Whether it’s where you left your heart, wore flowers in your hair or sat on the dock of the bay, no city in America is better suited for a cannabis convention than San Francisco. As the birthplace of both acid rock and the Compassionate Use Act, the “city by the bay” is truly the Amsterdam of America ? as friendly as a town can be to an herb the feds love to hate. So it was under fog-free skies that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) rolled into town on April 20 for its annual convention.
When the NORML team came west the organization was still high from its April 9 launch of the New York City media campaign that quotes Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s admission of toking from a 2000 interview with New York magazine. “You bet I did,” said Bloomberg, “And I enjoyed it,” not realizing that two years later his quote would be running on newspaper, bus, phone kiosk and radio ads.
The ads call Bloomberg an “honest politician,” and he responded to the campaign by rightly acknowledging NORML’s first amendment rights to use his words. The original ads were also sold off during the opening reception as part of NORML’s silent auction.
This year’s convention featured a host of politicians who willingly spoke to conventioneers: California State Senator John Vasconcellos; San Francisco Supervisor and State Assemblyman-elect Mark Leno; San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan and Nevada State Assemblywoman Christina Giunchigliani. Wrestler turned Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura appeared on video to lend his solidarity, and actor Woody Harrelson cancelled at the last minute. The highest celebrity to show up in person was Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect.
Celebration or dirge?
NORML’s planners named the event “4/20 – a celebration of personal freedom,” but it might have been more accurate to call it “Bushwhacked – getting screwed in the post 9/11 era.” The California movement is still reeling from unprecedented attacks by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). DEA Director Asa Hutchinson had barely finished saying that marijuana enforcement would be given a low priority in the war on terrorism when his agency raided the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyer’s Center in October of 2000. Then the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center in San Francisco got raided on February 12, the day the DEA’s fearless leader arrived to address the Commonwealth Club (CC#37, DEA attacks med-pot and hemp).
Over drinks, I was told by one movement gadfly that his friend in the DEA advised him of more med-pot raids coming up, and that I should warn everyone I know.
California NORML director Dale Gieringer called the confrontations between the DEA and cannabis clubs “an epic battle, a real showdown, the Armageddon of the Drug War.” He added that “clubs provide the model for socializing marijuana use, which will lead to legalization, and that’s what they are out to crush.”
Famed defense attorney Tony Serra theatrically hammered away at the war on drugs’ impact on legal traditions by smashing bouquets of flowers. “We swim in a sea of snitches!” he shouted as flowers flew. “Our independent judiciary has been swallowed by the executive and the legislature! Our judges are emasculated! How about us being about zero tolerance? I have zero tolerance for bullshit!”
Ethan Nadelmann, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (formerly the Lindesmith Center), expressed exasperation with the “troika” of John Ashcroft, John Walters (Bill Bennett’s Mini-Me) and Asa Hutchinson. “Maybe their pushing to the stupidest reaches imaginable is the place we can trip them up and use their thing against them,” he mused, before warning, “We have to be careful, tight. As it becomes easier to smoke in more places, those are the moments of greatest vulnerability.”
Seeing a major player in the drug reform movement appear to be at wit’s end about stopping the insanity did nothing for my sense of celebration. By this point I was ready for a double martini.
Highs and lows
Yes, there were brief moments that could be variously called “celebratory.” It seems every NORML Convention starts off with Florida attorney Norm Kent, who gets the audience to stand and repeat after him, “I, your name, have smoked marijuana, pot, that wacky weed, and it is good!” Public pronouncements like this are an effective tool for kick-charging the energy level in the room, so on that note, and taking a cue from the gay movement, Mikki Norris of Human Rights and the Drug War led the cheer, “We’re here, we’re high, get used to it” and implored the crowd to come out of the closet and be photographed and biographed for her Cannabis Consumers Campaign.
Yet the effects of these self-esteem pep-talks are short lived and always give way to the reality about suffering patients, legal cases and battles with evil-doers, which ushers in a heavy, somber mood.
We heard about the newest thing in drug test technology ? the Pharmcheck Sweat Patch. It looks like a Band-aid and is being used on prisoners to check their drug use. The company is in line for a multi-million dollar government contract to distribute them. “The thing that’s so deadly about the Sweat Patch,” explained Julie Ruiz-Sierra of the Drug Policy Alliance, “is that it is far more sensitive than other test methodology.” She explained that when Pharmcheck says the 3M adhesive backing is only semi-permeable ? meaning it only absorbs in one direction, the skin side – the reality is that the patch absorbs environmental substances as well, and even high pH shampoo will increase the patch’s permeability. “Pharmcheck must be stopped before they get that federal contract,” claimed Ruiz-Sierra.
Dr John Morgan, co-author of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, derided the poor quality of the patch, and called Pharmcheck the “scumsucking cost cutters of all time.”
Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher told a packed room that American’s effort to protect children has led to “jailing people, confiscating property, burning crops in other countries!” He admonished those who don’t make the connection to “Take care of your own kids without using your fellow citizens as cannon fodder in the war on drugs!”
Maher also told the crowd that the problem with getting people active in our cause is that marijuana is too easy to get. “The government is so ineffective that it lulls us into this sense of complacency,” explained Maher. “We forget about the people who are suffering, and who are arrested for it.” He then mentioned his friend, imprisoned med-pot patient Todd McCormick.
In a more comic tone, Maher called for more celebrity outreach. “There are a lot of prominent people, I’m not going to mention any names ? Harrison Ford, Ted Turner ? who smoke a lot of pot and need to stand up!” After the laughter died down he added “I’m not going to mention names, I would never do that.”
Maher also joked that the only way to get pot legal would be to make it like other drugs, and have it kill someone. “I’m willing to volunteer myself,” Maher said. “Someone try to kill me tonight!”
Hemp for victory
With the hemp industry under siege against the DEA over minute traces of THC in hemp food, members of the Votehemp team were on hand to discuss the Hemp Industries Association’s lawsuit to strike down the agency’s new rules.
Votehemp president Eric Steenstra told me how he ended up in a National Public Radio studio debating Asa Hutchinson on live national airwaves. He said he mopped the floor with the DEA director. “I had no idea Asa was going to be there until his entourage showed up in the green room,” he marveled. “I was so ready and they propped him up, but he wasn’t ready for the challenge. He looked like an idiot.” Having heard the program, I’ll second that claim.
Although I didn’t get to dance on the bar with a lampshade on my head, what I did get out the conference was how crucial it is to captivate and activate mainstream America in order to obtain real, lasting drug reform, and that marijuana legalization is key to ending the drug war and restoring lost civil liberties.
As Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy said, “these are battles about us, about where our country’s going, and what it means to live in ‘the land of the free’ in the future.”