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As Legalization Spreads, NORML Evolves Under New Leadership

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The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML, is the nation’s oldest and most well-known cannabis legalization group.

Even as organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance are better funded and have arguably played a more direct role in shaping the growing number of changing state laws, NORML, founded in 1970, enjoys household-name status and is able to wield a large, national grassroots network of activists while other outfits mostly rely on paid staff located in a handful of major cities.

The group recently underwent a major transition, hiring a new, young executive director to fill the shoes of longtime leaders who ran NORML for decades.

Erik Altieri, 29, is that new cannabis crusader-in-chief. A former NORML staffer who left for two years to focus on broader political work, he returned to take over the organization’s helm on November 9 of last year — the day after activists succeeded in convincing voters in eight states to approve marijuana reform ballot measures and Donald Trump’s election as president stoked fear in the hearts of cannabis consumers and business investors.

Altieri took time to chat with Marijuana Moment about where NORML stands today, 45 years after its founding, at a time of both growing momentum for cannabis reform and looming uncertainty on the federal level.

You were with NORML as a staffer for over seven years before taking a two-year hiatus from marijuana work to focus on issues relating to the influence of big money in our political system. Why did you decide to come back now? And how are things different in the world of marijuana policy now compared to your last stint at NORML headquarters?

I initially took a hiatus from NORML after a long tenure there as communications director and PAC manager to take the skills I learned and apply them in other areas of advocacy I cared about. However, my heart still remained with my first passion, the marijuana legalization movement and NORML in particular. When I heard that Allen St. Pierre was resigning from the position of executive director, I felt I was uniquely positioned as someone with long-term institutional knowledge of the organization and the necessary technical, political and management skills required to rejuvenate and strengthen NORML at what has clearly become a pivotal phase for the efforts to end marijuana prohibition and a time when the power of grassroots movements, always NORML’s bread and butter, was seeing a resurgence in its popularity and effectiveness.

My first official day back was the day after the 2016 election. Not only did it feel like the political landscape fundamentally changed that day, but we began to see a developing existential threat to all the progress our nation has made at reforming our marijuana laws. While on one hand we had chalked up some amazing victories for legalization in states, on the other we began to hear rumblings of where this administration’s marijuana position might land as then-Senator Jefferson “Marijuana Smokers Aren’t Good People” Sessions was being floated as the next attorney general. I decided that NORML should take a outspoken and strong stance against his appointment immediately. If we were to persevere we had to come together as a movement and show that any attempts to roll back our progress would be not just bad policy, but bad politics. With 60 percent of Americans supporting legalization and over 90 percent supporting medical marijuana access, we had to make clear that the people of this country wouldn’t stand for attempts to take us back to the dark ages of ‘Just Say No.’

But Sessions got confirmed anyway, despite vigorous protestations from NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and others. Do you think this early opposition was worthwhile given sessions was confirmed anyway?

Our push back did not go unnoticed, despite Sessions being approved by the Senate to become the top law enforcement officer in the land. In a speech he gave not long after assuming the position, Sessions said that marijuana came up so much in the public discourse surrounding his appointment that “you would have thought [it was the] biggest issue in America.”

At the time I told our supporters that NORML doesn’t encourage panic or worry, but vigilance — and I still hold to that. The statements coming out of Sessions and other administration officials in the last year could really in no way be described as positive and, while the shoe hasn’t fully dropped, it is easy to see where the threat lies — especially given that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is continuing to face opposition to its renewal and that states that have legalized adult use marijuana have no formal protection from federal incursion at all. Activists, citizens and the marijuana industry cannot be caught whistling past the graveyard on this one. We need to be proactive in defending our gains and be organized and prepared for any formal opposition that may be coming down the road.

Things definitely seem uncertain on the federal level. What’s your read on where the fight stands in the states?

Policy fights at the state level have evolved greatly since I last worked on the issue as well. We now face what I call a two-pronged war.

On one side we have states who have legalized the adult use of marijuana and in those states we very much take on the role of a direct consumer advocate. Just because possession and use of marijuana no longer is cause for an arrest doesn’t mean all the problems have been solved. We still have to continue to apply pressure to regulators and state officials to ensure that not only these initiatives are implemented in a responsible way, but also take on ancillary issues that continue to exist such as workplace drug testing, expungement for those who still are carrying criminal charges on their record from before legalization, ensuring an individual’s right to home cultivation, access to marijuana social clubs, fair tax rates, proper testing procedures for marijuana products and many others.

The other prong of this war is the majority of states where marijuana has not been legalized and individuals still face the burdens of prohibition. In those states we need to continue to fight for patients’ access to medical cannabis, the ending of all criminal penalties for responsible marijuana use and the development of a consumer-friendly legalized market.

