The annual conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) ended in San Francisco Saturday afternoon, wrapping up three days of intensive panel discussions, vendor hawking, and hallway networking among the more than 500 people who showed up for the annual confab. As the smoke settled, some participants headed for the airport, some for the High Times comedy show that benefited NORML, and some just for one last night out in Babylon-by-the-Bay.
If the conference began Thursday fully focused on how to reform the marijuana laws through basic organizing, by Friday it was being buffeted by current events. Seattle activist Dominic Holden started the day by reading a Drug War Chronicle article about how the Alaska House had rejected a move to recriminalize marijuana there, an announcement that brought loud cheers from the crowd. But that same day, news of the FDA's denial that marijuana has any medical benefits was met with dismay and disbelief, and reform group honchos in attendance spent the afternoon cycling between reporters and TV crews seeking comment on the controversy.
The FDA decision was also on the minds of presenters. "What do the letters FDA stand for?" asked Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "Fraudulent Data Association? Fools and Dopes Alliance? We used to think there would be an element of independence at FDA," he said, "but this is a craven last effort against medical marijuana." Nadelmann likened the FDA move to similar efforts elsewhere in the Bush administration to make science serve political ends. "Government scientists are resigning because they can't stand the politicization," he said.
But the breaking FDA news didn't put a damper on everything. In a Friday session on this year's batch of marijuana-related state and local initiatives, panelists like Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign and Richard Lee of Oakland's Bulldog Coffee Shop, both of whom are key members of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance that passed the city's "lowest law enforcement priority" initiative in 2004, announced their plans to take the Oakland model to cities around the state.
"We found that at the city level, we can make marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority," said Norris. "Now we want to spread this around the state, and this year, we're looking for low-hanging fruit. We looked at voting records -- who voted for Kerry in 2004 and who voted for Prop. 215 in 1996 -- to find progressive locations, and we avoided anyplace that went higher than 25% Republican. We are now working on initiatives in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood," she said.
At least one of those places has already gathered sufficient signatures to make the November ballot, Norris said. "I have an announcement," she said. "Santa Cruz this morning submitted signatures to qualify for the ballot." The others cities have until late May.
The panel also included Steve Fox, the executive director of Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), the group that shot out of nowhere by loudly declaiming that marijuana is safer than alcohol and should not be treated more severely. SAFER won two non-binding college referenda at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, then shocked the nation by winning a legalization initiative last November in Denver. Since then, the group has continued on a roll, piling up more wins at the University of Texas, Florida State University, and the University of Maryland. It is also fully engaged in attempting to put a statewide legalization initiative on the ballot in Colorado this year.
"We're trying to change the rhetoric around marijuana and marijuana policy," Fox told the crowd. "We are educating the public about the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and it has really caught on. One thing we learned is to stay focused. Every sentence out of our mouths has the words 'alcohol' and 'marijuana' in it. And we get incredible media coverage."
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) communications director Bruce Mirken updated the crowd on the group's effort to win a regulation and legalization initiative in Nevada, where the group has been working for four years. "We have offered a fully formed system of regulation and taxation there. Adults over 21 can possess up to an ounce, but they will buy it legally from licensed, regulated merchants who have to adhere to rules, such as being no closer than 500 feet to a school or church or not selling it at convenience stores," he explained. "We have the other side nervous, and they're already starting to fight dirty. This is going to be a hell of a fight," Mirken predicted.
In his address to the crowd, DPA's Nadelmann urged the cannabis nation to broaden its vision. "It's not just about marijuana or medical marijuana or industrial hemp or our right to consume this wonderful substance," he said. "We are building a political movement, and ultimately, the marijuana movement and the broader cause of justice will be empowered by working together."
But to a large extent, it is all about pot, Nadelmann admitted. "Our opponents say drug reformers are potheads," he said. "Well, yeah, it's true, we are among the tens of millions of Americans who enjoy pot. We like it at the movies, or listening to music or making love. We find this a wonderful substance that adds joy. Thank you, God, for putting it on the planet. We are involved because we benefit from it, but we are also politically conscious human beings who understand what freedom is. The laws are not right. Nobody should be punished for taking a substance into his own body. That's who we are."
The panels were good and informative, the speakers sometimes inspiring, but the one person with real star power at the NORML conference was Tommy Chong, already a legend among stoners for his comedy work with Cheech Marin in the team of Cheech and Chong. Chong's exalted status was only increased by his martyrdom at the hands of the feds; he served nine months in federal prison for selling bongs emblazoned with his image.
Chong was in fine form as he entertained lunch diners Friday. "All that stuff about bubba in prison isn't true," he said. "It doesn't hurt. [laughter] But it does hurt when the government is doing it to you. The government is totally retarded, man. Watching Bush speak is like watching the kid from the special class rule the country."
Bush was a favorite target for Chong. "He's a good example of what happens when you take the most dangerous drug: methamphetamine," Chong joked. "Meth makes people do weird things like walk around the house looking for something to take apart. Bikers on meth take their motorcycles apart, but then they can't put them back together. Much like Bush has done to this country."
Bush's vice-president came in for some gibes, too. "I sold bongs to Cheney's secret service team," Chong said. "They said, 'We're Cheney's secret service team, heh heh.'"
Chong also had some pointed comments about the pot laws and prison. "What's the worst thing that happens if you get too high?" he asked. "You're gonna eat too much. There's no such thing as pot-fueled rage, is there? When I was in prison, they made me take a drug education course. I signed up, man, I wanted to learn. Trouble is, I ended up teaching it."
Finally, Chong has some words about the problem with potheads. "The problem with potheads is we're not doing anything, so we don't get paranoid. I woke up in jail five months later and said, 'Fuck, I shouldn't have put my picture on that bong."
Following the standing ovation Chong got from the crowd, a documentary on his bizarre experience with the criminal justice system began -- and so did the flaring of lighters in the darkened room as crowd members decided to supplement the movie with their favorite herb. But that was too much for the smoke-conscious Holiday Inn, which abruptly stopped the movie and cleared the room because of the violation of California's smoking laws.
And so it goes in California, leading the nation both in marijuana law reform and in the crusade against cigarette smoking.