A pink-haired Barbie doll, a straight Republican governor, a gay Congressman, an Internet pot-porn princess, long-haired hippies, bald-headed hipsters and 300 other fascinating people attended the 2001 annual conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), held on the weekend of 4-20 in Washington, DC. Many of the American marijuana movement’s icons enlivened this year’s shindig at the fancy Renaissance Hotel. Older heads smoked with new friends as other hotel guests tried to figure out why the NORML crowd was laughing so much. At the top of the stairs that led to the conference presentation theater, a group of clean-scrubbed Christian Midwesterners gawked at a marijuana leaf drawn onto a conference directional sign.
“Marijuana is legal in DC,” one Bible girl whispered to another.
Last year’s conference featured a brief wrestling match between grow guru Ed Rosenthal and NORML founder-director Keith Stroup. Rosenthal was trying too hard to get funding for Jack “Hemperor” Herer’s journey in support of last year’s failed Alaskan legalization campaign when Stroup yanked him away from a conference podium.
“It wasn’t as big a deal as some made it out to be,” Stroup said ruefully. “Ed and I smoked a joint afterwards and laughed about it.”
Rosenthal was too busy working on books, his radio show, and grow advice for Cannabis Culture readers to attend this year’s NORML wingding. Herer was absent because he is still suffering the aftereffects of a stroke and heart attack suffered last summer at a hemp festival near Eugene, Oregon.
According to Herer confidant John Sajo, director of Oregon’s “Voter Power” pro-pot lobbying organization and a panelist at the conference, Herer is making progress toward full recovery, in part because he was given medical marijuana immediately and often after the July incident.
“Oregon has a medical marijuana law, and we were totally within our rights to expect hospital staff and doctors to allow us to administer it to Jack,” Sajo said. “There was a bit of a political struggle involved, but we got him his medicine, and you could see how grateful he was and how much it helped him.”
Sajo said Herer was “well aware” that scientists have established that cannabinoids can prevent and repair brain damage after head trauma and stroke.
Herer and Rosenthal were absent from this year’s NORMLfest, but as I walked a noisy DC street to the hotel, I smelled the burning blessed plant for which they both have so long labored.
Sacred smoke emanated from the lungs of a red-eyed conference attendee who was standing near a specially-equipped 1983 Mercedes station wagon that runs on clean-burning hemp oil-derived “biodiesel” fuel. The white wagon, with its HEMPCAR license plates, got lots of attention as it cruised in circles around the hotel.
Like a proud papa watching a precocious child, NORML’s new communications director, Nick Thimmesch, beamed with delight as the eco-friendly machine spread the message of hemp.
Thimmesch himself is a somewhat unlikely hemp message spreader. From 1983 to 1986, he worked in the White House, helping drug warrior Ronald Reagan as a communications specialist. In 1992, Thimmesch worked valiantly in a failed effort to get Bush the Elder re-elected president for a second time, and in 1996, Thimmesch labored for another Republican presidential wannabee, Viagra-popping candidate Bob Dole. For 20 years, Thimmesch has provided specialized marketing and communications services for conservative candidates, officials, and causes. Several insider publications that track significant players in DC political circles carried favorable and humorous stories about Thimmesch’s transition from conservative communicator to NORML spokesperson.
“I’m a conservative Libertarian Republican,” Thimmesch said. “A lot of conservatives use marijuana, or at least oppose the war against it. Conservatives believe in freedom and the constitution. I intend to use my connections and credibility with Republicans to bring the message of drug policy reform to the White House, but NORML will also be an integral part of the effort to challenge the nominations of John Walters and Asa Hutchinson for the office of drug czar and DEA head.”
From the White House to the statehouse, Republican reformers were an important part of this year’s conference.
Keith Stroup was stoked about the presence of Governor Gary “Puff Daddy” Johnson, New Mexico’s triathlete two-term governor who has made opposition to the drug war a hallmark of his maverick political career.
“Czar McCaffrey, the dearly departed, called Governor Johnson ‘Puff Daddy,'” Stroup said. “He knows that the governor almost single-handedly destroyed the myth among elected officials that there’s no alternative to the drug war. McCaffrey tries to portray reformers as marginalized losers, but Gary’s stature and credibility has empowered other elected officials to speak out, and forced our opponents to engage in real debate with us, and they always lose ? 65 percent of the voters in Gary’s state agree with what he calls ‘the new anti-war movement.'”
Before Johnson delivered a quixotic luncheon speech to a ballroom packed with NORMLizers and the press, he gave me a private interview that was infused with candor and common sense.
