Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.
I have had a long relationship with NORML. My first close work with NORML staff involved getting signatures for an attempt to place the Washington D.C. Marijuana Initiative (DCMI) on the local ballot in 1980. NORML wasn’t the sponsor of DCMI; a member of the staff launched this as a non-NORML project. I worked on the staff for eight years during the 1980s and again in 1993. I have had funding for research and had reports published by NORML on such topics as marijuana cultivation and marijuana arrests in the United States over the last three decades. Recently I became involved in work to establish a statewide chapter of NORML in Virginia. Why NORML?
For starters, NORML has been responding to individual calls for help every hour of every day of every year since it was founded in 1970.
Perhaps more importantly, NORML is directly or indirectly responsible for every reform in US marijuana laws over the last 35 years at the local, state, and national level.
NORML created the marijuana issue. NORML was the first national organization to push for the decriminalization of marijuana, to address the need to provide medical access to patients, to respond to the need to train attorneys to vigorously defend marijuana users in court, to reach out to medical and scientific professionals to respond to misinformation campaigns, to supply the media with alternative perspectives on government policies, and to represent the interests of marijuana users before both state and national legislatures. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws continues that work to this day.
In the 1970s NORML successfully fought for decriminalization and/or reductions in penalties for marijuana possession throughout the United States. In the 1980s NORML strengthened legal resistance to the War on Marijuana, launched an activist movement to innovate new approaches to reform, welcomed collaboration from new groups such as the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) and the Drug Policy Foundation (DPF), and brought the medical cannabis issue to national attention by pressing for marijuana’s rescheduling before DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, whose eventual recommendation to reschedule marijuana in order to make it available for medical use was rejected by DEA, a decision upheld by the US Court of Appeals despite vigorous objections and opposition from ACT, DPF, and NORML.
Working with local activists, HIGH TIMES, and its own local chapters NORML launched a state-wide series of rallies in Illinois in 1989 that contributed to the emergence of The Hemp Tour and the Cannabis Action Network in the 1990s – drawing in new blood to the cannabis reform movement, giving them valuable support and opportunities for experience, and creating not only a movement but a culture of activism that provided the groundwork for the diverse combination of individuals, niche-oriented non-profits, and national organizations that now characterize the contemporary reform movement in the early 21st century.
Every other organization working in reform these days benefits from the presence of networks of individual supporters, activists, lawyers, health care professionals, and financial supporters that are the results of the work of NORML and its supporters over this last generation of time. Indeed, many of the individuals who started and staff these newer organizations received their initial training as members of NORML’s staff or through participating in NORML’s programs.
One of the results of this longtime work cultivating a broad social movement to oppose marijuana prohibition is that these new and emerging organizations compete with NORML for financial support and publicity. The consumer benefits from competitive markets, and competition among reform groups will ultimately expedite legalization.
Each of these new groups, though, has chosen to compete with NORML in just a few of the many components of its historic obligations to the public. Some of the new groups aim to specialize in communications and public affairs, some in lobbying and political persuasion, while others have decided to focus on a discrete part of the cannabis issue such as the medical or hemp issues.
It is easy to question NORML’s relevance in this new environment, easy but not particularly bright. This new environment would not exist if not for NORML. Okay, then, but what about the future. Why NORML?
The answer to that question is easy, all one has to do it spell it out. Why NORML? Because it is the only National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
National means that NORML’s agenda is to produce reform for all Americans, pushing for legalization not just in some states but everywhere in the United States, and now, as soon as possible, not decades in the future.
NORML is a professionally run non-profit institution with an independent Board of Directors. For example, a few years ago I sent routine requests for financial reports to the major drug policy reform organizations; NORML is the only group to respond in a timely manner required by federal regulations.
But perhaps most important, NORML has historically maintained its focus on reform of all the marijuana laws and representing all marijuana users. Reform has much to gain from the emergence and participation of a dynamic collection of non-profit groups, but their claim to fame – their specialization – also produces limitations on their ability to both represent marijuana consumers and appeal to the multitude of other interests necessary to build a successful social and political coalition to produce marijuana’s legalization.
It is NORML’s involvement with every facet of the marijuana issue that gives it the unique credibility and opportunity to provide leadership in a national movement to legalize marijuana. Legalization is not a project or campaign for NORML, it’s a cultural and institutional commitment which the organization has renewed every day of its existence.
The strength of many of the newer organizations is also their greatest source of weakness – many of them tend to follow the path of least resistance. Many of the choices these new groups have made about strategy, marketing, and fundraising are influenced not by the needs of marijuana consumers but instead by the advice of a political establishment inconvenienced by the rights, interests, and needs of NORML’s overall constituency. Choosing to only represent part of the interests of marijuana users, or to appear to represent only part of the overall constituency, compromises opportunities to produce reforms that benefit all marijuana users throughout the country.
NORML, on the other hand, follows the path of active resistance – refusing to break faith with their supporters in the name of political expediency while pursuing every avenue of reform. It is this comprehensive approach that gives NORML credibility as an organization that is truly working in the public’s interest.
Again, reform has much to gain from the emergence of this new generation of reform organizations. However reform has also gained much from NORML’s good work over the years, work that continues, to this day, to benefit marijuana users every hour of every day.
Why NORML? Because NORML represents real people with real problems: they deal with the comprehensive problem of putting people and patients first, before they make calculations about politics and policy, not after. That’s why I support NORML, and that’s why every marijuana user in this country should join and encourage all their friends to join this National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.