fear strikes out
Scared, defiant and hopeful, NORMI gathered in San Francisco on 4/20. Its annual confab, held this year in the medical-marijuana capital of the world, drew a record 560 people.
They ran out of beer early at the jammed, raucous, spit-and-baling-wire emergency party that closed this April’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws annual conference in San Francisco. Thirsty guests found ways to compensate for the lack of suds, and if you ignored the computers and filing cabinets, it was easy to forget you were violating fire codes at an ad hoc shindig at a hotshot law office. The wife and I left around midnight, not content with the five cases of water trucked in to replenish the sweat the crowd had been shaking on each other, jitterbugging to a New Orleans-style marching band. We landed in a little North Beach boite. At one point, my wife was aghast to see a purse all by its lonesome on the floor by the jukebox.
Voicing her alarm, she was told don’t be silly, womanthis is San Francisco.
NORML convened this year in America’s most tolerant city. During breaks in the demanding schedule (presentations started before 9 AM and ran till evening), at times 40 or more smokers spilled from the hotel’s side entrance out on to the busy, tourist-trap sidewalk. And not a one, patient or pothead, peered timorously over his shoulder. There were masses of billowing, very public smoke, with tourists and their kids-who as a class, are generally coddled by authorities-gapingfrom passing cable cars. Still, police action, even short of arrest, was somehow unthinkable in San Francisco, and not just because the record 560 participants (up from 400 last year in DC) were spending aplenty.
And yet, a specter gripped the gathering despite the easygoing gloss lent by geography and numbers. No wraith, it was a federal fist that has struck often to smash, grab and incarcerate. Candidate George W. Bush’s empty promise in 1999 that medical use is a states’ issue (“I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose”) and his administration’s avowed federalism have proved equally hollow. Launching the proceedings on April 18, NORML board chair Steve Dillon admitted, “I love America, but I fear my government, I’m ashamed to say.” Former Kansas City
and San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, now with the Hoover Institute, warned of the false drug/terronsrn nexus: "Don't underestimate that. When they mix in pattiotism with the War on Drugs, almost anything can happen."
The specter grew on the second day, April 19, as grim news filtered out from federal district court a few blocks away, where Judge Charles R. Breyer was hear ing arguments on the fate of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative (OCBC) and three other California buyers' clubs. The local medical-marijuana dispensary honchos grinned through their fears, their gallows humor growing thin. The numerous patients in attendance, including often the honchos themselves, were just plain frightened. Wayne Justmann, director of the San Francisco Patients Cooperative, who is HIV-positive and suffers from neuropathy's nerve damage and pain, will be forced to turn to debilitating opiates without his normal medi cine. Whatever the Feds do, his "pretty continual pain" isn't going away. "I don't want to say we're in crisis, but boy do we need help," said Debby Goldsberry, director of the Cannabis Action Network and the Berkeley Patients Group. "But we're not so scared we can't organize."
Patient or not, people who to some degree have been running scared all their lives are getting awfully sick of it. As Politically Incorrect's Bill Ma her com plained, "We still have to crawl in the alleyway like criminals, and those are the lucky ones who aren't in prison."
Concern for medical marijuana’s immediate future was the gathering’s palpable undercurrent. That concern mixed with frustration over its often unworkable present. John Sajo, head of Oregon’s Voter Power, said flatly that his state’s medical-marijuana law had failed. Then, of course, there’s still the majority of the country, where medical cannabis enjoys no legal protection.
The DC-based NORML crew flew west on the wings of its recent PR coup at New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s expense. Last summer, Bloomberg the candidate-striving to be a regular Joe despite his billions-had cracked to a reporter asking about using pot: “You bet I did, and I enjoyed it.” The press had a field day, and NORML’s big ad posters of the mayor graced the conference stage. But NORML maintained that Bloomberg outed himself, with executive director Keith Stroup declaring, “We weren’t playing ‘gotcha’ with the Mayor.” As Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann observed, “If we had a billion dollars to spend on advertising, we wouldn’t need to embarrass a potential ally.”
