By Allen St.Pierre
Part 10 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 Ten (2004-2008)
Marijuana Law Reform Advocates
The mid 2000s has a small cadre of cannabis law reform groups both consolidating prior political victories gained at the ballot box and stretching the envelope for more progressive policy reforms. Past reform victories won as binding voter initiatives in time, do to some ‘sore loser’ state and federal prosecutors, have to be fully litigated in states like California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, very often with reformers prevailing—therein establishing a greater base line for reform with every challenge brought forth by recalcitrant government prosecutors.
The more the government didn’t ‘get it’ regarding, specifically, medical access to cannabis, the more they established bad precedents for re-establishing ‘zero tolerance’ cannabis policies.
The two primary funding and ballot initiative action organizations during this period of time are Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project (both playing each other off for Peter Lewis’ drug policy reform largess). However neither organization while supporting cannabis legalization are publicly supportive in any visible way of cannabis use for non-medical purposes itself (in other words cannabis cultivators, sellers and consumers are largely discussed in a second person voice, never with any full-throated advocacy for consumers who chose to enjoy cannabis).
Contrastingly during this period of time, bereft of Lewis’ mega funding (or George Soros’ etc…), NORML’s public advocacy for cannabis law reform had fully matured from decriminalization to legalization, and the organization’s leaders and chapter network comfortably employed a first person advocacy voice in the mass media and across the organization’s large online network (for example NORML Foundation launched a popular podcast called the Daily Audio Stash that conducted interviews with cannabis consumers, victims of prohibition, doctors, researchers, law enforcement, elected policy makers, celebrities and athletes).
The organization held well attended and broadcast-to-the-Internet national conferences in Washington, DC, San Francisco and Berkeley that deeply delved into the pharmacology, botany, history and culture of cannabis and it’s consumers.
Americans for Safe Access continued to grow in size and influence as the federal government regularly raided medical cannabis dispensaries, especially in California, which had hundreds of illegally operating dispensaries (under federal law), with random DEA raids and confusing criminal charges proffered against a few dozen ‘cannabis clubs’ annually.
At peak funding from Lewis-funded DPA and MPP between 2004-2008, there were a few dozen small drug policy reform groups in existence, working largely in synchronization when possible towards larger policy reforms, ranging from non-profits focusing on hemp, psychedelic research, ‘safe dance’, students for drug policy reform, needle exchange, etc…
If any of these matters reached appellate court level, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also heavily funded by Lewis specifically for drug policy advocacy, would often become lead legal counsel.
Reform Policy Strategy
Unsurprisingly, considering the string of electoral victories circa 1996-2004 leading to real policy reforms for medical cannabis, marijuana law reformers continued to focus on binding voter ballot initiatives as the primary reform vehicle far more so than traditional legislation or so-called ‘impact litigation’ in the courts.
During the 2004-2008 period cannabis law reform advocates were able to qualify numerous state ballot initiatives (an impressive feat all by itself), however this period of time is also marked by a decided mix of success and failures, highlighted by the overreach of reformers in trying to pass initiatives the public apparently was not-at-all-yet primed to approve.
In 2006 all three major cannabis law reform initiatives failed at the ballot box: Colorado (an initiative sought to abolish all civil and criminal penalties for adults over 21 years of age who possess a small amount of cannabis; the 2006 statewide effort was spawned by a similarly worded initiative effort that was successful in the city of Denver in 2005, giving rise to the reform group SAFER); 59%-41%.
Nevada voters rejected an initiative funded by Lewis/sponsored by MPP to outright legalize cannabis; 56%-44%.
South Dakota voters turned back a medical marijuana initiative; 52%-47%.
However, in the 2008 election, cannabis law reformers placed three initiatives before voters, this time out with far better success. In Michigan, voters comfortably supported medical access to cannabis; 63%-37%. Massachusetts voters too strongly supported their non-binding reform question regarding decriminalizing possession of cannabis for adults (in the Bay State success on non-binding referendum questions often bodes success with ensuing elections on binding ballot questions); 63%-33%.
