October 7, 2012

Radical Russ’ Recap Of The 2012 NORML Conference

October 7, 2012
radical russ belville

radical russ belvilleFind Out What Happened At The 2012 NORML Conference In Los Angeles

Day 1 – Yesterday, Karri and I flew into Long Beach airport from Portland to attend the NORML National Conference at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.  I’ve attended these annual conferences every year since 2006, but this is the first conference where I’m not a NORML Chapter leader or an employee of NORML.

It is a miracle that we’re here at all.  As of last week, I was lamenting having to miss this one.  Then Keith Stroup, NORML’s Founder, emailed to say there was a press pass for us if we happened to make it down there.  Then a sponsor agreed to purchase our plane tickets.  Then a friend in Bel Air agreed to give us a place to sleep.  It’s like the universe wanted us to go to NORML Conference.

We missed the Wednesday Night Social.  The conference runs Thursday through Saturday, but on Wednesday Nights there is always a casual early check-in and mingle session.  Apparently, as would be customary, many of the NORML attendees gathered in the open air plaza outside and lit up joints and pipes.  After all, many are medical marijuana patients and this is California.

Indeed, it is California – a place that has gone “No Smoking” statewide.  So during one of the panels at the conference, Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s Executive Director, had to read a dispatch from the hotel management on the issue.  Not only is there to be no smoking of anything within the hotel rooms, but the entire block of the Omni Hotel is a business area known as “California Plaza” and there is to be no smoking anywhere within that boundary, including the big open air plaza the NORML crew had blazed up on the night previous.  If there are any violations, St. Pierre warned, they will shut down the entire conference.

This did not sit well with some of the attendees, who booed and catcalled the announcement.  ”Why did you pick out this hotel?” cried one heckler from the back.  St. Pierre explained that the board tried to find a place that would accommodate the special need of a NORML Conference but that everywhere they asked they were rebuffed by California’s “No Smoking” policies.

I didn’t make it in time to see Former California Assemblyman Tom Hayden’s opening speech.  As I arrived, a panel including Allen St. Pierre, Keith Stroup (NORML Founder), Dale Gieringer (California NORML), Dr. Mitch Earleywine, and Emily Dutton (American University) was discussing the 75th Anniversary of Marijuana Prohibition.  Allen reminded the room of Keith’s original prediction that marijuana would be legal by 1978.  Keith responded that we have won the hearts and minds of the American people – a majority now support legalization – and that he was happy that he would see at least one state legalize marijuana in his lifetime.

The next panel examined what a tax and regulate system for marijuana could look like in America.  Dr. Larry Bedard spoke about the need for federal rescheduling before any state-run system could be fully implemented.  Dale Gieringer spoke of the actual costs and economics of a legalized marijuana market.  Patrick Oglesby of NewRevenue.org talked about the legal ramifications of being civilly disobedient when setting up marijuana markets.  But the most compelling speaker was Dr. Angela Hawken of Pepperdine UNiversity who spoke of researching the marijuana movement from the outside and how our biggest struggle is to present our issue in a credible way by avoiding “overselling” of the changes that would occur once marijuana is legalized.

For the panel “Cannabis & The Demo Gap”, Sabrina Fendrick (NORML Women’s Alliance), Paul Kuhn (NORML Chair), and Stephen Downing (LEAP) spoke about the need to bring in women, parents, and seniors into our movement.  However, Ann Lee, mother of Prop 19 proponent Richard Lee, stole the show.  She talked about being an 84-year-old Texas Republican who learned about marijuana when her son told her “marijuana works for me.”  Since then, she’s learned about “The New Jim Crow” and carries that book by Michelle Alexander like a Bible.  She spoke passionately about how racism is the cancer that has been with America since slavery and this drug war is the continuance of that.  ”I’m going to start RAMP,” she told the audience, “Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition!”

Robert Platshorn (“The Black Tuna Diaries”, “Square Grouper”) spoke via Skype for the next panel on Cannabis and Seniors.  A short film clip of his “Should Grandma Smoke Pot” informercial was shown and then Robert addressed the audience on the need to convert seniors to supporting legalization.  Satirist Paul Krassner, academic Constance Gee, and WAMM founder Valerie Corral also appeared on the panel.  Corral spoke of her experiences comforting the dying and expressed how we need not fear death, as it is something we all must experience, so how bad could it be?

The final panel of the day asked “What ever happened to hemp?” as a part of marijuana activism.  Chris Conrad (West Coast Leaf) and David Bronner (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap) explained the legal status of industrial hemp and the explosion of the hemp products business.  Patrick Goggin (Vote Hemp) described the legal status of hemp in the states that have approved production, but can’t get past the DEA ban.  Rick Cusick (HIGH TIMES) expressed that part of the answer to “what ever happened to hemp?” is that as the hemp movement ramped up in the 1990-s, the hempsters in the 1990-s pushed away the marijuana legalizers, saying “it’s rope, not dope!”

