It's NORML to Smoke Pot

San Francisco is the most pot friendly large city in the country, so it is no surprise that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) held its national convention there on April 18-20. Over 570 people from all walks of life streamed to the Crowne Plaza Union Square Hotel to hear speakers from State Senator John Vasconcellos to the host of ABC-TV's Politically Incorrect Bill Maher.

Demanding that the government lay off pot smokers, mothers decried the arrest of their children, medicinal marijuana users heralded its beneficial properties, civil libertarians denounced the violations of the constitution and pot smokers praised the plant for its enjoyable effects and the lack of harm of any significant extent.

So what is a "pot" convention like? Like any other convention with speeches, panel discussions, rubber chicken luncheons, exhibition booths, tons of brochures and parties. Of course, the parties were a little different as there was very little alcohol consumption. Instead people in suits and ties, elegant dresses, GQ casual, Hollywood chic, jeans and t-shirts and even a few died in the wool 60's style tie-dye long hairs passed around joints and pipes with the herb that humans have been using since before we were human.

DAY I

In a room filled to capacity, Keith Stroup, founder and executive director of NORML, welcomed the attendees as he stood next to large reproductions of NORML's $500,000 print, broadcast and outdoor advertising campaign. The campaign features New York's newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his candid admission that he smoked pot and "enjoyed it." Stroup's call for pot smokers to come out of the closet set the tone for a conference featuring advocates for legalization, medicinal use and respect for individual rights.

Following Keith Stroup, was the conventions keynote speaker, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. In 1996, he was the only district attorney in the entire state of California to endorse Proposition 215 which legalized medicinal marijuana. As District Attorney, Hallinan opposes prosecution for marijuana possession and follows a policy to not seek prison sentences for any marijuana conviction. Pointing out the inconsistency that it required a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol and only a legislative vote to ban marijuana, Hallinan informed the audience that "to consider marijuana in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine, as federal statues do, makes no sense and does not reflect reality."

A video message was then shown from Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, a long-time advocate of marijuana decriminalization, congratulating NORML on the convention and to "show my support for the good work you are doing."

The convention's first panel discussed the need to inform the public about marijuana and marijuana users. Mikki Norris, founder of the American Hemp Council and co-creator of the award-winning photo exhibit Human Rights and the Drug War, brought the delegates to their feet when she exclaimed "I want to see a time when we are judged on the content of our character, not our urine."

Featured on the panel was Information Technology entrepreneur John Gilmore. Coming out publicly, Gilmore declared "I'm a millionaire. I smoke pot." Willing to put his money where he puts his joints, he has pledged to fund NORML's efforts to end marijuana prohibition to the tune of one million dollars a year for ten years. Claiming the use of marijuana is widespread by "techies" he chided the many pot smoking high tech entrepreneurs for not supporting NORML and other drug law reform organizations.

Panel number two presented the latest information on drug testing. The panel's moderator, Dr. John Morgan of the CUNY Medical School, pointed to the 30,000 forensic drug tests undergone by Americans every day creating a two and a half billion dollar a year "urine testing industrial empire."

With the recent Drug Enforcement Administration busts of medical marijuana providers, the panel on Patient Support Groups was full of fire and indignation. The panel featured a trio of providers at the center of the storm. Jeff Jones, director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyer's Cooperative, discussed the nationwide attention his organization received last May when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the club could not use medical necessity as a defense against federal law for distributing medicinal marijuana as allowed by California's Proposition 215. Also on the panel was Dr. Mollie Fry, director of the California Medical Research Center, who denounced the theft of her patient's medical records by the DEA.

The following panel on the Continuing Legal Battles Over the Medical Use of Marijuana amplified the callousness and indifference of our local, state and federal governments to laws enacted by the electorate that they do not approve. Don Abrahamson, Legal Counsel for the Drug Policy Alliance, discussed how the unrelenting efforts by the Justice Department to censure any discussion between doctors and their patients violates the first amendment with its threats to revoke the prescription writing authority of any doctor recommending marijuana.