“I’m a successful businessman who decided to go into politics for the specific purpose of finding solutions that career politicians would not talk about,” the 48-year-old Johnson explained. “Most politicians won’t even discuss drug war alternatives because they think it would end their career. I believe that people who govern this country should be regular citizens who give their time and talents to governance for a while, and then go back to private life. I’m not seeking any further political office, so I can raise the issues that the careerists are scared to raise. I’m sure I’ve angered almost everybody in New Mexico at one time or the other. That’s what happens when you’re willing to bring up tough issues, but I was elected to a second term, and I want to make the most of it. I really can’t think of an issue that needs more scrutiny than the drug war.”
In a country where 99.9% of politicians privately admit that the war on drugs is a failure while publicly stating that it is a success, Johnson has made international headlines by openly scorning the war itself and the ideology that props it up.
When Johnson first challenged prohibition after he was elected to a second and final term as governor in 1998, he was greeted by shock and outrage from Republicans, police officials, and educators, who were already upset because he had criticized the efficacy of public schools.
Johnson still faces harsh criticism from some New Mexicans. Noting that Johnson’s NORML speech was part of a two-week tour that included drug policy speeches at Florida State University and Harvard, New Mexico Republican Representatives Ron Godbey and Ben Lujan decried Johnson’s travel plans, claiming that “the majority of people don’t support his viewpoint and he shouldn’t be using taxpayer’s money to tout drug legalization, especially when there are pressing issues at home that need his attention.”
Johnson insists he has he won over many of his early opponents by pointing out that the drug war fails to deter drug use while costing “too much money” and encouraging government to “violate our constitutional rights.”
He asserts that top law enforcement officials in his state are now embracing his call for “harm reduction” strategies that base public policy on comparing the dangers of marijuana with the dangers caused by the criminalization of marijuana.
“Government’s role is to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Johnson says. “The war on drugs doesn’t do that. We spend billions of dollars on police, courts and prisons, but this war causes more suffering than it alleviates. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. That’s the drug war.”
Part of Johnson’s ability to win converts comes from his disarming willingness to tell the truth about himself.
Instead of hiding from his drug-using past like Clinton, Gore and Bush have done, Johnson easily admits that he is “one of the 80 million Americans who have used illegal drugs.”
“I smoked marijuana on a regular basis for many years,” he said. “I wasn’t the only person using it, and I never thought that what I was doing was criminal, even though the government told me that it was. I never thought it should be against the law. I used it for relaxation, for a different perspective, even for expanding my mind. I enjoyed it. In retrospect, maybe I spent more time on it than I should have. Maybe I wasted some time, but when I was doing it, I felt it was worthwhile, just like many people who use it today feel that it is improving their lives, especially if they are using it for medical purposes.”
Love your children
Johnson has become a hero to a nation of oppressed pot smokers, but there’s some irony in that. He stood in front of the lunchtime crowd, looking out on CNN television cameras and glaring lights, and realized that a sizable majority of the people he was talking to were stoned, or wished they were, and that some of them had been smoking stinky commercial cigarettes during conference breaks.
Early in the speech, after getting predictable standing ovations by insisting that alcohol prohibition didn’t work and that pot prohibition was even less advisable, Johnson bluntly told the crowd that he was a health fanatic who wanted people to stop smoking marijuana and tobacco.
“Don’t use tobacco,” he said. “It’s what some corporation has you addicted to, and it will kill you. There’s absolutely nothing redeeming about smoking cigarettes. I gave it all up 13 years ago. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in 13 years. Stop drinking alcohol. Don’t do drugs. It’s a handicap. I get up every morning at 4:45 am to work out. I aspire to be the national age group champion in the triathlon. Two years from today, on 4-20-2003, I will be climbing Mount Everest.”
Some audience members were frowning; others shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A few looked down at their fingers, stained by nicotine and other resins, and realized they couldn’t run a city block, much less a triathlon. Afterwards, a veteran pot smoker and activist told me Johnson’s diatribe reminded him that “there are other ways to get high, maybe I need to cut down on my smoking or use a vaporizer.”
The audience forgave Johnson’s straight-edged rhetoric in part because his successes demand that people respect his point of view.
Johnson and his wife began a “handyman” business in the early 1970’s, and had built it into a wealthy construction company with 1100 employees by the time he decided to run for governor in 1993. He’d never been in politics before.
“The Republican leadership said, ‘You’re crazy. You’ll never win. You don’t have a chance.’ I liked those odds, spent half a million dollars of my own money on the campaign, told voters the truth, and got elected,” Johnson recalls.
The governor’s credibility is also bolstered by his athleticism. He is a three-time Ironman Triathlon competitor who climbs mountains and skydives for fun.