NORML was the first real organized push for legalization when it was founded in 1970. How do you see the organization’s role in the movement today, and how has it evolved over time?

While our technology, tactics and some of the nuance of the fight has changed in the last several decades, in many ways I don’t believe NORML’s core role has. While I firmly believe there is a lot of great work coming out of the National D.C. office and we have a staff doing phenomenal work on federal issues and organizing, that has in many ways always been secondary to NORML’s central purpose.

NORML isn’t me sitting at my desk in Washington, NORML is the people. We are a banner under which average citizens can come together and fight against unjust laws. The National arm provides information, resources, guidance and so forth to our 150+ chapters across the globe, but it is the volunteer activists on the ground that never cease to impress me with their skill, commitment and passion.

The typical thought of the legislative process is that lobbyists get everything done. However, I believe there is a more powerful force in politics. Constituent-to-elected-official contact — particularly when done in a intelligent, concerted and persistent way — can achieve true change in ways nothing else can. To that end, NORML and our affiliates held over 24 state level lobby days just this year (an all time high for the organization) as well our National Conference and Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. which drew citizen activists from about half of the states in the country to advocate federal reform.

Earlier this year, our Kansas City chapter drafted and collected enough signatures to place citywide decriminalization on the ballot. This was an entirely volunteer effort done the old fashioned way: burning shoe leather, knocking on doors, talking to their neighbors and taking an active and vocal role in their community. On the sheer power of your average citizens getting engaged, the initiative passed with an astounding 74% of the vote.

There has always been, an admittedly semi-goofy saying around NORML that we put the grass in grassroots. I think that mentality was baked into the organization from the day Keith Stroup founded it in 1970 and holds truer than ever to this day.

What are some of the biggest challenges in taking over an institution like NORML from veterans like Keith Stroup and Allen St. Pierre who ran it for decades, including during the dark ages when legalization was largely considered a pipe dream by most political observers?

I think the challenges are similar to the ones any organization that has lasted as long as we have face. When you have been doing anything long enough, you tend to fall into routine. Sometimes things continue being done one way, just because that is how they have always been done. Organizations after a certain period of existence can have a tendency to fall victim to a sense of inertia. This can become particularly problematic in the evolving world of advocacy where you need to keep up with the ever changing state of not just politics, but social change, technology, competing efforts and so on. I don’t think this is a unique problem to NORML, but one that presents itself at a certain point in any organization’s lifespan should they live long enough.

While there are challenges, I do think the longevity of NORML provides a lot of opportunities. This longevity has created a massive pool of institutional knowledge, a large group of well seasoned and experienced activists, a respect for how long the arc of progress really is, how we achieved that progress over the long term and how astounding the victories of the past decade have been. NORML also has the benefit of being a strong brand that is trusted by the public on this issue, across many generational groups, thanks to the simple fact we have been going at this diligently for over four decades.

I’m greatly appreciative that founder Keith Stroup, our talented staff and our Board of Directors have been incredibly supportive and motivated along with me to harness our existing strengths and improve any weaknesses to ensure NORML can continue to be an active, powerful force in ending marijuana prohibition and implementing responsible and consumer friendly legalization regulations.

Do you think you have an advantage over those earlier leaders in running NORML today as a young person who grew up with the Internet as an organizing tool and in an era when marijuana became much more mainstream?

I believe I do, but I also don’t think that advantage is necessarily unique to me personally, but of the generation I come from and the time we find ourselves in. In addition to being a tech nerd and former web developer myself, I, like everyone else of my general age group, had access to computers and the Internet for a good portion of our lives. Though I also believe I’m fortunate enough to have spent the earlier parts of my childhood without the overwhelming prevalence of computers and cellphones, and because of that I think I still have a nostalgia and belief in face-to-face tactics and direct engagement.

But, I also spent most of my life assuming these technologies were part and parcel of the modern world and was quick to adopt them into my daily existence. Utilizing the power of modern communication has been crucial to the progress of the marijuana reform issue. The Internet removed information gatekeepers and allowed organizations to get relevant and accurate data and other information directly to the people and citizens were more empowered to do their own research and draw their own conclusions instead of relying on the talking points of a few media companies. Social media and smartphones have given our grassroots activist indispensable, and often free, tools that allow them to easily and quickly communicate with supporters, host events and organize on the ground.

At this point in time, we also benefit from substantial public support for our cause, something that can’t be said of decades prior. With this broader acceptance also comes a reduced stigma for speaking out against these unjust laws, as people feel less threatened and more empowered to do so.

How do you see NORML’s focus changing over time as legalization goes into effect in more and more places?