The night concluded with the awarding of the NORML Activist Awards.  Dominic Holden from The Stranger won the Hunter S. Thompson Journalism Award.  Diane Fornbacher won the Pauline Sabin Award for female activism.  Kevin Zeese won the Lifetime Achievement Award.  Orange County NORML won the first-ever Chapter of the Year award.  The full list of award winners will be posted on the NORML website shortly.

Day 2 - Day Two of the NORML National Conference in Los Angeles began with what I’m told was a fiery speech by Dominic Holden, the Seattle-based writer for The Stranger, former NORML Board Member, and this year’s winner of the Hunter S. Thompson Award.  ”I’m so bummed you missed it,” said NORML’s Paul Armentano, “because it had ‘you’ all over it.  It was right up your alley.”

I, unfortunately, had become violently ill the night before.  I know, you’re thinking “too much party”, but folks who know me know that’s actually a rare occurrence in my life (I met my party-hearty quota somewhere back in 1994).  I’m not sure what to blame – food cart food, the salmon at the NORML Awards buffet, a single glass of white wine, or Dan from Top Shelf Extracts* – but as soon as I got into a car and was in motion, I was ready to visit Ralph and Earl in a Buick to laugh at their shoes with a technicolor yawn and pray to the porcelain gods**.  So I missed the highlight of the day, having slept in.

Apparently, Dominic set up the frame of civil rights as an incremental game – we went from slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights to Obama, for instance.  After setting the table, he then lit into Washington’s I-502 legalization initiative and excoriated the opposition to it, by name, which included Jeffrey Steinborn, the NORML Board Member who has been an outspoken opponent of I-502.  It sounds truly worthy of a Hunter S. Thompson Award winner and I will be getting the video from DFW NORML’s Shaun McAlister for reposting soon.

I arrived in time to catch the panel on the legalization initiatives for 2012.  Rick Steves represented Washington’s I-502 and defended its provisions that some marijuana activists find too timid (no home grow) or actually repressive against cannabis consumer’s rights (per se DUID) by pointing to the massive financial support, high profile law enforcement and elected officials’ support, and the polling after Prop 19 that pointed to the need for I-502-s provisions.  ”I was told my European perspective on drugs didn’t poll well,” said Steves.

Brian Vicente represented Colorado’s Amendment 64.  He posited an interesting analysis that the results from Washington and Colorado will augur well for initiatives in the future.  ”If Washington were to pass and Colorado doesn’t, that shows us that maybe not addressing DUID was a mistake.”  Similarly, if both passed by comfortable margins, he explained, future initiatives needn’t be so restrictive.

As I listened to the panel it was a little odd, because while there are three states with legalization initiatives on the ballot, 3 of 4 panelists spoke as if there were only two.  There were a few “boths” and “if this or that” language that revealed an underlying lack of respect for the Oregon effort.  Roy Kaufman represented Measure 80 very well and explained how “Oregon is basically split forty-forty with twenty percent undecided.”

Ethan Nadelmann from Drug Policy Alliance explained how the big money donors have been very active in Washington and Colorado.  He also took time to praise Richard Lee, the Prop 19 funder and Oaksterdam founder who sunk $1.5 million of his own into the failed attempt to legalize marijuana in California in 2010.  ”Prop 19 changed the landscape not so much in California – the polls haven’t really moved on legalization here – but throughout the country and the world by starting a dialogue.”  Ethan even explained how he personally lobbied Richard not to go forward in an off-year election, but as polls started to show Prop 19 had a chance, he was able to bring in some big money donors at the last moment.  And in a Q&A session, speaking as head of Drug Policy Action he said, “The choice between Obama and Romney on this issue is the choice between a disappointment and a disaster.”

The next panel was on Northeastern marijuana reform, so I let the video cameras record it for me while I made my way out to the convention floor.  There I finally got to meet a woman who has been a guest on my show and A Different View, Daisy Bram.  She is the Butte County woman who had her suckling infant and toddler ripped literally from her breasts by police in a raid on her family’s medical marijuana garden.  Her children were taken away from her for months as she was accused of child endangerment for having marijuana metabolites in her breast milk.  She has given birth just a little while ago to a third baby and continues to fight court battles to maintain her medical and parental rights.

For our luncheon keynote speech, both Keith Stroup and Rick Steves addressed the final days of prohibition.  Keith once again expressed how excited he is that he will see one or two or maybe even three states legalize marijuana this year.  Rick spoke of his experiences with the I-502 campaign and how he’ll be barnstorming the state to rally support in the next couple of weeks.