“I love my life, and I think that this positive aspect is what is missing from our anti-drug messages,” Johnson told me. “We have the DEA talking reefer madness, even opposing hemp oil! I think we’d do better by telling the truth: marijuana is not a gateway drug. Most marijuana users are intelligent, responsible people. I’d tell our young people, ‘We love you, that’s why we don’t want you to do drugs, and we’re going to honestly educate you about them.’ I tell them that drug use is a game of diminishing returns. The more you use, the less high you get.”
NORML co-director Allen St Pierre later said he was “extremely proud” to have had Johnson at the conference.
“He generated intense, favorable media coverage, appearing on many national news programs,” St Pierre said. “He’s helped us keep alive a slate of drug reform legislation in New Mexico. Along with Congressman Barney Frank, who is also appearing at our conference, Governor Johnson is one of few politicians with a national platform who has integrity and an accurate message about marijuana.”
Johnson said New Mexico’s legislators “arguably came within five minutes” of legalizing medical marijuana last session. If they had done so, Johnson would have benefited more than most. In February, he fell while jogging on an icy road, and broke his back. Because he is a purist who refuses to break the law or risk the alleged negative health effects of marijuana, the governor ended up on prescription painkillers that he admits were probably far worse for him than marijuana, which is known to be a very effective analgesic, anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxer, just what is needed in cases of back trauma.
“I was on Percocet because the pain was so unbearable,” Johnson admitted. “That stuff messed up my digestive system and when I finally quit using it, it took me a long time to get back to a regular sleep cycle. A hundred thousand people died last year from the use of legal prescription drugs. It’s scary.”
The marijuana movement is like any civil rights coalition, fraught with ego and turf battles, misunderstandings, and ideological disagreements. But this year’s NORML conference was a time for truces and coalitions, with bitter enemies reconciling and circling the wagons in anticipation of a hard four years under the totalitarian rule of George W Bush and John Ashcroft.
Mary Lynn Mathre and Al Byrne, former NORML boardmembers who angrily left the organization in the mid-90’s after a prolonged dispute about NORML’s leadership and direction, were invited to this year’s conference.
Mathre is a pioneering registered nurse who recently saw her article on medical marijuana finally published in the prestigious American Journal of Nursing. Her husband, Al Byrne, is a retired naval officer who says that the article’s publication resulted from nine years of hard work trying to convince skeptics that the government lies about medical marijuana.
“It had been through four editors, and we told them that the government references were bunk, and that we would rather pull it than have it ruined by inclusion of junk science,” Byrne said. “The editor looked at the government references and came back and said, ‘You’re right, the government references are not scientific. They’re crap.’ Finally, after all these years, we are not demonized anymore.”
Mathre said she and Byrne are busy running a med-pot advocacy group, Patients Out of Time, and also planning for their second national cannabis conference (the first one was in Iowa in 1999) to be held in Portland next May. Mathre, Byrne, and several researchers and doctors are also conducting studies of some of the seven patients who receive government marijuana in the US Investigational New Drug Program.
Another med-pot advocate I spoke to was a pink-haired young woman who calls herself “Medical Marijuana Barbie.” Her real name is Tracy. She says she has a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Texas, but spends most of her time using her shockingly Barbie-like appearance to educate people about medical marijuana.
“I create cognitive dissonance; when people stop to ask me why I look like Barbie, I tell them I am ‘Medical Marijuana Barbie,’ and marijuana is a safe medicine that should be legal,” she explained. “I’ve been hassled by a few cops, but I’ve also gotten plenty of press coverage. I hope to go to all 50 states as Barbie and plant the medical marijuana idea in everybody’s mind.”
The pink Barbie blew my mind, but not as much as did Michael Kennedy, headman and corporate lawyer for Trans-High Corporation, the parent company of High Times magazine.
I used to work for Kennedy as a writer-photographer for High Times and Hemp Times, but resigned after business disputes to work for Cannabis Culture.
Since then, relations between Kennedy and Cannabis Culture haven’t exactly been friendly. Insiders have repeatedly told me that Kennedy views CC as a despised rival to High Times, and that he’d stop at nothing to put CC and Marc Emery Seed Sales out of business.
Nevertheless, I introduced myself to him and his wife, noted that he had a 35 year history as a successful lawyer, businessman and counterculture advocate, and asked if I could interview him for Cannabis Culture.
Kennedy laughed and politely declined my request, but shook my hand warmly.
“Cannabis Culture is a good magazine. We don’t hate you guys,” he said. “I’m sure Marc Emery is a good guy who is doing a lot to help the cause. We’re not trying to destroy you, we just don’t want to have public fighting and criticism. It’s time for all of us to work together against this stupid drug war, don’t you think?”