In fact, this $500,000 ad campaign voiced one of the conference’s main themes. If it won’t cost you a job, or your kids, and you’ve got the guts, then stand up on your hind legs and tell the world: Damn straight you inhale. Noel Coward said it well in Private Lives: “All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them.... Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths.” Confronting the naked power unleashed by all levels of government, attendees conjured ways to beckon the public under their tent. A late-November Zogby poll was much cited. It found that-post 9/11—only a third of voters nationwide support “arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana-smokers,” while three-fifths oppose doing so. And two-thirds of the public oppose “the use of federal law enforcement agencies to close patient cooperatives” that operate legally under state law; only one in four voters support it.
Coming out of the closet was seen as the surest route to widespread conversion among the public and its “leaders.” Speaker after speaker termed such declara-
tions—whether public or, daunting enough in many cases, just to family, friends and peers-as the way to marshal political power and combat the negative stereotypes the government has been promulgating for the past 65 years. Declaring that protecting patients’ rights is “our highest priority,” Stroup nonetheless said, “We have to move beyond medical use.... There are 19 million people just like me who are smoking for the fun of it.”
Florida lawyer Norm Kent, a magazine publisher, medical user and member of NORML’s board, said that the “PR battle right now is being won by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. We must learn from the gay community and present ourselves as normal people leading normal lives.”
A few speakers did so present themselves. Computer millionaire John Gilmore, who has pledged $1 million annually over the next 10 years to end prohibition, made a stark declaration. Along with pot, he said he’s taken “mushrooms and LSD and various other things, and they changed my worldview and informed me how to be in the world.” He said that drugs allowed him to question the fixed reality he encountered, which led to the computer breakthroughs that made him a wealthy man. ‘Tm a better person in the world because I took drugs,” he added.
There were frequent analogies to the gay-rights movement, which became a powerful political constituency only when gays emerged from their closet. Ethan Nadelmann pointed out that 40 years ago, before the gay closet door swung open, “Everyone knew homosexuals, they just didn’t know they did.” The only ones they heard of were in the news, busted for solicitation. These days, he said, the only high-school kids smoking pot that people hear of are “the longhairs getting in trouble, not the kids getting scholarships.”
One speaker offered to help smash the closet door. Longtime Bay Area activist Mikki Norris called for people to join her Cannabis Consumers Campaign. Asking people from all walks of life to be photographed and named, she intends to “put a human face on the people who are being scapegoated, to let people see that they’re people just like them.” Saying that the media portrays users as losers, thus allowing the Drug War to continue, Norris admitted the need for an “image upgrade.” To that end and as part of her larger project, she wants to publish the names and photos of 100 well-known individuals in an eventual newspaper ad she has funding commitments for.
Inevitably, perhaps, at a political confab, the wider world kept intruding. People got a lift from Americans for Safe Access’ inaugural action, two climbers who surely would have died if they’d fallen, draping a banner with a defiant medical-marijuana slogan high on a vacant billboard. Debby Goldsberry told HT they stayed up there for hours until arrested, and that they were charged both with trespassing and “mischievousness.”
Steve Dillon pointed out that DEA chief Asa Hutchinson, confidently flying blind in the face of reams of evidence, recently declared that cannabis offers no medical benefit. One manifestation is the federal courts’ rulings on medical marijuana’s Achilles’ heel: distribution.
Two weeks after the conference, medical-marijuana activists’ fears were realized: Judge Charles Breyer summarily dismissed the pot dispensaries’ contention that the federal ban on medical-marijuana distribution violated their constitutional rights. (The Supreme Court’s ruling last year, rejecting the OCBC’s claim that medical necessity outweighed the federal ban, had sent the case back to Breyer’s court for further arguments on other issues.) If the clubs don’t voluntarily agree to stop providing patients pot, Breyer is expected to issue an injunction against them.
