High Times Greats: Don Fiedler

A 1990 interview with an early cannabis rights advocate.
High Times Greats: Don Fiedler
Don Fiedler by Andre Grossmann

For the February, 1990 issue of High Times, Peter Gorman interviewed then-National Director for NORML, Don Fiedler (1943-2008). In honor of Fiedler’s birthday February 2, we’re republishing the interview below.

This past summer the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chose a new person to lead the fight for freedom in the battle for legalization. We wanted to find out more about him—what his plans are, what his background is, what the future holds for NORML and the legalization movement—so we sent our Peter Gorman to interview the new NORML National Director, Don Fiedler.

PG: You’ve just taken over NORML. I want to find out about where you come from, what your plans are for NORML—what your priorities are. Tell me how you ended up here at NORML.

DF: I’ve been practicing law in Omaha since 1970. I was doing a lot of criminal defense and Fourth Amendment work. Somehow Keith Stroup (who started NORML in 1971) got a hold of my name and I started getting NORML referrals. In 1975 I was in Washington, DC—close to the NORML office. I dropped in to find out what was happening and Keith asked whether or not I would like to become the State Coordinator for Nebraska. After a series of letters between Keith and myself, I said yes. That started the commitment that I’ve had to the issue. I was the State Coordinator in Nebraska at the time that they decriminalized marijuana in 1976.

PG: Any chance you or some of your cases played a part in the decriminalization?

DF: Although I didn’t push the buttons or anything I was down there almost every day the legislature was in session. I feel like I had a lot to do with the way the bill came together and the fact that Nebraska did decriminalize.

PG: Good for you, that must have felt good…

DF: Oh, it did. I remember when the vote came down. I was sitting upstairs watching. We have a one house legislature in Nebraska and the bill passed something like 36 to 10 with three abstentions or some absences. I felt like I had just had a baby! It was terrific. But now with the new laws and the uniform Controlled Substance Act going out over the country it appears as though Nebraska may try to recriminalize marijuana. I’m going to try to get back there for the hearings and at least testify because decriminalization—although only a half-step—worked and it’s a shame to undo the good that NORML has accomplished. Not only in Nebraska but all over the country.

PG: Well, that’s not the only issue…

DF: Sure, but decriminalization was what was available—what was out there in the ’70s and the legislature passed it. I continued to work in the legislature trying to get the therapeutics bill through. We went back three years in a row and never got it through—34 other states did pass it, however. Then in the early ‘80s I was involved in representing paraphernalia stores in Nebraska. Fighting those cases—that whole process took up until 1983.

I’d been working in criminal defense and as state coordinator in Nebraska for some time and although admittedly my work with NORML had dissipated somewhat, I was still working with Dorothy Whipple. I don’t know if you know who Dorothy is.

PG: I know the name…

DF: She’s an adolescent psychiatrist and we worked together on a parent’s primer for NORML. She had written a book called The Grass is Greener for adolescents at the time the parent’s movement was just starting with “PRIDE” (Parent’s Resource Institute on Drug Education) and “Just Say No.”

There was a three or four year period of time where I got very active with my state criminal defense organization and reorganized them. I was the president of that group, and was doing grassroots organizational work through a committee called the “State Local Liaison Committee.”

PG: Did this relate to marijuana issues?

DF: No, not marijuana issues. Criminal defense issues. When you’re making a living there is just so much time that you can spend working on organizational matters. So, at about the same time my activity with NORML started to go down, my activity picked up working with the criminal defense organizations. In 1988 I was asked to join the NORML board of directors and at that point in time my activities with NORML started up again in full measure.

PG: How can you afford to give up criminal defense to take on a full time position at NORML?

DF: Well, in terms of housing and what I’m going to be able to do and not do, my style of living is going to be adversely affected. But I think that when you make decisions in your life—in terms of what you do and what you don’t do—that a lot of times that those things that you don’t do come back to haunt you. When it became clear that this position was opening up I came to the office and started reviewing some of the correspondence and something happened. It was like the pilot light, which had always been lit, but had gotten low, just cranked right up and I thought, “My gosh, this is something I could do and do well.” So I threw my hat in the ring. One of the big reasons that I’m doing this is that, with my background in criminal defense and organizational work, I think that it’s something that I am uniquely qualified for. I’ve also done some theatre so I felt that I could handle the media aspects of the job. It’s an issue that I’m committed to—I’m not here for the short run. I realize that it’s not going to be a sprint getting the job done. It’s a marathon and I’m committed to giving the best I have, for as long as the organization wants it.

PG: What do you see? Coming into an office that a month ago was in quite a bit of disarray…

DF: I hadn’t really been in touch with the NORML offices in that time except to talk to Jon (Gettman, former national Director) when he left.

PG: Has some of that disarray worked itself out?

DF: What they’ve accomplished thus far is absolutely amazing. If you were in the office in April, then walked in today, you probably wouldn’t recognize it. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a way to go… We’ve wiped out 30 to 40% of our total debt load.

Today’s my first day in office so I’m going through an immersion process, but I’m tremendously impressed by the dedication of the staff that we have on board—and also the skills that they have. I’m not going to make any sudden changes. For the time being I’m going to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut and try to try to learn what the systems are and how they’re working before I start making any changes.

PG: You say you’ve got some ideas. Can you clue me to some?

DF: I think for a long time NORML has been labelled as the marijuana consumer’s lobby—and certainly that is not to say that we aren’t for the marijuana consumer. But when you stop and take a look at the numbers of our membership, five to seven thousand, and when you consider that against the total natural constituency we have, somewhere between 25 to 35 million—we’re obviously doing something wrong—in terms of our approach.

