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.
Part Nine (2000-2004)
Marijuana Law Reform Advocates
By the turn of the century, the cannabis law reform movement had swelled to it’s largest size to date, with dozens of national, state and local reform groups largely working in unison thanks to ring-through-the-nose financial support provided by the small group of ultra wealthy individuals who’d opted to fund the Drug Policy Alliance (and to a lesser degree at the time, Marijuana Policy Project) as the primary vehicle for cannabis policy reform advocacy.
Save for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) almost all reform groups were ‘grasstops’ rather than grassroots organizations (with these varied groups receiving funding channeled through Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project Foundation).
Post medical cannabis initiatives passing in states such as CA, WA, OR, CO and ME in the years between 1996-2004, national media, rather than continue to interview and profile America’s first legal medical marijuana patient (and reform advocate) Robert Randall of Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) media en mass instead focused on west coast medical cannabis activists such as Dennis Peron, Brownie Mary and Scott Imler; and more notably on the arrests and court trials of medical marijuana activists in Oakland (US vs. OCBC), a benevolent medical patient (Gonzales vs. Raich) and a famed marijuana cultivation author (US vs. Rosenthal) far more so than the broader (and traditional) issues in marijuana public policy debates such as decriminalization vs. legalization.
Two California court cases relating to medical marijuana, amazingly, find their way to the US Supreme Court in 2001 and 2004 respectively.
Arguably, the most important cannabis law reformers between 2000-2004 are the small group of lawyers, largely funded by the Drug Policy Alliance and American Civil Liberties Union (with both organizations receiving earmarked multi-million dollar donations from Peter Lewis for such), who, largely succeed in legally defending the political gains made by cannabis law reformers at the voting booths circa 1996 in the states of CA, OR, WA, CO and ME. Without this cadre of reform lawyers’ string of legal victories against hostile and recalcitrant federal, state and local governments, the cannabis legalization policies to be experienced a decade later would not likely have been possible.
Reform Policy Strategy
Along with trying to maintain electoral gains in the courts in the early 2000s cannabis law reformers also continued to marshal their new found economic resources to concurrently agitate for more binding voter initiatives (in the states that allow for them; approximately half the states in America don’t allow voter initiatives).
However, the political victories enjoyed previously at the polls were for a time put aside by a string of failures by cannabis law reform organizations, who, arguably overreached in trying to pass voter initiatives that reformed cannabis prohibition laws:
In 2002, Arizona’s Prop 203, which would have legalized marijuana for adults, failed 57%-43%. In the same year, voters in Nevada rejected a marijuana decriminalization initiative 60%-39%; voters in Ohio rejected a ‘treatment for marijuana users in lieu of incarceration’ initiative 67%-33%; South Dakota voters turned down an initiative that sought to legalize industrial hemp, 62%-38%.
The bad times for reformers continued into 2004; in Alaska, 55%-44% for outright marijuana legalization is rejected and in Oregon, voters turned back an attempt to create greater allowances for medical cannabis patients, 57%-43%.
However, cannabis law reformers gain one political victory at the polls in 2004 in the state of Montana where voters approved a medical marijuana ballot question 61%-38%.
While some voters at the beginning of the new century in a limited number of states in America start to put down a political-legal foundation for greater pot prohibition reforms to come in the not-so-distant future, Canadian politicians not-so-quietly take up the debate on whether or not cannabis laws in the country should be radically reformed.
From 2000-2002 the Canadian Senate openly debated the country’s marijuana prohibition laws, drawing heavily on social use and criminal data from countries such as the United States and Netherlands to help them publish a major report in 2002 that largely called on the government to re-examine cannabis both as a medicine and adult-only recreational drug.
Bittersweetly, the Canadian government—unlike the recalcitrant American government (and it’s over reliance on the support of law enforcement to shape drug policy)—moved quickly post publication of the Canadian Senate report on implementing a recommendation to establish a national medical cannabis system (over eighteen years later, the US federal government still publishes regularly that cannabis has no medical value and is not at all safe for human use, even under a physician’s care and recommendation).
However, due to both oppositional pressure from the Bush-led US government and a change of government in Canada from liberal to conservative, cannabis decriminalization and legalization debates in the ‘51ststate’ would be forestalled for nearly another generation.
Opposition to Legalization
While US government-funded anti-marijuana groups were still in existence (i.e., DARE, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, PRIDE, CADCA, etc…), and the occasional newspaper opinion writer cited with anti-scientific, anti-self preservation views regarding the medical use of cannabis, for the most part, direct opposition for cannabis law reform was almost entirely fostered by the US federal government, notably the oft public attacks on marijuana by then ONDCP head (and William Bennett ‘Mini-Me’) John Walters.
However, because of a major miscalculation in public opinion (and political optics), a turning point in the then thirty year war against marijuana occurred when, post necessary major national security reforms in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, anti-pot zealot and ONDCP head John Walters, less than two months after the national calamity, funded a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign attempting to link Americans’ domestic use of cannabis to directly supporting terrorists, like the ones who’d just murdered nearly 4,000 people on 9/11.