OCBC director Jeff Jones, a codefendant in the federal suit to shut the clubs down, told HT that appeals will probably tie up the case for the rest of Bush’s term. But the negative ruling, he figures, would afford the DEA “a blank check to roll out against the California clubs.” There’s little to stop them, he says, because “Ashcroft and Hutchinson are not afraid of the media.”
leap strikes nut
Injunctions, of course, invariably lead to lawenforcement intervention to justify all that cool cop gear, all those neat health-care-and-pensions jobs. And the public can rest easier with cancer patients prevented from keeping their food down.
Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, told the conference that most patients either can’t grow their own medicine or are afraid to. The clubs supply 20,000 to 25,000 patients in California, providing a model of distribution that works-no selling to minors, no selling on the street. The public sees they’re like any other business, which is what authority figures like Asa Hutchinson find so disturbing, he said. “The clubs are an important step in the socialization of drug use, and that’s what they’re afraid of,” Gieringer added.
If Breyer issues an injunction, Wayne Justmann says that means that any jurisdictions that have issued ID cards for patients will have also assumed the obligation to set up grows and dispensaries to supply them. “We’re going to have to challenge the city and county of San Francisco to respond. We appreciate the moral support from politicians on the steps of City Hall, but where will patients go to get cannabis? Prop. 215 says the state must set up programs.”
Gieringer assumes that anywhere from a halfdozen to as many as 35 California clubs and their caregivers will be served with an injunction or even raided within a week to a month after Breyer’s final ruling comes down. To that end, he said the DEA has been focusing on tracing clones going in and out of the clubs. “It’s about the manufacturing,” he said. Law enforcement has also been tailing people home from the clubs, Gieringer charged. “There have been multiple, credible reports of people being tailed as far as fifty miles to their homes,” he said.
He also knows of at least two unpublicized arrests of “smallish patient grows.”
Prominent San Francisco attorney Bill Panzer believes the Feds have obtained evidence against all the Bay Area clubs, in many cases infiltrating them with tales of migraine headaches. He thinks the government will raid six to 10 of the largest clubs and the others will close voluntarily.
Robert Raich, who represents OCBC, knows of one raid where he believes agents followed a patient home from a club and hauled off the princely amount of one plant and one ounce of medicine.
Jones, who at age 14 watched his cancer-stricken, chemotherapy-ravaged father waste away to 100 pounds before dying, assumes that a “coldhearted” government will eventually drive patients to protest in the streets.
Any DEA actions occur without cooperation from San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, one of the drug-law-reform movement’s main bulwarks in the Bay Area. He’s the scion of a long line of radicals-his father ran for President on the leftist Progressive Party ticket in 1952-and was arrested 16 times for political protest as a law student during the ’60s. “My background is wrapped up in marijuana,” Hallinan declared
in a half-hour opening address. He traced that back to 1966, “an exciting, dangerous time” when possession of “one seed” was a felony that sent thousands to prison. He told war stories of what he termed the “greatest defense bar” in the country, one that wouldn’t tolerate repression or unfairness.
“I knew marijuana was not the simple drug its opponents depicted it as, that it was many things to many people,” Hallinan said, referring to a case that rested on religious grounds. “There is no question in my mind that for some people marijuana is an essential part of their religious experience.”
Another keynote speaker was introduced by Keith Stroup as “our drug czar.” The Drug Policy Alliance’s executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, was a bit more subdued than I’ve previously seen him. The ratiocination was present as usual, but he seemed miffed to now be confronting the “banality” of the troika of Ashcroft, Hutchinson and Drug Czar John Walters, who he termed “William Bennett’s Mini-Me.” “They throw a few million dollars at treatment, but then pile on the interdiction,” Nadelmann complained.
As to the government’s “insidious” linking of drugs and terrorism, Nadelmann quipped: “Bin Laden was into marijuana-1 didn’t catch that.” He wondered about T-shirts reading: “Support the war on terrorism-Grow your own.”