The overreach in 2008 came from DPA, who, with Lewis/Soros/Sperling funding, was able to place a ballot question before California voters seeking ‘left-handed’ cannabis law reforms in a visionary and all-encompassing criminal justice/prison sentencing reform initiative. Unfortunately DPA’s vision was not yet the voters’ and the comprehensive criminal justice ballot initiative failed 59%-40%.
Not entirely abandoning the legislative process for ballot initiatives, reform organizations are successful in getting dozens of cannabis law reform bills introduced in state legislatures, with some moderate ones passing into law. The US Congress was far more hostile to even entertaining the introduction of cannabis law reform legislation, so the dogged efforts of reformers to promote any modicum of policy reform change regarding cannabis was through the then named ‘Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment’, an amendment to an annual ‘must pass’ federal spending bill, that sought to prohibit the federal government’s law enforcement agencies spending tax dollars legally harassing state-sanctioned and lawful medical cannabis patients or dispensaries.
While the amendment failed time after time, the introduction and largely party line votes (Democrats supported the amendment, Republicans opposed) was a clear indicator that the successfully passed state-based cannabis policy reforms, starting with California in 1996, were starting to percolate upwards to the US Congress and federal government:
Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment votes—
In 2006, the Rhode Island legislature passes a medical marijuana bill/governor signs that allows qualified patients with doctor’s recommendation to possess cannabis, grow their own, have a designated caregiver or be part of a genuine collective of patients (i.e., no California-like medical cannabis dispensaries); in 2007 New Mexico’s legislature passes similar legislation.
Opposition to Legalization
Along with massive anti-marijuana federal and state bureaucracies arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of ‘cannabis criminals’ annually and propagandizing endlessly against the noble herb (aided and abetted breathlessly by law enforcement agencies keen on keeping Cannabis Prohibition on the books, for their economic benefit as an ‘anti-crime’ industry), government drug prosecutors in both the United States and Canada (rightly recognizing that public support for continuing Cannabis Prohibition is starting to seriously wane in both countries) lurch about to make, at best, symbolic arrests of cannabis-centric celebrities, in the apparent hope of damping down public support for legalizing ganja in North America.
Canadian and US anti-drug officials crowed about their July 2005 arrest of Vancouver resident and one of the original ‘ganjapreneurs’ Marc Emery (founder of Cannabis Culture and marijuana seed seller). Specifically stating both his outspokenness in favor of ending cannabis prohibition and financial support provided to marijuana reform groups, Emery, despite not being charged for violating any Canadian laws, was sacrificially extradited to appease the US government of George W. Bush, prosecuted and incarcerated in federal prison for three years for the ‘crime’ of selling cannabis seeds to willing adult customers (via the US Mail).
Also out of Canada during this period, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), working with US officials and Interpol, shut down a popular free webpage for cannabis enthusiasts, most especially cultivators, named ‘overgrow.com’.
Challenges For Reformers
2008 presented cannabis law reformers with contrasting challenges and opportunities in confronting both the peak of cannabis-related arrests and a presidential race where either a baby boomer who used to smoke and sell cannabis when he was a young person (who partially dedicated his best-selling book to his pot dealer in high school) in Illinois Senator Barack Obama or a dyed-in-the-wool, ol’ stodgy conservative military extremist Arizona John McCain becomes president of the United States.
Obama publicly supported medical marijuana access for qualified patients and flip-flopped at the height of the presidential campaign when he equivocated on earlier public statements made in his political career where he articulately argued for cannabis decriminalization, claiming that if elected he would not pursue a policy of cannabis decriminalization.
When asked by the media during the primaries and presidential campaign if he’d ever used marijuana, McCain claimed to never have, whereas Obama’s line to the same question was ‘Sure I inhaled, I thought that was the point.’
Suffice of to say, had the McCain/Palin ticket prevailed in 2008, substantive cannabis law reform might have been delayed a half generation or may not have occurred at all.
Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement
The years of 2004-2007 might be the four highest years in US history for cannabis-related arrests, rounding out a presidency that saw an astronomical increase in cannabis arrests nationwide:
Marijuana-related arrests ran at an all time high of approximately 100 arrests per hour, and a 25% higher arrest rate under Clinton’s then massive escalation in marijuana arrests (4,928,000 marijuana arrests under Clinton vs. 6,286,982 under Bush 2.0).
There was nearly a 13% increase in cannabis arrests from 2004-2007. Consistent with previous years, nearly 90% of all marijuana-related arrests were for possession only.
Comparably, in 1990 approximately 33 marijuana-related arrests occurred hourly, in 1965 only 2 per hour.
Equally vexing, cannabis arrests ballooned in 2007 to make up 52% of all drug-related arrests, as compared to 35% in 1995.
Public Opinion on Pot
Public opinion in surveys consistently showed a slow but steady increase from 2004-2008 in Americans’ support for ending Cannabis prohibition, rising from 34% in 2004 to 36% in 2006 (additionally, survey data showing voter support for medical patients accessing cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation consistently polled over 70%).
As often is the case in the US, popular culture and the media are way out ahead of politicians and rule-makers, and a major TV series called ‘Weeds’, whose premiere on Showtime was heralded on the cover of major magazines, a nationwide ad campaign and buzz worthy reviews sought to capture the ‘wild west’ of medical marijuana dispensary culture in California (the series, which inherently veered away from the original plot line in season three or four, ran for an impressive eight seasons).
There had been so much ‘cannabis culture’ in America by 2008 that a major book publisher commissioned High Times editor Steve Bloom (along with co-author Shirley Halperin) to chronicle much of the music, TV and movies that prominently featured cannabis in the very informative ‘Pot Culture’.
The epicenter for cannabis law reform and culture during 2004-2008 was undeniably the San Francisco Bay area. During this progressive and at the same time confrontational time with the federal government, the city governments of Oakland and Berkeley passed medical cannabis laws effectively ‘legalizing’ the sale of the product and taxing it—in total conflict with federal laws and enforcement policies.
In the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco dozens of ‘medical cannabis compassion centers’ quickly morphed into ‘medical cannabis dispensaries’, with a clear profit motive in selling cannabis to willing adult customers (claiming a medical need for cannabis). A section of Oakland developed into a cluster of marijuana-friendly businesses that became popularly know as ‘Oaksterdam’ (in 2007 Oaksterdam University would be founded by ganjapreneur Richard Lee to educate and train a first generation of quasi-legal cannabis professionals).
Tommy Chong, half of the infamous fifty year comedy duo of Cheech and Chong, the first stoner comedians (and movie stars for their series of cannabis-centric movies in the late 1970s/early 80s), was busted by federal prosecutors in western Pennsylvania for shipping a glass ‘Chong Bong’ from California in July of 2003. Incredibly, and to the social derision universally from popular culture and media, Chong is sentenced to nine months in federal prison for his ‘crime’ (which concluded in 2004).
In 2006, filmmaker Josh Gilbert produced a funny and probing documentary film about the whole incident entitled ‘AKA Tommy Chong’.
Lastly, cannabis law reform organizations took two medical cannabis-related cases to the US Supreme Court between 2002-2005, OCBC and Reich, losing both handily.
But, however, the question is begged ‘what did cannabis law reformers actually lose in their consecutive SCOTUS losses?’ with medical cannabis dispensaries proliferating from a few dozen largely in coastal California communities to nearly two thousand in over a half-dozen states by the time Obama becomes president in 2008.
If the cannabis ‘genie’ was going to be put back into the bottle, the 2004-2008 era was probably the best, last chance for the government to attempt such.
Consequentially, thankfully, the government failed to do so and the next epoch, 2008-2012, spells the death nil for Cannabis Prohibition in the United States (and in other countries too).
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