Part of a year-long series, longtime cannabis law reform advocate and historian Allen St. Pierre examines monthly for Cannabis Business Executive the last fifty years of cannabis prohibition and the public advocacy efforts in America to bring about the ongoing and inescapable socio-political changes underway first at the state, and soon, federal level regarding cannabis policy.
Marijuana Law Reform Advocates
Sometimes, throughout history, there are Phoenix-like comebacks, where from the ashes greatness arises. The then less-than-twenty year old cannabis law reform movement enjoyed a resurrection of sorts in the mid to late 1980s, fueled by NORML’s re-discovering of grassroots advocacy, the birth of a new and what would become America’s dominant drug policy reform organization, the publishing of what would become ‘the stoner’s bible’ and a ground breaking, but short-lived legal victory.
By the time 1984 rolls around, NORML is still for all and intent purposes the only drug policy reform group, but that will soon change when a momentous vote of NORML’s board of directors decides whether or not to expand it’s advocacy beyond cannabis, to all illicit drugs. After much internal debate, the board votes to maintain NORML’s narrow charter focusing on cannabis law reform only, however NORML’s then executive director, Kevin Zeese, along with American University professor and NORML board member Dr. Arnold Trebach, make a monumental decision in 1987 to form a new and separate non-profit organization called the Drug Policy Foundation (DPF), which advocated for cannabis legalization as the first step towards the legalization of all illicit drugs.
The importance of DPF’s creation can’t be overstated enough regarding the maturation and political relevancy cannabis law reform achieved under the initial tutelage of Trebach and Zeese. Arguably, the cannabis legalization era to be experienced twenty years later might not have occurred at all if it were not for another driven and committed non-profit reform organization finally joining NORML’s historically heroic efforts to end cannabis prohibition.
NORML, DPF and Bob Randall’s Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) were the three principal cannabis law reform organizations of the day, however, under the new leadership of Jon Gettman post Zeese leaving to found DPF, NORML went from relying heavily on a few large donations annually from wealthy individuals to becoming much more of a chapter-based, grassroots organization.
Reform Policy Strategy
At the lowest point for public support for cannabis legalization, staring into the heights of Reagan’s drug war and ever-increasing annual arrest numbers for cannabis consumers, NORML under Gettman starts to enjoy a rebirth by both reaching out to affected cannabis consumers through local chapter events and being responsive to the victims of the war on cannabis consumers by establishing a legal referral service among supportive NORML members who were also criminal defense lawyers. Additionally, the organization disseminated information to the public on how to prepare for an upcoming drug test and how to evolve from an aggrieved-to-politically-active citizen.
Twelve years into NORML vs. DEA, the case hears open testimony from numerous medical patients, physicians and researchers from selected cities around the nation, testifying to the safety and efficacy of cannabis as a medical therapeutic, whose legal status should be immediately downgraded substantively.
With such a high increase in arrests, prosecutions, incarcerations for cannabis in the Reagan era, along with the rigorous enforcement of forfeiture laws and implementation of workplace drug testing programs, NORML in the Gettman years focuses to a great degree on trying to empower cannabis consumers to become politically active, thwart negative results from positive drug tests, legally fight back against the government post arrest and make the case—with NORML vs. DEA strongly in mind—that comparably to other psychoactive substances, some legal, some not, that cannabis is a safer product for patients and consumers to interface with then, say, alcohol, tobacco and most pharmaceutical products.
During this period of time after he’d resigned from the organization due to the ‘Peter Bourne incident’, NORML founder Keith Stroup dropped out of marijuana law reform entirely and moved from Washington, DC to Massachusetts to become a lawyer for the governor’s art commission.
Opposition to Legalization
As if having the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Military, anti-cannabis parents groups funded and promoted by the federal government and virtually every police department in America was not enough government opposition for underfunded and ragtag non-profit groups laboring to end cannabis prohibition, in 1986, bi-partisan legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan that creates the supposed-end-all of anti-drug government bureaucracies in the Office of National Drug Control and Policy (ONDCP…otherwise, more popularly known as the ‘drug czar’s office’).
ONDCP’s short-lived but bombastic first director was arch-conservative political activist William Bennett, aided and abetted by his mini-Me, John Walters (a future ONDCP director under Bush 2.0, from 2001-2008).
