Drug Reform Pioneer Kevin Zeese Dies at Age 64

The American drug reform movement lost one of its pioneers on Sunday. Attorney Kevin Zeese died of a heart attack at home after going to bed Saturday night. He was only 64.

Kevin Zeese addresses a rally in Washington, DC, in 2006. (Elvart Barnes/Creative Commons)
Upon graduating from George Washington University School of Law in 1980, Zeese moved immediately into what was then a very lonely movement to end marijuana prohibition, becoming general counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and then being selected as NORML's executive director from 1983 to 1986. During his time at NORML during the dark days of the Reagan era, he emerged as one of the earliest advocates of medical marijuana and successfully fought to end the spraying of herbicides on Mexican marijuana crops.

He didn't stop there. After leaving NORML, Zeese joined with the also recently passed Professor Arnold Trebach in 1987 to found the Drug Policy Foundation, which after merging with the Lindesmith Center in 2000 became the Drug Policy Alliance, the largest and most influential drug reform group in the country. He served as vice president and counsel to the Drug Policy Foundation from 1986 to 1994.

He didn't stop there. In 1993, he helped found the Harm Reduction Coalition, a groundbreaking organization that has successfully advocated for such measures as needle exchanges, treatment on demand, and overdose prevention campaigns, and is currently leading the fight to introduce the proven harm reduction practice of safe injection sites in the United States. The Harm Reduction Coalition is also notable for emphasizing the rights of drug users and demanding that their voices be heard in setting drug policies.

He didn't stop there, either. His next move was to found Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP) along with businessman Robert Field and attorney Melvin Allen. CSDP sought to broaden support for drug policy reform through a campaign of advertising in serious national magazines across the political spectrum ranging from Reason and the National Review on the right to the Nation and the Progressive on the left. Ever since 1998, CSDP has published and updated the pamphlet Drug War Facts, a veritable activists' Bible of facts and citations related to drug policy issues. Zeese served as CSDP president up until his death.

Nor did he stop there. Broadening his horizons in the current century, and reflecting his disgust with the two-party political system, where he saw both major parties as corrupted by corporate capital, Zeese helped organized against the Iraq war and joined with Ralph Nader's Democracy Rising to push the group to embrace an antiwar position. Two years later, in 2006, he founded the national antiwar group Voters for Peace and served as its director until 2011.

Moving on to progressive third-party politics, Zeese advised campaigns for local Green Party candidates and joined the 2004 Ralph Nader presidential campaign, where he served as press secretary and spokesman for the candidate. In 2006, he ran for the US Senate in Maryland supported by the Greens, the Libertarians, and the Populist Party. He campaigned on withdrawing the US military and corporate interests from Iraq, economic and social justice, and electronic voting reform. He got only 1.5% of the vote.

And he didn't stop there. Zeese was active in the 2011 Occupy movement, participated in the takeover of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC, last year to protect it from Washington-supported foes of leftist President Maduro, and had continued to be involved in Green Party politics up until his last breath.

Kevin Zeese left a powerful legacy for the drug reform movement and for progressive politics more broadly, but this recitation of biographical facts hardly does him justice. He was whip-smart, passionate, curious, fun and fun-loving. He was always ready to share a joint or a laugh (or both). I'm deeply saddened that he is gone so soon. And when I position his photo for this piece, I will make sure that it aligns left, not right.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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