The nation’s millions of convictions for petty drug offenses, Nadelmann said, are a manifestation of the “totalitarian, dark side of America.” At the street level, a big part of enforcement is sheer bureaucratic gaming. A high-level New York cop told him it’s all
about meeting his quota, and “the easiest busts are marijuana arrests.” Meanwhile, a recent Daily News poll indicated that New Yorkers are more concerned with car alarms and other noise; marijuana didn’t even make the top-10 list of concerns.
Exhortations to come out of the closet aside, attendees, especially high-school students, were warned they might be ripped from it involuntarily, thanks in part to the Supreme Court. Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy said that drug testing will be the next big battleground, especially for kids. The federal government’s repression of patients notwithstanding, he believes the drug-lawreform movement is on the offensive for the first time in years. This momentum is grounded, he said, “in the integrity of our bodies and the right to control our consciousness.”
Yet, the recently signed federal education bill provides funds for school drug testing. Given the hostile nature of the Supreme Court’s questioning of the ACLU’s Graham Boyd (including comments on “druggie schools") during oral arguments on a school drug-test case, Zeese expects the court to uphold testing for students participating in all extracurricular activities-from the school play to the chemistry club, even if they face no athletic danger and are role models for nobody.
Zeese wasn’t the first commentator to note the absurdity here: after-school activities are a prime way of keeping kids from taking drugs. But it meshes with the clever trend since the late 70s of going after the individuals with the least rights: prisoners, military personnel and now students. He noted that in the mid-’80s, the Supreme Court upheld the “special needs” test for federal workers in safetysensitive positions, voiding the Fourth Amendment’s probable-cause requirement.
Zeese said private-sector testing is actually declining, in part because new hires in sophisticated fields might take up to two years to add to the company’s bottom line. Government-in partto prop up what Dr. John P. Morgan of the CUNY Medical School and chairman of the NORML Foundation terms a $2.5 billion-a-year industry, performing 30,000 tests a day-seems more than willing to pick up the slack.
The Supreme Court is poised to buffalo the nation with a strategy of, in effect, declaring adolescence itself a “special needs” situation. Zeese figured that “kids coming up will have been trained to urinate on demand; some sheep will acquiesce.” But he also hoped that “other kids will do urine drops in the hallways.” There’s a move afoot in some states to test teenagers before they get their first driver’s license. The ground broken with this weak link will prepare the way for testing anyone renewing their license.
Cultivation specialist Ed Rosenthal gave a brief, moving speech. Following the February arrests that shamelessly gilded Hutchinson’s skirmish behind enemy lines in San Francisco, Rosenthal faces federal charges of cultivating more than 100 plants, which carry a sentence of five to 40 years. Though he “didn’t volunteer” for his role, the issues are clear, he maintained. With the technical expertise to help patients, he just couldn’t commit the “sin of omission-where you
knew you could and should help, and yet you didn’t.” As to his upcoming trial, he said his codefendants-Ken Hayes, Richard Watts and James Halloran-are being pressured to turn state’s evidence. In his case, he said, “There are no extenuating circumstances, no guns, no money laundering, indeed no money, no other drugs.” Given the 60% to 80% support locally for medical marijuana, Rosenthal remains confident that it will be difficult to find a jury willing to convict him. “I look forward to being with you this time next year to tell you how we won this case,” he asserted. It’s a case he figures will cost well over $500,000.
After a standing ovation from a packed room, a droll and polished Bill Maher said, “You’re very kind, and very stoned.” He celebrated the pot community’s tolerance and understanding, but then called for anger and intolerance. We’re sick and tired of hiding, he said, “How about zero tolerance for the ridiculous notion that sobriety is the timetested route to mind expansion?”
Maher then reminded us that fighting prohibition is not akin to fighting terrorism: “You can’t win just by putting a flag on your car.” He called for the vast, silent majority of pot-smokers to flee the closet and stand up in this battle, including “prominent people,” though, he quipped, “I’m not going to mention any names-Harrison Ford, Ted Turner.”
