At Annual NORML Conference, Legalization Initiatives Take Front and Center
The 41st National NORML conference took place at a downtown Los Angeles hotel over the weekend under the theme of "The Final Days of Prohibition." With marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two others, the several hundred attendees could almost smell the scent of victory come election day -- or at least a historic first win for legalization.
"This is a great movement, not because it's about marijuana, but because it's a movement about truth and freedom, the freedom to live our private lives as we wish," NORML board chairman Paul Kuhn told the crowd in his conference-opening remarks. "A White House that serves liquor, a president who smoked a lot of marijuana, and a speaker of the house who is addicted to nicotine -- they have no business demonizing us because we prefer a substance less dangerous than liquor or alcohol."
"We're beyond the concept of legalization. Now, we're supporting real laws, and no law will satisfy everybody in this movement," Kuhn continued, implicitly acknowledging the dissension around the Washington initiative. "We have our differences, sometimes heated, and this is healthy and necessary if we are to evolve and craft the best laws and regulations, the best form of legalization. All of us in this movement are allies, we're friends, we share the same goals of truth and freedom and legal marijuana. We have worked too hard for too many years to let our opponents divide us, or worse, divide ourselves."
"These are the final days of prohibition. The data is clear," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, pointing not only to public opinion polls but also to the political reality of the initiatives and the progress the movement has made in Congress and the states. "We have a cannabis caucus in our Congress and in the state houses, and we helped get them elected. There are 15 or 20 members of Congress who are genuine supporters of ending prohibition, most of them are Democrats. In the states, we now have sitting governors and representatives calling us and saying 'we want your support, your endorsement, your money.'"
With the initiatives looming, much of the conference was devoted to the minutiae and arcana of legalization, regulation, and taxation models. Thursday afternoon saw extended discussions in panels on "Cannabis Legalization and Regulation: What it Might Look Like" and "Cannabis and the 'Demo' Gap: Who Doesn't Support Legalization and What We Can Do about It."
"How do we win the hearts and minds of non-smokers?" asked Patrick Oglesby of the Center for New Revenue. "The revenue card is one we can play. That gives people something to vote for. Every state in the union legalizes and taxes alcohol and tobacco. Revenue from marijuana isn't going to fix our economic problems, but let's start with the easy stuff, let's fix this and get some revenues."
"At least one state will tip in November, and others will follow," predicted Pepperdine University researcher and Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know coauthor Angela Hawken. "Parents will wake up and realize their children didn't turn into zombies."
Parents -- and mothers in particular -- are a key demographic that must be won over if marijuana legalization is to advance, and the way to win them over is to address their fears, panelists said.
"Women are more safety conscious and they tend to believe authority," noted NORML Women's Alliance coordinator Sabrina Fendrick. "They just need to be educated. Proposition 19 failed in large part because of women and seniors. Many were concerned over the driving issue and children being on the road with stoned drivers. The way to bring support up is to educate them about the difference between use and abuse, and to make women who support legalization feel safe about coming out."
The NORML Women's Alliance is working on that, and on increasing the number of female activists in a movement that has been male-dominated from the outset.
Law enforcement is another key bastion of opposition to legalization, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) representative Steven Downing told the audience the key to swaying law enforcement was not in the rank and file, but at the pinnacle of the command structure.
"We have to influence change at the top," he said. "When that comes, the young officers on the street will do as they're told. Many of them already agree with legalizing marijuana. Don't treat the police as the enemy, but as people who can benefit from the education you can give them. Do it in a way that they're not defensive, then refer them to LEAP," the former LAPD officer suggested. "Tell them that if they support the war on drugs, they're not supporting public safety."
On Friday, longtime Seattle marijuana activist-turned-journalist Dominic Holden gave a spirited defense of Washington's I-502 initiative and ripped into its movement critics, including calling out NORML board member and Seattle defense attorney Jeff Steinborn, who has been a vocal foe of the initiative despite a unanimous board vote to support it.
"Who is opposing 502?" Holden asked. "The law enforcement opposition has been quiet and halfhearted. It's Steve Sarich, who runs CannaCare, it's cannabis doc Gil Mobley, and a whole passel of pot activists along with them. The ones opposing pot legalization right now are the ones making money hand over fist with prohibition. If they're profiting off it, I don't give a rat's ass what they think," he said.
"They don't like the DUID provision and its per se standard. They say that someone who uses marijuana regularly will test positive, but there is not a single scientific study to back them up. Their argument is fundamentally flawed because it is a lie," Holden countered, mincing no words.
"There is also concern that if we pass it, the federal government will challenge us on legalizing pot. That's the damned point!" he thundered.
"But marijuana is going to be taxed, they complain. Shut up, Teabaggers!" Holden jeered. "What planet do you live on where they're not going to tax a huge agricultural commodity?"
He pointed out that Steinborn and Sensible Washington, who are opposing I-502, had tried unsuccessfully to mount an initiative of their own.
"If you want to run a winning campaign, you need a bunch of money, credible spokespeople, campaign professionals, and the polling on your side," he said. "Part of that is compromise. You don't always get what you want, you don't always get the initiative of your dreams. What you want is a bill that can win."
"This is poll driven," said travel writer, TV host, and I-502 proponent Rick Steves. "It isn't a utopian fix. We need to win this. This doesn't feel pro-pot, but anti-prohibition."
"Regulate marijuana like alcohol is our message," said Sensible Colorado head and Amendment 80 proponent Brian Vicente. "We don't talk about legalization, but regulation. We've built support for this through two avenues, medical marijuana, where we've worked hard to make our state a model for how it can be taxed and regulated, but also through consistent earned media pushes and ballot initiatives to introduce the public to the idea that this isn’t the demon weed. We're consistently ahead five to ten points in the polls. We think this will be a damned close election."
When Vicente noted that the Colorado initiative had no drugged driving provision, he was met with loud applause.
Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann provided a primer on what major donors look for when it comes to supporting initiatives.
"We don't pick out a state in advance," he explained. "We want to know at the get-go if there is already a serious majority in favor of legalization. To think you can use a campaign to move the public is not true; the role of the ballot process is to transform majoritarian public opinion into law when the state legislature is unable or unwilling to do so. You want to go in with 57% or 58% on your side. Anything short of that, you're going to lose."
And watch out for October, he warned.
"In the final weeks, the opposition mobilizes," Nadelmann said. "You get the cops, the politicians, the feds speaking out and scaring people -- that's why these are hard to win, and that's why I'm still really nervous."
Still, the Drug Policy Alliance is deeply involved in Colorado and has put a lot of money into Washington, Nadelmann said, while noting that the Marijuana Policy Project had also put big bucks into Colorado.
"We have to win this year so we can figure out how to win a bunch more in 2016," Nadelmann said, adding that he was looking toward California. "We're going to try to put together the best and most winnable legalization initiative in California in 2016.
NORML 2012 wasn't all about the initiatives -- there were also panels on advances in medical marijuana, advances in the Northeast, and the role of women in the movement, among others, and a rousing speech from long-time anti-war activist Tom Hayden and a new-born movement star in Ann Lee, the mother of Richard Lee -- but with the marijuana legalization movement looking like it's about to step foot in the Promised Land after decades in the political wilderness, next month's elections dominated. The prospect of imminent victory really focuses the mind.