After Stepping Down, NORML’s Former Leader Talks Wins, Challenges And Future Of Nation’s Oldest Marijuana Reform Group
Erik Altieri’s tenure as the executive director of NORML ended on Friday, closing a six-year chapter in the history of the nation’s oldest and most well-known marijuana reform advocacy group.
NORML, founded in 1970, was at an “important inflection point” when Altieri started leading the organization in 2016, he told Marijuana Moment in a new interview.
Despite enthusiasm among legalization advocates about state-level momentum, the prospects for federal reform were significantly dampened by the presidential election of Donald Trump, who went on to appoint the vociferous prohibitionist Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Altieri, then 29 years old, felt up to the task to lead NORML, even amid the multitude of uncertainties and fears that manifested within the reform community in those first years.
As NORML’s former communications director and PAC manager, with an established background in the politics of change, he assumed the position of executive director with institutional knowledge, a unique millennial appreciation for evolving technologies and a mantra to “put the grass in grassroots,” the group’s “semi-goofy saying” as he described it to Marijuana Moment in an interview back in 2017.
Those skills and experiences were put to the test. The most serious concerns among advocates about a potential Sessions-led federal crackdown on state cannabis programs weren’t realized, but Altieri says he faced a different kind of challenge: Combating complacency and fragmentation within the movement, which has seen factions of ideological absolutists and corporate lobbyists deviate from NORML’s roots as the question of legalization shifted from if to how.
Today, marijuana remains federally illegal. More states have enacted legalization, but the movement has seen its share of setbacks. Fissures in policy perspectives have pitted certain activists against one another—at times, making an already challenging mission to end prohibition all the more difficult. Still, those conversations were often meaningful, underscoring the need for reform organizations like NORML to continue to evolve.
Altieri shared his perspective on NORML’s achievements, challenges and future with Marijuana Moment. In the interim since his departure, Randy Quast, NORML board member and the group’s treasurer, has assumed the role of acting executive director while the board looks for Altieri’s successor.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: When you started as executive director of NORML, what kinds of goals did you have in mind, and to what extent do you feel they were accomplished as you now depart?
Erik Altieri: Coming into the job, I knew we were at an important inflection point for the legalization movement. While we had accrued a sizable list of state-level wins, we still needed to gain momentum federally. After the presidential election, we had to contend with a new administration that was filling itself with far-right prohibitionists like Jeff Sessions.
Many had assumed up until that point we were on a glide path to legalization in all 50 states, but a lot of the political developments around that time were a wake-up call that we still had to show up and fight, not only to make progress but to defend the gains we had already made.
Within the movement, I saw a space once dominated by policy- and justice-minded advocates being replaced by mostly for-hire lobbyists working with individual corporations or industry interest groups. It was clear that never had there been a more important time for NORML to reassert itself, expand its impact, and be a strong voice representing consumers. To do so, we had to modernize the technology and tools we were using, modernize our advocacy and outreach efforts, and bring in talented staff who could quickly adapt and succeed in a movement that was seeing new challenges every single day when once we’d be lucky to see a single bill pass in a year.
I believe the results show that we accomplished most of what I had hoped six years ago, and trust with NORML’s dedicated affiliates, volunteers, and staff; the organization will remain critically important and relevant to the battles ahead.
MM: What were the main challenges you faced leading the organization?
EA: Many of the organization’s biggest challenges were out of our hands and nearly impossible to predict. Not only did I start the day after Trump was elected president, forcing us to adjust to working with an unpredictable administration that wasn’t very friendly to our issue, but it goes without saying the years that followed kept adding new difficulties and uncertainties, including everything related to the COVID pandemic and the crucial discussions around race and our criminal justice system spurred by the police murder of George Floyd.
This required addressing situations that we had never really faced before and reconsidering how NORML as an organization could be effective in helping consumers through uncertain times and in uplifting the voices of a new generation of activists demanding real change to our law enforcement and criminal justice policies.
There also was a persistent challenge of dealing with public ambivalence. Given the long streak of victories we achieved in the last decade, many Americans and even some of our own advocates began assuming this was a done deal and there was nothing left to fight for.
While we had undoubtedly changed a lot of laws for the better by 2016, it was necessary to keep individuals engaged and motivated. Despite approving legalization in a fair number of states, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens were, and are still, being put in handcuffs for simple possession. If we allowed complacency to take over, we’d be failing all those cannabis consumers still suffering under the oppressive yoke of prohibition. Continuing to highlight and call attention to arrest numbers, and in particular, the regional and racial disparities that those numbers revealed, helped refocus our supporters and reengaged them to get back involved and work to finish the fight for marijuana freedom.
MM: What advice would you offer your successor in meeting those challenges and ensuring NORML’s success moving forward?
EA: Stay focused on the mission. It is easy to lose sight of what really matters, get distracted by all the noise of what is becoming a crowded movement, or question the direction everything is moving in.