One very informative panel that followed was the one that looked at the Obama Administration’s “broken promises” with respect to medical marijuana.  Don Duncan from Americans for Safe Access explained the “Camp Wake Up Obama” campaign where patient advocates have been protesting at Obama campaign headquarters.  Moderator Paul Armentano of NORML asked if they were worried they might get what they don’t want: President Romney.  Duncan then explained how California was going to go for Obama anyway, so any pressure from medical marijuana advocates was not going to change the outcome.

To end the day there were four breakout sessions.  I attended the one from the NORML Legal Committee on How Not To Get Busted and Stay Out of Jail.  One piece of advice offered by all the attorneys was that in dealing with police, one should shut the fuck up.  The attorneys took questions from the attendees and explained some of their strangest cases.  Bill Panzer, one of the Prop 215 co-authors, explained how a true collective can be nothing but a non-profit.  ”The medicine belongs to all of the members of the collective,” he explained, “and they collectively pay for any of the expenses in growing it.  You can’t take money from your left pocket and put it in your right pocket and call it ‘profit’.”

That evening was free for socializing.  I ended up hanging out at a table with Daisy Bram and her lawyer, Michael Levinson and his paralegal, Jennifer Reeder, Dan Rush from the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Erik Williams from Connecticut NORML and his wife, Stephanie Landa from the Landa Prison Outreach Project, and Cheryl Shuman from Rapid Fire Marketing and CannaCIG. The only downside was being out on that California Plaza patio, unable to light up a joint or a bowl that would have been so natural for all of us to enjoy.  ”Never fear,” says Cheryl as she whips out a CannaCIG, “you can use these anywhere you can use an e-cig.”

Soon word trickled down to us that there was a collective offering space for the NORML Conference attendees to get their smoke on.  It was a little bit of a walk from the Omni, but once I got there, I found the Texas NORML folks, including Cheyanne Weldon from Austin, and Karli Duran from San Antonio, and Shaun McAlister from Dallas.  I explained to them that while there are great NORML Chapters all over the country, as far as a state network of chapters that work together, Texas stands tall, followed closely by Missouri.

* Dan says to me last night, “I’ll always remember you because you were the guy [in Denver] who announced my Cannabis Cup win.  Dude, you don’t know what that means; my business went from …” and then he explained how fiscally beneficial a Cannabis Cup win is for a maker of medical grade cannabis extracts.

** There.  Five colloquialisms for regurgitation.

Day 3 - In his closing remarks at the 41st Annual NORML Conference, Executive Director Allen St. Pierre calls for a national march for marijuana legalization to take place in Washington DC on Saturday, April 20, 2013 on the National Mall.

The final day of the NORML Conference at the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles began with a panel on the changing face of the medical cannabis community. Authors Martin Lee (“Smoke Signals”) and Clint Werner (“Marijuana: Gateway to Health”) appeared along with Dr. Frank Lucido MD and Dr. Amanda Reiman Ph.D. and Ann Solis from ReLeaf Center. NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano moderated the panel and asked the compelling question, “Was Dennis Peron right: is all marijuana use medical?” The panel agreed that no matter what someone’s intent may be in using cannabis, they are at least gaining a therapeutic benefit, if only in the reduction of lifetime risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. “We’re seeing the group of the Baby Boomers go into old age,” explained Dr. Lucido, “and the ones who got into cannabis in the Sixties and kept up with it to now don’t seem to have the same incidence of Alzheimer’s.”

The second panel featured NORML Women’s Alliance Coordinator Sabrina Fendrick leading a discussion with Alexis Wilson Briggs, Esq., NWA’s San Francisco Coordinator, Kelly Coulter, from Canada’s NORML Women’s Alliance, and attorney Danica Nobel, Esq.  The women called on others to present ending marijuana prohibition as a necessity to protecting their families and took questions from the audience, including Ann Lee, who once again announced her formation of the new group RAMP, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.

The Women’s Alliance theme continued into the lunch break.  NWA hosted a fundraiser luncheon that featured presentations from Kyndra Miller, Sabrina Fendrick, Diane Fornbacher, Cheyanne Weldon, and Cheri Sicard.  Drug war victim Daisy Bram also spoke to the luncheon and thanked everyone in the activism community for their support (for more on her case, see https://freemybabies.org)

Activists who didn’t attend the NWA Luncheon found a place to gather outside the hotel to enjoy California.  Karri and I ran into HIGH TIMES’ Rick Cusick and got to speak to him for quite a while.  He told us of how he raised his daughter to avoid marijuana and actually went two-and-a-half years (from her age 12 to 14.5) in a deal he made with her.  ”I’ll not smoke marijuana if you don’t smoke marijuana,” he explained.  Some of the other activists around with adult children agreed that they had been open about their marijuana use with their kids who then never seemed to be that interested in taking up the habit.  ”It just kills that ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect to it and makes it boring,” one told me.