David Nicks, who serves on NORML's legal committee and has represented many of the medicinal marijuana providers targeted by the Justice Department, discussed upcoming court battles. As part of the defense strategy, he will be introducing recently discovered government files that prove a conspiracy by government prosecutors and law enforcement officials to circumvent and thwart the requirements of Proposition 215, thereby violating the very laws that they have been sworn to uphold.

A reception and award ceremony hosted by High Times magazine featured San Francisco City Supervisor Mark Leno. During the reception a fire alarm went off caused by the smoke from a couple pot aficionados cloistered in a hallway. An electronic voice told everyone to immediately vacate the premises by way of the nearest stairway. The celebrating crowd new all too well what had really happened and continued to gather round tables heaped with a variety of hotel style hors d'oeuvres as they feted many of the major players in the marijuana law reform movement. So ended the first day.

DAY II

The troops returned to convention headquarters at 8:30 a.m.to hear State Senator John Vasconcellos, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 187. This landmark legislation would set up a statewide registry and establish guidelines for medical marijuana patients under Proposition 215. Having passed both the assembly and senate, the bill only awaits the governor's signature. Senator Vasconcellos urged supporters to "hold rallies, circulate petitions, contact Davis contributors and appointees and urge them to let the governor know they want him to sign the bill."

The senator pointed out that "marijuana is benign, yet it is portrayed as the end of the world. It represents a cultural war against the 60's, which opened us up to each other. Marijuana is the symbol for freedom, democracy and opportunity."

The first panel of the day featured a look back at the 1972 Schaeffer Commission report on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. Featured on the panel was Tom Ungerleider, a member of the commission who discussed the report's history and how the commission came to recommend the decriminalization of marijuana. Although President Nixon had appointed every member of the commission, he denounced the commission's finding and then launched the Drug War that still plagues America today.

The following panel was a look at the policies on marijuana followed by Canada and Western Europe. Eugene Oscapella from the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy stated that Canadian laws on marijuana are considerably less harsh resulting in a "rate of incarceration for marijuana offenses that is one-sixth of the U.S. rate." He denounced the paid DEA informants operating surreptitiously in Canada as violating his country's laws and sovereignty.

Peter Cohen, from the Drug Research Center of the University of Amsterdam, spoke of the movement away from prohibitionist drug policies to ones incorporating harm reduction throughout Western Europe. Discussing the various legal reforms to decriminalize marijuana, he singled out Portugal as one of the most progressive which "on July1, 2000 decriminalized all drugs making use and possession subject only to administrative sanctions."

From tips on how to camouflage your crops to how to find a good lawyer, the next panel entitled "Avoiding a Pot Bust and Surviving If You Are Busted" presented down to earth information on current law enforcement techniques to ensnare pot smokers. As panelist Jeff Steinborn pointed out, "if you are smoking pot, you are being hunted like a deer."

A panel of distinguished medical researchers and doctors comprised the day's final panel and centered on "Marijuana and Health - Both The Risks and Benefits." Leading off the discussion was Dr. Ethan Russo, editor of the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. His research with smokers who utilized medicinal marijuana furnished by the United States Government demonstrated that they suffered no significant harmful side effects from their daily use of this medicine over periods ranging from ten to fifteen years. During his presentation he noted that marijuana not only provided relief from their debilitating symptoms, but also enabled these patients to use significantly fewer prescription drugs.

Another panelist, Dr. Donald Abrams, Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, recounted the difficulty he encountered attempting to get marijuana from the U.S. government to conduct his studies. Finally after several years, he was able to obtain marijuana and conducted the study. In addition to finding that marijuana had no negative interactions with any of the AIDS "cocktail" drugs, he found conclusively that medicinal marijuana would affect weight gain in men suffering AIDS Wasting Syndrome. A distinguished AIDS research specialist, Dr. Abrams' research has been published in a multitude of medical journals including the American Journal of Clinical Pathology and the Journal of American Medical Association, but his research utilizing marijuana has been rejected by three journals. "Its all politics," he says, "just politics."