The two primary anti-drug government programs championed by supposed fiscal conservatives like Bennett and Walters were the expensive and highly propagandistic Partnership for a Drug Free America campaign (PDFA) and the Drug Awareness and Resistance Education program (DARE). From their creation DARE and the PDFA were highly touted by Bennett and Walters as a means to reduce drug use, notably cannabis, which both men then (and still today) claimed is an insipid ‘stepping stone’ or ‘gateway’ drug—ushering a cannabis consumer today to become an addicted ‘hard’ drug abuser of heroin, cocaine or meth tomorrow.
Challenges For Reformers
Along with the landslide of anti-marijuana laws and rigorous enforcement therein that follows (which so typify the mid 1980s) and the creation of a multi-billion-a-year triumvirate of anti-drug government bureaucracies in ONDCP, PDFA and DARE, the challenges for cannabis law reform organizations were myriad.
Frustratingly, NORML would encourage it’s members and supporters of the day to write or call their elected policy makers encouraging some form or another of cannabis law reforms, only to have some congressional staffers on occasion communicate back with reformers suggesting that their letter or phone message had been forwarded to law enforcement for follow-up. Also, too, conversely, police would occasionally dispatch undercover narcs to attend NORML meetings to gather intelligence for future law enforcement actions.
Or, that when a local NORML chapter would advertise in a local paper or posted on a bulletin board for local meetings/events, phalanxes of uniformed police would also attend the meetings (naturally scaring off most of the citizens who wanted to do no more than peaceably gather to address political grievances to their elected policy makers).
Recognizing both the financial and communication benefits a non-profit organization like NORML was receiving from a pro-pot publication like High Times Magazine (along with the fact that High Times was the primary source back then for cannabis cultivation information) federal and state law enforcement sought to effectively shut down the publication via a nationwide task forced dubbed ‘Operation Green Merchant’ by going after it’s advertising base, which consisted of cultivation equipment and other ancillary products (an upstart competitor to High Times that primarily focused on cannabis cultivation called Sinsemilla Tips, was effectively put out of business by law enforcement’s intimidation and harassment of the magazine’s advertisers…and owner).
Concurrently, drug testing in the workplace exploded among federal workers and military personnel (incredibly, Congress, of course, exempted it’s members from being subject to drug testing…); drug testing proliferated in the private space too due to riders in federal procurement contracting requiring companies big and small to implement drug testing programs if they wanted to do business with the biggest business in the world: the US federal government
Food contractors, computer suppliers, defense contractors, aerospace, hotels, car companies, general contractors…all who wanted to do business with the federal government had to in effect ‘police’ the off work behavior of their employees.
Drug Czar Bennett acknowledged in media interviews that the government couldn’t arrest its way to a so-called Drug Free America, but insisted through painful civil penalties like drug testing, or forfeiture laws, that the average cannabis consumer can be negatively impacted.
Right he was, at great economic costs to taxpayers, tens of millions of Americans were negatively impacted by Cannabis Prohibition, a failed public policy championed chiefly by the federal and state governments.
Being a cannabis consumer, law reform activist or publisher of cannabis-centric information in the mid 1980s was fraught with frustration and danger.
Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement
Despite the national fervor against marijuana, fostered by the federal government, marijuana-related arrests stayed fairly consistent during the 1984-1988 period with approximately 440,000 arrests in 1984, 422,000 in 1985, 427,000 in 1986 and 433,000 in 1987 (with the vast majority of the arrests and prosecutions occurring at the local level, nearly 90 percent— with nearly 9 out of 10 arrests for marijuana possessiononly).
Regrettably, to the chagrin of social justice reformers, neither the state nor federal governments then—or currently—publish criminal justice data reflecting the percentage of individuals incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses (possession, cultivation and sales). However, because of the numerous enhanced sentencing laws passed by the ‘Just Say No’ Congresses from 1980-1984, such as mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, it is very likely that many more individuals were incarcerated on marijuana charges during this period than any previous time.
Amazingly, over the next two decades, the marijuana arrest rate in America will double, which by logical extension, a doubling too of the number of incarcerated prisoners on marijuana-related convictions.
Public Opinion on Pot
After a decade of steady climb, public opinion in favor of legalizing marijuana started a decidedly downward trend in the early to mid 1980s; a nadir in public opinion with pro-pot sentiment losing an astonishing five percentage points in just two years from 21% support in 1984 (down from a historic high in the late 70s of 28% support) to 17% by 1986 according to the General Social Survey.
