More than 500 marijuana activists gathered in San Francisco last weekend for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws annual conference. Meeting in America's marijuana Mecca, envious Midwesterners and denizens of the uptight East alike marveled at the laid-back attitude toward marijuana in the Bay Area. With the staff of the host Cathedral Hill Hotel reserving an entire hospitality suite for pot-smoking delegates and the scent of Northern California's finest strains wafting through the hotel, yet failing to excite a comment or raised eyebrow, with the state's pioneering medical marijuana law having led to the creation of a network of dispensaries across the Bay Area, and with non-medicinal, adult marijuana sales going on across the bay in Oakland (see story this issue), NORML's 2005 conference was set in a place far from what most Americans experience.
The setting was completely appropriate, as conference attendees were in a mood to make the San Francisco experience the norm across the land. And given the locale, the predominance of Californians in attendance and on conference panels was not unexpected; for activists from other parts of the country, it was a chance to learn from people on the vanguard of marijuana law reform.
Indeed, learning the lessons of California was much of the meat of the conference, whether it was discussing the looming Supreme Court decision in Angel Raich and Diane Monson's case seeking to bar the Justice Department from interfering with California medical marijuana users, examining the strategies of victims of federal persecution of medical marijuana users and providers, or plotting how to replicate the success of Oakland's Measure Z, which made pot the city's lowest law enforcement priority.
If California is a shining beacon for American marijuana reformers, they also look north to Canada. But a panel of Canadian pot experts warned their southern counterparts that while the country may appear a pot-lover's haven, reality is more complex. Canada's much lauded federal medical marijuana program is not working well, said Philippe Lucas of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society. "The law does not protect all medical marijuana users," he said. "Only 800 people have registered and we have an estimated one million medicinal users. The medical marijuana access regulations have done more to add to the suffering of Canadian medical marijuana patients than to help them." Canada's medical marijuana program is "a goddamned failing program," he said.
"Our mayor in Vancouver, Larry Campbell, is widely cheered by drug reformers," said Vancouver Sun reporter Ian Mulgrew. "He supports safe injection sites and free heroin, but last summer someone had the temerity to openly sell marijuana. The mayor turned that into marijuana people flouting the law. The police had been in there already, this is supposed to be a cannabis-friendly town, but here came a police convoy of 30 vehicles, a helicopter overhead, and a SWAT team yelling and screaming and arresting people. Even the people who appear to be our friends, the minute you start talking about implementing policy, wow, do they run in the other direction."
Americans enthralled with Vancouver might do better to look to Oakland, said Mulgrew. "Canadians are flabbergasted by Oaksterdam when you tell them about it," he said, referring to the over-the-counter pot sales going on across the Bay. "Oakland looks great. Let it grow in a responsible, accountable way. It's something the rest of the world can look at and learn from."
Oakland got a lot of attention at the conference, not only because of Oaksterdam, but because of the successful initiative that laid the groundwork for the city's current walk on the wild side. "Our initiative not only makes marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority, it urges the city to regulate and tax marijuana and it establishes an oversight committee to ensure that the city is in compliance," explained Cannabis Consumers' Campaign head Mikki Norris, one of the organizers who came together as the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance to push the measure last year.
Giving credit where due, Norris pointed to Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam's Bulldog Coffeeshop as the "visionary" behind the initiative. "Oaksterdam is his idea," said Norris. "He has a vision of Oaksterdam as urban revitalization." Lee was not just a visionary, though, Norris said, "he also hired political consultants to do focus groups."
That investment paid off, said Norris. "We were able to test our language. Was Oakland ready for this? It cost $10,000 or $15,000, but it was worth it. We were able to craft our message based on our polling and focus groups." Money is absolutely necessary for initiative campaigns, she said. "Even the petition drive; you really have to have money for that, too. You have to pay people."
Initiative organizers found themselves in a pleasant quandary regarding media coverage, Norris told a rapt crowd. "We had to resist seeking out the press," she said. "With 65% support according to our polls, if you get too much attention, the newspapers will seek out your opponents to get the opposing message. The lesson is to control the media, control your message," Norris advised.
With cash an obviously critical component of a successful campaign, Marijuana Policy Project director Rob Kampia, who sits on one of the largest piles of drug reform grant money, got a very close listen when he addressed the conference. While Kampia pronounced himself pleased with the latest election cycle, citing numerous state and local initiative victories, he warned that the days of state-wide initiatives may be coming to an end. "In a series of discussions with major donors, the feeling is that people don't want to spend a ton of money running any more state medical marijuana initiatives," he said. "The best states are already taken, and there are probably only one or two where it would be a real slam dunk. But MPP has renewed its commitment to funding well-written local initiatives like Oakland, and we think we can start passing bills in state legislatures, which is much cheaper than running an initiative campaign," he said.
"But our big focus will be to pass the regulation and taxation bill in Nevada," Kampia said to loud applause. "It would remove all penalties for the possession and use of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults and set up a system of regulation so adults can buy it. There are two penalty increases," he explained to a now noticeably quieter audience. "We increased the maximum -- not the minimum -- penalty for killing someone while driving under the influence, and we increased the maximum penalty for selling to minors if there is a more than three-year age difference." Those changes help put the measure "right on the edge of having a majority," Kampia said. "We will be concentrating on Nevada, but we will issue grants to activists who want to run an initiative on the local level."
But while marijuana is naturally the focus of the NORML convention, attendees heard repeatedly from panelists that Cannabis Nation needed to broaden its focus. Marijuana is not the issue; drug prohibition is, said drug reform stalwarts such as former New Jersey narcotics officer and current Law Enforcement Against Prohibition head Jack Cole, who told the audience he was joining NORML, but he wanted the pot people to join him; Nick Eyle of ReConsider and Cliff Thornton of Efficacy who talked about ending drug prohibition; and Seattle's King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project head Roger Goodman, who explained his group's inside strategy to replace "the failed drug war" with a new, regulatory approach.
In that Thursday panel, NORML members got a triple-dose of eye-opening anti-prohibitionist rhetoric. But there was more to come, and from none other than perhaps the country's best known drug reformer, Drug Policy Alliance director Ethan Nadelmann. "Where are we going?" an energized Nadelmann asked his Saturday morning audience. "How many of you want to legalize marijuana?" he asked, to thunderous applause. "How many think it's a part of a bigger effort to end prohibition?" The applause was still loud, but less thunderous. "How are we going to connect marijuana to the bigger war on drugs?"
One way is by continuing to work the one issue where a majority of Americans agree with drug reformers: medical marijuana, Nadelmann suggested. "We support medical marijuana, we are working with allies in Alabama, for example, and even though many of us support legalization, this is about medical marijuana in Alabama," he said. "We don't have to hide the fact that we support legalization, but we have to use our good judgment."
Drug reformers need to embark on "a nonviolent guerrilla struggle for social and political justice," he said. "It will go step by step. You have to know when to pull back, when to watch your flanks." And drug reformers need to understand that "self-expression is not a synonym for effective political action," Nadelmann chided. We may want to talk legalization, he said, but tax and regulate plays better with voters. "Let's do this carefully, let's consolidate and build. It is when we overreach that our opposition has the best chance to hit us back. And if we are to grow as a movement, we have to organize and build big entities that are able to do this."
That is a work in progress. But with Allen St. Pierre taking over the NORML reins from founder and longtime director Keith Stroup, with the marijuana movement on the move across the country, and with hundreds of activists leaving San Francisco red-eyed but reenergized, it is a work that is well underway. And if this conference is any indication, the marijuana movement may be maturing enough to realize that the evils of drug prohibition extend well beyond pot.