Feature: If It's 4/20, It Must Be NORML: Annual Conference Gets Underway In San Francisco 4/21/06

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Some 500 marijuana activists and aficionados began gathering yesterday for the annual three-day conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in San Francisco. The Holiday Inn Golden Gate on Van Ness Avenue in the heart of the city was starting to look a bit looser than usual Wednesday afternoon as the proportion of men with graying ponytails and people with t-shirts emblazoned with marijuana leaves steadily increased.

It is a cannabis-friendly crowd in a cannabis-friendly city, of course, but it was down to business early on Thursday morning. NORML board member Steve Dillon opened the proceedings. "A hundred million Americans have tried marijuana," he said. "We are past the threshold." Still, he noted, marijuana arrests continue to rise, to a record 770,000 last year, so there is clearly work to be done. But Dillon remained optimistic. "Prohibition is based on fear," he said, "and our victory is certain. We are the side of experience, truth, and love."

Before getting down to nuts and bolts, NORML and the attendees took time to honor San Francisco City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi with the Rufus King award, named after the pioneering anti-prohibitionist lawyer. Mirkarimi played a key role in crafting the city's progressive medical marijuana dispensary regulations and is a proponent of regulated marijuana.

"We are trying to mainstream the issue," he said. "Cannabis should not be criminalized. We created an infrastructure here in San Francisco so the dispensaries don't have to operate in the shadows. We had always operated with a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, but what kind of government operates like that? We should regulate cannabis. Politicians who are not for decriminalization should not be in elected office at all," he said.

"Cannabis is at the tipping point," said Mirikami. "We know very well we have an unimpeachable case. We are committing precious resources to an illegal war abroad in Iraq and in the criminal justice system we are wasting more dollars to prosecute those of us who use marijuana. We cannot afford this retarded policy."

St. Pierre followed Mirkami's remarks by noting that the supervisor was elected on the Green Party ticket, an allusion to the failure of the two major parties to move toward significant marijuana law reform. "As for the Democrats and Republicans, a pox on both their houses as far as this issue goes," St. Pierre said.

One of the reasons the established political parties have been loath to end marijuana prohibition is the fact that half the country thinks its use is immoral, St. Pierre said, citing a Pew poll from last month. "This is a serious moral and political issue of our times. As long as half the public thinks it's immoral, reform is going to be a hard sell."

Citing NORML's own polling, St. Pierre identified three groups that oppose marijuana: Christians, parents, and Republicans. They have to be taken on, he said. "Every single indicator the government has come up with shows our current policy does not work. One out of four pot sellers are under 18. Is that what parents want? We need Parents for Pot, we need Republicans for Reefer, we need Christians for Cannabis."

The conference then turned to its main theme, "Grass Tops and Grass Roots," with a panel studded with Seattleites. There, the King County Bar Association (KCBA) Drug Policy Project led by Roger Goodman has mobilized professional organizations, politicians, and community leaders into one of the most effective "grass tops" coalitions in the country. At the same time, grassroots currents such as the people around the Seattle Hempfest and the successful "lowest law enforcement priority" initiative of 2004 have also harnessed powerful social forces. Together, Seattle's grass tops and grassroots have created a formidable force for drug law reform, and NORML brought them to town to share their lessons with the rest.

"Our strength lies in our diversity, tolerance, and ultimately, sense of community," said long-time Hempfest organizer Vivian McPeak. "The key to success is knowing what one's personal role is," said the bearded, dreadlocked, pierced, and tattooed McPeak. "I'm not the guy to be appearing on the news. I represent what many consider to be the Achilles heel of the marijuana movement -- the association with the '60s counterculture. But what is a liability in one circumstance can be an asset if used strategically in a different social setting."

Just as there is a role for the hippies, there is a role for the suits, said McPeak. "We need the grass tops. If we can be divided, we can be conquered. At the same time, we cannot jettison the counterculture, for this movement is about freedom, liberty of lifestyle, and choosing for oneself what one does in the privacy of one's home. Even as we mainstream our message, we must honor our diversity."

"It's not the message, it's the messenger," said the somberly-suited Goodman, who put together the impressive coalition of professional associations in Washington state. "We are the establishment. We're not a front for fringy, pony-tailed pot smokers. There's a lot of kabuki theater involved in this," he said. "Dress the right way, say the right thing, and you can create space and then reform happens."

"The politicians are the players," said Seattle City Council President Nick Licata. "How do you get to them? The simplest step is to go meet with them. You also develop letters of endorsement from neighborhood groups, Democratic district clubs, the League of Women Voters. You get each group to draw up a resolution supporting this, and then you can force a discussion around the issue."

The discussions -- and much, much more -- continue through Saturday. Look for more reporting from NORML here next week.

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Issue #432 -- 4/21/06

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