Topsy-Turvy Times for Pot Advocates
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Ulysses Torassa, Chronicle Health Writer
Published: Monday, April 21, 2003
Copyright: 2003 San Francisco Chronicle - Page B - 1
Contact: [email protected]
Medical use has wide support, but government cracking down.
Now, it seems, is the best of times, and the worst of times, for the marijuana movement.
While most Americans say they support medical marijuana, the federal government has won several high-profile criminal cases against cannabis clubs and pot growers in the past year.
With staunch social conservatives like Attorney General John Ashcroft at the helm of federal law enforcement, Keith Stroup, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says it's hard to know just how much longer marijuana advocates can ride the current momentum in their favor.
"The political climate is very strange right now," said Stroup, who was in San Francisco Sunday for NORML's annual convention, held at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. "We've got more public support for our issue than we've ever had, but on the street level, the feds have been kicking our butts out here."
Nearly 500 people converged on San Francisco for the four-day event, scheduled to coincide with April 20, the unofficial holiday for pot smokers. The date is derived from the phrase "420," a shorthand code coined more than 30 years ago by a group of San Rafael High School students who gathered at 4: 20 p.m. to get high.
Indeed, the final day of the conference was scheduled to end precisely at 4: 20 p.m. "It's like 'Miller Time,' " Stroup explained. "Time to kick up your heels and light up a joint."
Like Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970, marijuana activism has matured and aged. The movement had many successes in its early days, when several states, including California, decriminalized simple pot possession. But with the dawning of the conservative "Just Say No" 1980s, public support dried up and the movement limped along until the mid-1990s, when medical marijuana activism helped create a new atmosphere of legitimacy.
Although NORML's official membership is just 10,000, Stroup said more than 40,000 people have signed up for the group's Internet newsletter, up from 7, 000 just a few years ago. And while endorsing NORML's message in public was once a kiss of death for a celebrity's career, the group has had recent success in attracting people like actor Daniel Stern, TV host Bill Maher and former Dallas Cowboy player Mark Stepnoski to its advisory board.
And drug reform causes have also begun to attract some serious money. Financier George Soros and Peter Lewis of Progressive Auto Insurance have both poured millions into drug legalization efforts, though NORML itself hasn't received much of that largesse. Instead, it subsists on about a $1 million annual budget and prides itself on being the voice of the average pot smoker, Stroup said.
The group is also trying to learn from past mistakes.
Stroup said concerns about the effect of marijuana on young people that were never adequately addressed by the movement hurt the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now NORML talks about how it's easier for kids to get pot than alcohol because they don't need a fake ID -- and how legalizing and regulating marijuana could change that.
They've even begun appealing to conservatives with messages about the importance of personal freedoms and how much tax money they believe is wasted on the drug war.
And the opposition's success cuts both ways, Stroup said. A few years ago, Congress passed a law disqualifying anyone with a drug offense from getting a student loan. That law has been used to deny loans to more than 90,000 students, Stroup said, and a backlash is already under way on college campuses nationwide.
"Ninety thousand people -- that's a lot of people -- and now you've got a lot of middle- and working-class kids and their families that are pretty angry about this," Stroup said. "Almost every week, probably more than once a week, we have someone from a college approaching us to say, 'We want to affiliate with NORML.' "
The group is seeking to capitalize on that anger. This year for the first time, one day of the conference was set aside for workshops and training for college campus chapters on how to lobby, raise money and get the word out. The group also gave scholarships to dozens of college students to attend the conference.
Among them was Stephanie Shepperd, a junior at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where a chapter was founded four years ago. Although still lacking official recognition from the school, the group last week organized a week- long festival that included music, education, outreach and even a Bible study focused on pro-marijuana themes, Shepperd said.
Shepperd said she's not sure whether the country's current mood and political leadership mean the movement is in for another setback like what happened in the 1980s, but she said she's confident that eventually marijuana will become a legal substance.
"I do believe there will be a time when my children or my grandchildren will look back and say, 'My God,' just like I look back and say 'My God,' about alcohol prohibition," she said.
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