As Legalization Spreads, NORML Evolves Under New Leadership
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.