He noted that the “two shameless beasts” of media and politicians care for nothing but ratings and votes. And he urged Americans to make politicians fear a sizable vote against them “if they try to do what Bush and Gore did: Ignore the issue despite their own involvement back when drugs were fun and not the greatest evil in America.”
He later admitted that, yes, his warnings, however qualified, about chest pain associated with smoking and any subsequent heart attacks did flirt with heresy in some cannaphile circles. “There’s a tendency in the pot movement to believe that it’s all good," Morgan said. “My job as a scientist is to look at instances where that’s not true.”
Houston attorney Clay Conrad got the crowd’s attention with his opening statement that “half the rapes in America occur against male inmates.” His topic was jury nullification. To be done-“to judge the law itself and vote on the verdict according to conscience” (as Conrad’s handout put it)—it must be done covertly. To get on a jury without lying, Conrad recommended resigning from any organizations prior to being called, and indicating that you’re neutral but questioning on drug issues, but your decision can be made independent of that.
Oh, and get a haircut and look neat, “which may give you a chance to express yourself in the jury room, where it counts.” Only if you're sure you’re not being picked could you stand up and say: “I could not convict this young man for his harmless act. It could ruin his life, and it’s immoral.” Finally, if by voting your conscience you end up hanging the jury, then “hang with pride.” He directed listeners to the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) for guidance.
Bob Newland, the head of South Dakota NORML, was pushing the Common Sense Justice amendment to his state’s constitution. It aims to allow defendants “to argue the merits, validity and applicability of the law, including sentencing laws.” He pointed out that enforcement of both the Fugitive Slave Act and alcohol Prohibition crumpled when juries would no longer
Ethan Nadelmann quipped: ‘Bin Laden was into marijuana— 1 didn’t catch that' He wondered about T-shirts reading: ‘Support the war on terrorism—Brow your own.’
He called for a smokeless Million Marijuana March on the Mall in Washington, not a joint in sight, to show that potheads have the requisite discipline to change public policy. Finally, asserting that no one ever died from pot-“The worst thing that happens is it makes you eat cookie dough”-he challenged “someone to try to kill me tonight.”
A doctor begged-somewhat-to differ with Maher on this last point. Dr. John P. Morgan, who helped NORML introduce the Bloomberg ad, has studied the controversy over a report by Dr. Murray Middleman of Harvard University regarding pot use leading to sudden heart attacks. Morgan noted that smoking anything clearly raises heart rates. The bottom line, he said, is that in men with significant atherosclerosisfat deposits partially blocking blood vessels-“it might precipitate a heart attack or angina.”
As to Middleman’s findings, Morgan said, “If you torture the data long enough, it’ll confess.” He noted that of the 4,000 heart-attack patients Middleman interviewed, 2.4% had smoked pot in the prior year, while only 37 (1%) had smoked the day before the attack, and nine (0.2%) had smoked an hour before. Declaring that these nine folks were male, overweight and sedentary, Morgan concluded that perhaps “0.2% of smokers over age fifty may get a heart attack.”
convict. “People need to be allowed to tell the story of their offense and why it's a bad law, and then let the jury decide if it is a bad law,” he told HT.
Tony Serra, a pillar of the San Francisco defense bar, orated mightily on the current desecration of the Bill of Rights that has yielded “the first smackings of fundamental, totalitarian, law enforcement-dominated political control.” Of patients’ battles with cops obstructing the law, he said they’re “the canaries down in the coal mine [gauging] whether or not we’ll have a democratic society and constitutional government.”
Bearing a bouquet of flowers to symbolize constitutional rights, Serra smashed the blossoms against the podium one by one to dramatize the Drug War’s destruction of civil liberties. With the lack of judicially approved search warrants, electronic surveillance, overflights and “wiretaps increasing like a disease,” he said, the Fourth Amendment is “a shadow of what it was years ago.” The “psychological torture” of an abusive grand-jury system with no discovery, no documents and defendants not present, one that turns family members against one another, is also wildly out of control, he added.