Much of this steep decline in public support for legalizing marijuana was attributed by NORML to President Reagan’s reinvigorated ‘war on drugs’, Nancy Reagan’s ubiquitously promoted ‘just say no’ anti-drugism, increasingly higher annual arrest rates, enhanced penalties and increased drug testing in the workplace.
Astonishingly, little more than twenty years later, thankfully, the general public’s attitude, flying in the face of massive government expenditures and political opposition, ‘evolves’ such that a vast majority will go on to support ending cannabis prohibition in survey after survey, public vote after public vote.
The mid 1980s—as a result of nationwide anti-drug hysteria— are largely bereft of notable cannabis-centric movies, TV shows and music sans for what would become an underground bestselling book, researched and written by an unlikely author in a hippy headshop owner from Venice Beach, California, named Jack Herer (Jack would have you know that Herer rhymes with ‘terror’).
Part remarkably researched political book, part a believable government historical conspiracy yarn, the aptly named ‘Emperor Wears No Clothes’ begins as a newspaper broadsheet in 1985 published by Herer and his business partner ‘Capt’ Ed Adair.
Evolving in short time to conventional book form, ‘The Emperor’, very likely through the extensive coverage High Times provided readers about the book and Herer’s heroic efforts to unearth government-kept artifacts (proving his thesis that the federal government promoted and subsidized the cultivation and production of industrial hemp in aid to the World War II effort underway at the time), was one of the primary ways pre-Internet that, mainly, young people and non-college educated adults, came to learn about cannabis’ remarkable, long-enduring, controversial and government suppressed history of cannabis in America.
Herer would regularly embark on nationwide grassroots speaking tours, in conjunction with NORML and High Times (in later years working closely with the energetic and youthful Cannabis Action Network) promoting the book and extolling the ‘ganja gospel’ to audiences otherwise being overtly propagandized to regarding cannabis; drug tested in the workplace; having their kids taken away by Child Protective Services for getting caught with marijuana; harassed and imprisoned for using the noble herb.
By 1988, under the editorial leadership of Steve Hager, High Times Magazine, at the height of the War on Drugs, banned all articles and photos of any drug other than cannabis, promising to extoll the many virtues of cannabis, recognizing cannabis culture as a real and genuine subculture in America (and around most of the world) and promoting an end to cannabis prohibition through corporate advocacy and non-profit philanthropy.
The forward-looking administrative law challenge NORML filed in 1972 (NORML vs. DEA)—naively hoping to logically and in a timely manner migrate cannabis from the very prohibitive schedule of I to at least II, or lower—in 1988 experienced the most remarkable legal victory when the DEA’s chief law judge, Francis Young, ruled conclusively for NORML (and by that time the other pro-reform co-litigants, ACT and Drug Policy Foundation) and against his agency, in a long decision filled with legal dictum that delineated and highlighted cannabis as being ‘remarkably safe’, ‘very efficacious’, ‘possessing no known lethal dose’, that, in conclusion: ‘cannabis is safer than most foods we eat’.
The legal shockwave emanating from Washington, DC was unmistakable, the message forever damning to the long-held government position that cannabis is a ‘dangerous narcotic with no medical value’.
Despite the rarity of an administrative law judge ruling against their agency, let alone one in law enforcement, the leaders at the Department of Justice, White House and DEA chose to appeal the decision out of the administrative courts to the more politically fraught DC Court of Appeals, stymying for an additional six years, a final legal decision in NORML, et al vs. DEA.
Tellingly, while the government successfully delayed any legal recognition derived from their major upset in NORML vs. DEA, in the proceeding months after the 1988 decision was rendered and appeal taken up, the DEA’s administrator, Jack Lawn, sought new employment, amazingly, becoming the head of the Distilled Spirits Council (the lobby group for hard booze).
Hard to imagine Mr. Lawn genuinely wanted a drug-free America!
In the coming decades, Mr. Lawn’s duplicity will pale when compared to his supposedly anti-drug brethren’s association with drug law enforcement in the face of collapsing public and political support for continuing Cannabis Prohibition.
Allen St. Pierre is the vice president of communications for Freedom Leaf, a partner in the investment firm Sensible Alternative Investments and a NORML board member. In 1997, St. Pierre founded the NORML Foundation and was executive director for both NORML and NORML Foundation from 2006-2016.