NORML exists to represent the interest of cannabis consumers and that should be the lodestar that directs your positions and strategies. Our primary goal is to end the arrests of anyone for marijuana and to replace our failed racist prohibition with a sensible legalization policy. We fight for personal freedom, civil liberties, and justice.
Often this will get you criticized by others who represent different interests, but NORML should lead and not follow. If you center the organization on the mission and those principles, you will continue moving forward and doing the important work that needs to be done.
It is also important to remember, NORML is not the executive director sitting in Washington, D.C. NORML is the people that rally and organize under its banner. I always viewed my real role not as single-handily fighting for change but as using our platform and reach to uplift the millions of everyday Americans demanding reform. It is about turning their people power into political power.
MM: What kind of background/qualities do you think NORML should look for in its next executive director?
EA: While I’m hesitant to speak too much on who should succeed me, as I find it unfair to saddle the organization and future leaders with my specific personal views, the organization is more than any one person and should feel free to evaluate and evolve as they see fit. Yet there are a few critical aspects I would recommend.
NORML should find someone who personally understands and is driven by the fight for justice and defending cannabis consumers. Its next director shouldn’t be someone who tries to drastically change what the organization stands for but also who knows how to work the political process both from the insider’s standpoint and from a grassroots advocacy one. NORML needs a director that knows how to assist and empower our activists and that knows how to trust and provide support for our talented staff to do what they do best.
MM: Especially since Oklahoma’s legalization defeat, prohibitionists are trying to challenge the idea of inevitability in the movement. How have you come to think of the idea of inevitability in this space? Is there something to be said about the need for activists to abandon the idea of inevitability in the interest of avoiding complacency?
EA: I’m not surprised our opponents are working the news spin machine to point to Oklahoma as proof of legalization running out of steam. It’s lazy political analysis, but they need to cling to any false framing they can since they are clearly losing and represent a fringe position.
To act like a legalization ballot measure being defeated in one of the most conservative states in the country, that faced countless hurdles to qualification and was pushed to a special election in March of an off-election year when nothing else was being voted on is proof Americans are turning on legalization is such an ignorant read of the situation it is hard to take it seriously.
That said, we should gird against any complacency. Not only are there still hundreds of thousands of Americans being arrested for marijuana, but the fights that lie ahead are going to be some of the most challenging. After a tremendous run, we are getting into more difficult territory with the remaining states, which veer much more conservative than the first round of legalization states, but most lack any ballot process forcing us to win legislatively.
Beyond that, getting Congress to take action is going to be one of the biggest challenges we will continue to face. We can’t win those fights if we get complacent. It is time to double down, not ease up.
MM: What are you most optimistic about for the reform movement over the next couple of years?
EA: While it will be a challenge, we are finally starting to see the cracks form in the foundation of federal prohibition. The next two years are going to be incredibly difficult, with a McCarthy-led House and prohibitionists like Rep. Jim Jordan chairing important committees. There is some hope for incremental reform, so activists should spend the rest of this Congress focusing on creating new alliances and finding places to advance policies we can build some consensus around.
The upcoming elections in 2024 will also be of crucial importance for the movement, and organizations and activists should devise efforts to reelect our allies, evict our opponents, and bring in new elected officials who will champion our cause.
Additionally, despite the difficulty involved in some locations, we have built up a lot of experience and political momentum legalizing by legislation for the past few years. There is a lot of potential this year and next year to add more states to the legalization list, such as Minnesota this year, but getting those bills across the finish line will take resources, sound strategy, and cooperation.
MM: What can you say about your next role?
EA: I was drawn into NORML because of a passion for advocating for criminal justice reform. Continuing that passion, I’ll be remaining in the general criminal justice field but will be moving my focus from marijuana and instead be working on reforming state policies around expungement and clean slate legislation.
MM: What message would you leave NORML supporters and advocates in general as you leave this position?
EA: The movement remained largely united when we were simply arguing for legalization over prohibition. As we began to legalize in more and more states, a lot of fracturing began to happen around just “how” we should legalize. It also brought in a lot more interest from the corporate and the industry side, which had agendas that are often antithetical to justice-oriented advocacy and NORML’s consumer focus.
This led to a lot of folks who entered the space embracing their worst instincts and taking a no prisoners; you’re entirely with us or entirely against us mentality. While I won’t say there aren’t times to take some absolutist stances, it has led to a level of inner-movement toxicity that has hindered its effectiveness.
Different people and organizations represent different missions and interests, which is why they are distinct entities in the first place. However, we shouldn’t allow that to turn folks who are otherwise aligned on the big picture become a cyclical firing squad. In many ways, in the absence of a modern well-formed opposition, we became our own worst enemy. We can disagree with fellow legalization supporters without being disagreeable, and we will need to if we want to overcome what lies ahead between us and legalization nationwide.
As I often said during my tenure. It was together that we achieved all that we have so far. It is only together that we will end prohibition once and for all.
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