As the conference resumed, we were treated to a preview of the new movie “America’s Longest War” and a discussion with the filmmaker from Reason Foundation, Paul Feine.  The movie, while still in raw form, was incredibly moving.  It includes the story of Corey Maye, a young man wasting away in prison for defending himself during a SWAT drug raid.  It plays the disturbing video of the Columbia SWAT raid where the man’s dog is shot and killed.  It delves into the drug was in Juarez, Mexico, and shows the brutal footage of televised executions and overpass corpse hangings that are regular occurrence south of our border.  Perhaps the most moving footage involved the story of the Maas family, a woman and her daughters separated from their father for twenty years over his marijuana imprisonment.

The conference concluded with NORML’s Executive Director, Allen St. Pierre, delivering his concluding remarks.  The speech was presented as a look at whether medical marijuana would lead to legalization or something St. Pierre calls “paraphernaliazation”.  He set the frame of the paraphernalia industry being a complete lie from all sides – from the seller who knows his bongs will be used to smoke pot, but maintains “for tobacco use only” signs to maintain legality to the customer who knows not to say “bong” or else get kicked out of the establishment.

There was a context to the speech, however, that led to a palpable feeling that this speech was more a defense and repudiation of criticism of St. Pierre’s remarks about medical marijuana being a “fraud” and a “sham”.  As St. Pierre recounted his 21 years working for NORML, one conventioneer asked me, “is he about to resign?” St. Pierre continued his frame of paraphernalia and showed how aspects of the medical marijuana industry fit the same sort of intellectual dishonesty used by bong sellers to maintain a veil of legality, only to suffer a backlash from the 1980-s parents movement that found it easy to go after the excesses of the head shop industry.  He strongly asserted that NORML needs to stand as a representative of cannabis consumers, yet there are members on the board itself who represent cannabis producers and their opposition to legalization in Washington State.  The speech reflected the frustration of a man clearly dedicated to marijuana legalization yet beset by critics of his approach to that legalization, even as legalization in the form of medical marijuana and now three ballot measures for recreational use put he and his organization closer to achieving its mission than ever before.

That strange feeling of the speech being a subtle farewell turned on a dime as St. Pierre explained a project for 2013 that has been suggested for NORML for as long as I’ve been associated with the organization: a coordinated national march on Washington DC for marijuana legalization.  ”I’d contend that you’re not really a civil rights movement,” St. Pierre explained, “until you’ve got the fist-pumping in the streets.”  He then pointed out that the next April 20, the pot-holiday of 4/20, takes place in 2013 on a Saturday, and with six months to prepare, he’s already directed staff to secure the permits for a march on the National Mall on that weekend, to the raucous applause of the activists in attendance.

However, the cloud that seemed to hover Allen St. Pierre’s speech may still foreshadow an end to an era.  As Karri and I made out way to the elevators, we found ourselves in the lobby waiting with some of the members of the NORML Board.  The discussion was very agitated and the topic seemed to be the possible removal of St. Pierre as Executive Director in the wake of a series of setbacks for the organization.  ”This is something that has to be brought up to the entire board,” said one board member to the other as I made my way into a waiting elevator.

To close out the evening we made our way to the Orange County NORML fundraising party at The Hemp Museum, which unfortunately is closing its doors in a couple of days for lack of funds.  Karri was asked to dance by a nice older gentleman.  Shaun, Karli, Cheyanne, and the rest of the Texas delegation enjoyed the freedom of smoking marijuana in a relatively-public place.  Cheryl Shuman spoke with Dan Rush from UFCW Local 770.  Kandace Hawes and the OC NORML crew were flitting from place to place keeping the party hopping.  Regina Nelson and I shared some smoke and some laughs.  I hung out for a while with a guy who was from Washington DC, attending his first NORML Conference.  Heather Morris from Montana told me about the poor forecast for Montana’s medical marijuana referendum.

I also spoke with NORML Board Members Dan Viets, Nick Liapis, Steve Dillon, Dale Gieringer, Paul Kuhn, and Norm Kent at the party, but in the spirit of celebration I didn’t bring up anything I’d overheard in the elevator lobby,  Instead, it was very encouraging to hear from all of them and from many NORML Legal Committee members and longtime activists that they were very glad to see Karri and I continuing our mission to be the voice of the marijuana activism community.

Published with special permission from the National Cannabis Coalition


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