In days past, he continued, informants were tested and needed a track record. They used to be “despised by the populace and the defense bar, scrutinized by judges and not welcomed by prosecutors.” But now, with informants threatened with 20 years to life and neither corroborated nor debriefed-plus the use of unsworn statements from alleged coconspirators in this “Orwellian spy society”-we’re left “swimming in a sea of snitches.”
Facing this amalgamation of state power is the increasing respect for medical marijuana, “a symbol that equalizes the opposing forces. It tears down this ugly wall that law enforcement draws around us. So let this flower grow and fructify and prevail.” The crowd bathed in Serra’s words a bit and then leapt to its feet.
Oregon’s John Sajo was less than pleased with raising no money in San Francisco to help pass an amendment that would “expand and clarify” the state’s 1998 medical-marijuana bill. He told HT that the movement’s big funders and “hired gunslinger” political consultants have made it clear they’ve moved on from medical-marijuana ballot measuresdespite the fact that implementation of 215 in California is little more than a “box of rough rocks.”
Addressing the conference, he affirmed that it was great to win an election, but emphasized that there’s been four years of suffering since. With doctors unwilling to sign patients’ applications, only a few thousand patients have met Oregon’s qualifying requirements. What’s more, sick and dying people are expected to grow their own medicine. Finally, even qualified patients are still getting arrested and convicted due to snafus in applying the law.
So Oregonians are trying to get a second initiative on the ballot that would create state Department of Health dispensaries for registered
Bill Maher called for a smokeless Million Marijuana March on the Mall in Washington, not a joint in sight, to show that potheads have the requisite discipline to change public policy.
patients—a policy favored by four-fifths of Oregon’s voters, Sajo said. These will distribute free medicine to the indigent; boost the currently small amounts patients can grow and possess; allow caregivers to be compensated; and lower the application fee for patients, now $150.
A panel discussing Richard Nixon’s “marihuana” commission, the now 30-year-old Shafer report, afforded a sad historical perspective. Entitled, “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,” the 1972 report called for decriminalization of personal-use amounts. And, said former NORML director Gordon Brownell, that was back in the era when a single joint might lead to a life sentence in Texas and up to 10 years in California.
The commission’s decrim conclusion was particularly tough on Nixon, given that its executive director, Michael R. Sonnenreich, had, as a senior attorney with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the DEA’s predecessor), played a key role writing the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Still the law, it ruled marijuana a Schedule I drug-dangerous and with no valid medical use-along with LSD and heroin. A source close to Sonnenreich told HT that, pending medical study and evaluation, he assumed Congress would move pot out of Schedule I and possibly even below Schedule II once the doctors
weighed in with proof of its medical utility.
Thousands of people have used marijuana medically since then, but the Supreme Court and the DEA insist that because the law says marijuana has no valid medical use, therefore it cannot have any valid medical use.
Finally, you might be wondering why in the world they held the 4/20 party at Tony Serra’s law offices? Studio Z, the nightclub that NORML, CAN and HIGH TIMES had rented out for a multiroom party starting with several bands that afternoon, was just too compromised. There’d been a shooting at the club the week before and an Ecstasy bust the night of 4/19. When Studio Z told Debby Goldsberry that a raid by the state liquor authorities was likely-leading to trouble, as smoking of any sort is forbidden in California bars-she decided to pull the plug, because patients needed to medicate at a 12hour event. Though CAN desperately needs the money, some 800 of its ticket buyers, at $22 a pop, were turned away.
That afternoon, Stroup had told me there was no way in hell he was letting the government keep NORML from celebrating the conference. Afterwards, he said, “Although it was far too crowded, it was a wonderfully weird San Francisco party.”
Daniel Forbes (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on social policy from New York.