DAY III

In an attempt to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is not just supported by those old wacky hippie communal pot freaks, the first panel in the morning was entitled "Left and Right Agree on Ending Medical Marijuana Prohibition." Featured on the panel was nationally syndicated columnist and author Barbara Ehrenreich. A left-wing progressive she argues that the War On Drugs is actually "a war on poor people and people of color." Pulling no punches, she noted that the upper echelons in business don't take drug tests explaining "you squat and pee so you know where you are in the corporate hierarchy."

Joseph McNamara is a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a conservative libertarian think tank located on the campus of Stanford University. As the Chief of Police in the cities of San Jose and Kansas City, he was speaking from first hand experience when he said "police are indoctrinated to hate drug users and see them as the enemy." His Libertarian philosophy was evident when he explained, "in the first 140 years of our country, you could ingest any drug. I want to restore the freedom of those first 140 years." His understanding that the War On Drugs was more than just politics was made clear by his statement that "the drug war is a holy war and in a holy war you don't have to win - you just keep fighting."

A panel of industrial hemp producers and hemp-product manufacturers discussed the many uses of hemp and noted that many countries, including our neighbor to the north, allow its farmers a significant cash crop by allowing them to cultivate and harvest industrial hemp. David Frankel, lawyer and industrial hemp activist decried how the U.S. Justice Department is pulling the rug out from under this fledging industry by "creating legal technicalities to criminalize people."

Always crowded throughout the conference, the hotel's cavernous ballroom was filled with a capacity exceeding standing room only crowd anxious to hear Bill Maher, host of ABC's controversial program Politically Incorrect. A long-time advocate for ending marijuana prohibition, Maher called for "the vast silent majority" of pot smokers to awaken the public and insisting on a new attitude when he noted that "pot people are tolerant and open minded. We should be intolerant." Alluding to the on-going scandal of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Maher protested that hundreds of thousands of pot smokers are in jail, but "no cop ever kicked in a rectory door."

Not holding back, Maher exclaimed that he "can't forgive Bush and Gore for their hypocrisy." Embarrassed by his colleagues who toke but don't help, he deadpanned that "I don't want to mention any names, like Harrison Ford and Ted Turner," as he lashed out at the rich and famous for their refusal to stand up and end their own personal hypocrisy. Racing up to a thundering finish, the audience rose to its feet cheering as Maher declared "unless people start dying, it won't become legal, so I volunteer to be the first victim. Somebody kill me with pot tonight."

Appropriately following Maher was a panel entitled "Growing Your Own Medicine" and featured expert marijuana cultivators. Although hosting such a panel could bring the IRS down on NORML, Anthony Feldstein of NORML's Legal Committee outlined the legal issues surrounding marijuana cultivation with special emphasis on California's Proposition 215. Focusing on indoor cultivation, Chris Conrad, Bobby B. and Kyle Kushman discussed cultivation, costs and camouflage.

The panel on "Future Leaders" was an appropriate ending panel. Kris Krane, NORML's national chapter coordinator proclaimed "ending the drug war is this generation's new anti-war movement," and then presented students and youth leaders from Florida to Washington to prove it. In addition to calling for an end to marijuana prohibition, the panelists describing themselves as "the DARE generation" and "the Turn In Your Parents Generation" called for an end to denying students financial aid because of prior drug convictions, an end to student drug testing and a boycott of companies that engage in drug testing.

Taking a view towards all of society, LeeAnn Ilminen from the Univeristy of Minnesota in St. Cloud called for more women to become involved, as "women are the fastest growing segment of non-violent drug offenders in jail." One of the few minority representatives at the conference, African-American civil rights activist Van Jones, challenged the assembled audience and the youthful panelists by declaring "when you end the prohibition of drugs, end the prohibition of jobs, end the prohibition of clean air and water, then you will be the greatest generation."

Encapsulating the essence of the conference in his closing remarks, NORML Executive Director Keith Stroups told the cheering, emboldened audience to take these messages home to their families, friends and colleagues. "We are part of the human rights movement. We must come out of the closet. We will have zero tolerance towards those who want to arrest marijuana smokers. And foremost, this is a fight about personal freedom."

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