While I think it is extremely important to point out that millions upon millions of Americans still live in localities where they are made criminals for choosing to consume marijuana, it is also true that our fight is evolving as more and more states adopt legalization and regulation laws.

At the core, NORML is the marijuana consumers lobby and in a post-legalization world there will still be plenty of important work to do in that arena. As I mentioned previously, in states that have legalized many individuals still face potentially losing their employment over consuming a substance that is no longer criminal — which is entirely unacceptable. No one should have to worry about losing their job for electing to consume a substance that is not only legal, but objectively safer than other substance such as alcohol and tobacco.

In these states there are still individuals being saddled with the consequences of a criminal record for an offense that is now legalized and even some still serving jail time — this is why we need strong expungement efforts. In places like Washington State, adults still cannot elect to grow their cannabis at home, which is important not just for the individual freedom component, but also because it is a force to use against the industry should it attempt to provide low quality product or charge unreasonable prices.

The second half of NORML’s mission statement reads that we exist “to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable” — issues that don’t go away and in fact only become more important after legalization is initially approved.

We also, as a movement, have the unique opportunity to create a brand new, multi-billion dollar industry out of where there was once only a criminal black market. It is important we build one that is not just an example for more states to follow as they implement their laws, but for nations around the globe. We, as activists and consumers, are tasked with creating a model industry that allows for ease of access for average citizens into the market and promotes small business owners and diversity over monopolistic corporate greed.

With legalization moving from hypothetical discussion to reality, it has become harder to keep the varying interests in the fight on the same page. I do firmly believe though, that if we stick together as we largely have since this effort all began and adhere to our core values of social and racial justice and personal freedom, we will ultimately prevail.

We’ve come so far and accomplished so much. We need to not just continue, but redouble our efforts to cross the finish line and ensure the sustainability of marijuana legalization nationwide. The fight will be hard and we have a ways to go yet, but as I often like to remind our supporters: the marijuana revolution will continue and we will win.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation

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A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.

“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.

“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”

“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”

Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.

“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”

“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.

Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.

“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”

Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.

For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.

Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.

Eleven Senators Push To Let Marijuana Businesses Access Federal Loan Programs

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus

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North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.

“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”

Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.

“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”

The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.

California activists for campaigns to amend the state’s legal cannabis program and legalize psilocybin mushrooms are asking for a digital signature option.

Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.

Virginia Groups Push Governor To Amend Marijuana Decriminalization Bill On His Desk

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Arizona Legal Marijuana Campaign Asks Supreme Court To Allow Electronic Signatures Amid Coronavirus

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Several campaigns to put initiatives on Arizona’s November ballot—including one to legalize marijuana—are asking the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has made in-person ballot petitioning all but impossible.

Smart and Safe Arizona, the group behind the cannabis measure, along with three other campaigns, filed a petition with the court on Thursday, requesting that it direct the secretary of state to let them digitally collect signatures. They stressed that the infrastructure already exists, as residents are able to use a system called E-Qual to sign ballot petitions for individual candidates running for office.

While the marijuana campaign has already gathered more than 320,000 signatures, which is well over the required 237,645 signatures for statutory proposals, they have yet to be verified and activists would like to continue collection efforts to ensure that they qualify for the ballot.

In the filing, the groups argued that limiting the E-Qual system to office seekers is unconstitutional. However, state law stipulates that it can only be used for that purpose, so it remains to be seen whether court action will produce the intended result. There was a bill filed last year to expand its utility to allow digital signature gathering for initiatives, but it has not advanced in the legislature.

“Legal access to E-Qual for these citizen initiatives is the right thing for public health and democracy,” attorneys representing the groups said in a statement. “Following Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order issued Monday and current CDC recommendations, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures on paper, at people’s homes, or in public spaces, is impossible to do safely and responsibly during this pandemic. E-Qual is a very reasonable remedy.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

“The Committees have explored potential alternatives, such as mailing petitions to interested persons to circulate within their families,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson said in a declaration filed with the court. “This, however, is expensive, inefficient, and has no realistic likelihood of permitting the Committees’ to gather large numbers of valid petition signatures.”

The legalization group was joined by campaigns to limit school vouchers, provide sentencing reform and increase taxes on the wealthy to fund public education in the petition. Separately, two other campaigns—to enact voting reform and end surprise hospital billings—filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court on Thursday.

Smart and Safe Arizona is not the only drug policy reform campaign to request electronic signature gathering since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Activists in California released a video last month asking officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

Others have generally shut down campaign activities in light of the pandemic, which has resulted in shutter businesses and shelter-in-place orders across the country.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Idaho Activists Suspend Campaign To Legalize Medical Marijuana Due To Coronavirus

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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