The ad campaign was rightly and roundly panned as both insensitive and ineffective; “a terrific and embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars” exclaimed one nationally syndicated conservative columnist.
Otherwise, the opposition to cannabis law reform could best be found in the phalanxes of government lawyers assigned to try to legally prohibit or impair medical cannabis law reform gains made by reformers circa 1996.
Challenges For Reformers
Is there a greater challenge for a social justice cause than to get before the US Supreme Court not once but twice in a four-year span? Is there any greater tell that a social cause has arrived?
Remarkably, SCOTUS takes up first US vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club and decides 8-0 against the club claiming a medical necessity defense and exemption from federal enforcement (Justice Stephen Breyer didn’t participate in the case because his brother was the federal judge in San Francisco who presided over the original trial case).
In 2004, Gonzales vs. Raich was heard before the high court on the matter of whether or not an intra-state transfer of cannabis for no compensation was effectively still a federal crime [The case was handed down in early 2005, and medical marijuana patient Raich didn’t prevail in a 6-3 decision affirming the federal government’s primacy on the matter).
However, despite two back-to-back losses in the US Supreme Court, there effectively was no ill effect from either decision in regards to medical cannabis dispensaries in many of the states that medicalized cannabis (notably CA, OR, WA, MT and CO) proliferating from a few dozen to over a thousand in five short years.
While SCOTUS was looking at medical cannabis policy, lower courts were handing out prison sentences to medical cannabis cultivators and sellers, including twice tried-n-convicted cannabis cultivation author and former High Times columnist Ed Rosenthal; cannabis and counterculture hero Tommy Chong was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to federal prison for marketing ‘Chong Bongs’.
Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement
Continuing a clear increase trend in annual marijuana arrests inherited from the Clinton Administration (where there was a whopping 219% increase in cannabis arrests from 1992-2000), the first four years of Bush 2.0 regarding marijuana arrests marked 735,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2001, 723,000 in 2002, 697,000 in 2003 and hitting an all-time record high at the time, 755,000 in 2004.
During the eight years of Clinton’s war on pot approximately 4,928,000 individuals were busted on pot-only charges; in Bush 2.0’s first four years in office nearly 2.5 million pot busts sucked up taxpayer dollars and law enforcement’s time.
Public Opinion on Pot
While the federal government continued it’s rigid and unyielding war against cannabis and it’s consumers, producers and sellers, public opinion on the need to end cannabis prohibition continued to increase, reflecting the well-publicized efforts (and political victories) of medical cannabis’ legalization in a half dozen states.
In 2000, according to Gallup, 31% of the US public supported legalizing marijuana for adult use. By 2002 the polling data had crept up to 34% in favor of ending pot prohibition, the highest number for public support ever recorded.
Additionally, circa the late 90s pollsters started to inquire about public support for medical access to cannabis and without failure, survey data rarely dipped below 70% support in favor of medical marijuana—twice the support level for legalization.
The cultural zeitgeist of cannabis’ increasing popularity among the general population, while at the same time still being vilified by out-of-touch governments, continues into the new century unabated.
A small but high profile group of celebrities who enjoyed cannabis regularly poked their fingers into the government’s chest, flogging their cannabis use and making fun of the futility of pot prohibition:
- Willie Nelson
- Woody Harrelson
- Snoop Dawg
- Sara Silverman
- Bill Maher
During the 2000-2004 period Willie Nelson donated significant funding to NORML and agreed allowing the organization to use his music in their public service announcements on the radio and Internet. Woody Harrelson and Bill Maher appeared at NORML’s national conferences (with Maher in 2004 providing the financial support for the national tour of the hysterically funny and dissident ‘Marijuana-Logues’).
Also, coming out of his smoky closet in 2003 at a NORML conference in San Francisco, the most effective and genuine spokesperson for cannabis legalization: best selling travel author and longtime TV host Rick Steves.
Stoner numerology went mainstream with ‘420’ being almost universally understood in the media and popular culture to be cannabis consumers’ ‘tea time’.
Cannabis centric ‘protestivals’ in Seattle (Hempfest), Boston (Freedom Rally) and Chicago (Windy City Weedfest) attracted hundreds of thousands of anti-prohibition attendees (Woody Harrelson appeared at 4:20 at the 2004 Seattle Hempfest before a raucous crowed of over 100,000).
High Times and its then Canadian rival Cannabis Culture provided most of the inter-marijuana movement news and information; both constantly pushing the cultural (and legal) boundaries in promoting cannabis (High Times with its Cannabis Cup [for best cannabis products] and Doobie and Stony awards [for best portrayal of cannabis in a movie/on TV or in music]).
Cannabis Culture was at the forefront of using new and emerging Internet technology for communication and branding with early versions of podcasting and vlogging, hosted by former NORML executive director Richard Cowan.
On TV, Larry David’s show brilliantly skewered the absurdity of, notably, medical cannabis’ prohibition in 2004’s ‘The Car Pool Lane’ episode.
Three best selling and terrifically informative books during this epoch that delved deeply into cannabis are:
- Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness (2003)
- Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2001)
- Jason King’s Cannabible (2001)
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.
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