-smokers, not impaired drivers." Another battleground is medical marijuana, said Stroup, citing the need to avoid the "pharmaceuticalization" of medipot and to "protect options for patients."
But the movement must move beyond medical marijuana, he said. "We have to find brave state legislators, and once we do that, I am terribly optimistic that we will lead the country out of the closet of ignorance and into the sunshine of the regulated adult use model."
NORML and conference attendees tried bringing some sunshine to Capitol Hill Wednesday as part of a "Congressional Lobbying Day" that opened the conference. While the day of lobbying was a success not only in terms of participation (more than 150 people lobbied their representatives) and results (members of the Illinois congressional delegation promising to vote for the Hinchey Amendment, which would bar the Justice Department from prosecuting patients who use medical marijuana in compliance with state laws), it was also notable for the cooperation it engendered among sometimes squabbling reform groups.
The citizen activists lobbied Congress on four issues -- medical marijuana, decriminalization, the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision, and the CLEAN-UP Act, which would expose event promoters to similar punishments as venue owners face under the RAVE Act -- with pros from different reform groups leading the way. NORML's Stroup led the decrim session, the Marijuana Policy Project's Steve Fox led the medical marijuana session, SSDP's Ross Wilson led the HEA session, and the Drug Policy Alliance's Bill Piper led the CLEAN-UP Act session.
"The lobby day was really the key to the conference, and it was a big success," said NORML's Krane. "We will be going back to the Hill to follow-up on this," he told DRCNet. "Some of those congressmen who voted against us on Hinchey, for instance, had no idea what they were voting for or against. We'll make sure they understand, and we'll watch to help them remember." For Krane, though, it was the cooperation of movement groups as much as the reception on the Hill that warmed his heart. "We had four major drug policy reform groups working together on common goals. I don't know if we would have seen that even a year or two ago," he said.
But not everyone is waiting for a state or US senator to ride up on a white horse. In fact, much of the potential progress this year could come from states and cities where activists have bypassed elected officials and taken the marijuana reform message directly to the voters. One of the most well-attended panels was the one on the initiatives on the ballot this year, with the Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia explaining how the group has tweaked its Nevada adult regulation (don't use the L-word, he pleaded) initiative to address concerns expressed by voters when a similar initiative failed in 2002.
Also talking about regulation initiatives on the ballot were Leland Beatty of Alaskans for Rights and Revenue, whose group is sponsoring the far-reaching Alaska legalization ballot question and California NORML head Dale Gieringer, who is part of the coalition behind the Oakland Cannabis Revenue and Regulation ordinance, which would direct the Oakland City Council to set up regulated adult access to marijuana as soon as state law allows and make pot busts the lowest law enforcement priority in the meantime.
"We're really pushing the envelope with this," said Gieringer. "This is not medical marijuana, it's not decrim, but the regulated availability of marijuana in stores." The ordinance is showing 2-1 support in polling, he added, perhaps because "the state could raise $1-1.5 billion a year from pot taxes."
Oregon attorney Leland Berger told the audience about OMMA2, the new Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which, if passed in November, would direct state officials to create a system of licensed and regulated medipot dispensaries. "OMMA2 will leave no patient behind," said Berger, alluding both to President Bush's controversial education bill and to what he said were thousands of Oregon residents unable to avail themselves of medical marijuana under current state law.
Medical marijuana was also on the mind of Registered Nurse Mary Lynn Mathre of the Virginia-based Patients Out of Time and her fellow panelist Melanie Dreher, dean of the University of Iowa School of Nursing. "There are too many health professionals who don't dare say the word, let alone recommend medical marijuana," said Maithre. "The biggest cop-out is to say we need more research, but the Institute of Medicine basically said 'no we don't.' We want more research, yes," said Mathre, "but we don't need it."
Mathre and Patients Out of Time are sponsoring the third National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapuetics at the University of Virginia next month, and she urged the press to attend. "Clinicians aren't hearing about the research on medical marijuana because the press doesn't cover it unless it's bad news," she said.
But it was Dreher who stole the show. "I'm a middle-aged, middle class white woman from the Midwest in stodgy clothes," she announced. "I also support marijuana law reform." Dreher discussed the issue of marijuana use during pregnancy, telling the audience how she received call after call from pregnant women worried to death that they would give birth to monsters because they smoked pot. Those worries are unwarranted, she said. "There were 120,000 pregnant women who used marijuana in 1994," Dreher pointed out. "We would have a big problem by now if marijuana were a danger during pregnancy. It isn't and we don't."
Mathre and Dreher were among the people honored at the conference for their achievements, Mathre winning the Pauline Sabin award for women's leadership in ending marijuana prohibition, and Dreher winning the Lester Grinspoon award for achievement in marijuana science and research. Others whose contributions were acknowledged this year were federal medical marijuana patient Irv Rosenfeld, who won the Peter McWilliams award for outstanding achievement in advancing medical marijuana; Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris for outstanding cannabis advocacy; High Times senior editor Steve Bloom, who won the media and culture award; Florida State University NORML student Ricky Bradford, who won the student activism honor for his efforts with the Tallahassee de-prioritization initiative; and NORML board member Paul Kuhn, who won the lifetime achievement award.
"A youthful indiscretion has turned into a lifetime achievement," Kuhn joked.
And for many others at the conference, a youthful indiscretion has turned into a way of life and a path to political activism. As for NORML, the times may be a-changing and the old guard giving way to the new, but the organization seems inspired and ready to ride out to do battle for the forces of goodness and light.