The other thing that’s going to be happening is that this zero-tolerance user accountability program is going to take a toll on the number of those that do smoke marijuana. I sense that there’s going to be a large number of citizens who are going to be pissed off that they’ve been made to fear the loss of their jobs, loss of freedom, or concern that their property will be taken away from them. And there are all other sorts of groups of people who don’t smoke marijuana who have good reason to support us. Quite frankly, by broadening our approach and saying that you don’t have to smoke marijuana to support NORML, it makes it a little bit easier for someone who does smoke marijuana to support NORML.

PG: How are you going to get that message across to the nonsmokers—a media campaign of sorts?

DF: You’ve got it.

PG: How are you planning to implement this? How do you plan to get the media’s ear—other than High Times which is obviously in NORML’s corner?

DF: Well, every time we’re doing media we’re putting that message out. Of course, we’ve got an ad campaign that we’re working on. We’re going to try to appeal not only to our present constituency, but to try to take a middle of the road approach. To do that we’ve got to do it one step at a time. This is the first step.

PG: Okay. If that’s the first step, give me your next two or three priorities.

DF: Well, I have to try to develop the local chapters and the grassroots organizations that we have out there.

PG: Do you think with a little organization they will be strong enough to carry some more weight?

DF: At present there are a lot of committed volunteers out there. We have about 30 chapters and somehow the communications have broken down. I want to try to build up the level of the communications that we have, so we can have a better idea of what the chapters are doing. We also have to provide better information to the chapters in terms of late-breaking news stories—press positions that we have.

Another priority is to get back into the legal arena. We’re just about ready to let fly with an action in Federal District Court on the DEA lawsuit which we had that successful administrative decision on—about moving marijuana from schedule one to schedule two. There’s other litigation that we’re looking at also.

PG: I was at a conference recently with some big shot Eastern liberals and they were discussing decriminalization as the way to go…

DF: What’s your definition of decriminalization?

PG: Take the New York State law—less than an ounce, and you get a bench ticket rather than risk jail time.

DF: Well, I don’t want you to get me wrong, Peter. I think decriminalization is a far better answer than what the Bennett drug plan proposes, but, it’s still just a half-step measure.

PG: In the last year or so, High Times has taken a very definite advocate’s position that legalization is the only way.

DF: I think NORML is of that mind right now. I’d tell you for sure that Don Fiedler is of that mind. Decriminalization was a good remedy for the ‘70s, but obsolete for the ‘90s. But, if we had to choose between the current course of action and decriminalization, I’d say that decriminalization is a far better approach. It’s not as though decriminalization is a pass for anything. Can you imagine if they decriminalized tobacco? If you were caught smoking tobacco they could take your tobacco away from you and have you come to court and pay a hundred or a couple hundred dollar fine. Possibly, they’d have you take a drug abuse course; and if you lived in a smaller city, it might be newsworthy enough to put your name in the paper. You’d risk the loss of a job and public ridicule.

But decriminalization has enough punitive aspects to keep anybody happy for a long time. There’s only one state that has a decriminalization law that would be palatable. That’s Alaska, where if you can grow your own marijuana and smoke it in the privacy of your home, you’re not committing a criminal act. Anything short of that would still keep NORML in business and fighting for reform.

PG: We’re dealing with a very capitalist situation here and the boys in charge are not about to let billions go untaxed and nobody go to jail… Obviously they’re going to want one or the other. Right now they’ve got the boys going to jail. But, the regulation factor becomes an enormous question. Until the big boys are assured of getting their cut, can you realistically look for legalization?

DF: I think that one of the strongest arguments we have is the differential between cost of enforcement and tax revenue. We could touch on the issue of whether you ought to be allowed to grow your own with or without taxes, but whatever position you take on that you offend some people. The question of marijuana taxation could be offensive. All I can tell you at this point in time is that NORML has felt that the system which comes into effect should have a tax structure to it. I tend to agree with the big boys that getting 40 billion dollars in tax revenue annually can solve an awful lot of problems.

The New York Times—from the Kleiman study that came out of Harvard in August—estimated that the annual cost of enforcement is $14 billion, once you figure on the state, local and federal agencies. So I’ve been saying there’s a 55 billion dollar differential between enforcement costs and regulation revenue.

PG: Has NORML tried to come up with plans to turn this nonrevenue into government revenue? Are there any specific lawmakers amenable to that approach?

DF: I think your question takes us back to the McCarthy era. What we’re seeing now is similar to what was happening then. Just as politicians did not want to be labeled as possible communist sympathizers, politicians today don’t want to be viewed as soft on drugs. My sense is that there are a few profiles in courage out there who are going to be willing to step forward, but so far we haven’t identified them. I wish I could give you some names—I have some leads, but…

PG: Is that a way for you to go?

DF: Oh yeah, it definitely is the way for me to go. And it’s definitely a priority. I imagine I could go over to the Hill now and sit down and talk to some senators, some congressmen and probably come up with a significant minority that would tell me, “Don, I think you’re absolutely right, but I’ve got to be reelected. The time will come when I’ll be able to do something about it. But right now I can’t do it. It’s just not politically possible. “

PG: What kind of catastrophe or cataclysmic event will it take for those men to discover their courage on the issue? Do you see it as a case that you end up taking to court?

DF: It’s just a question of how long are we going to have to perpetuate this war before we can have peace. How many innocent victims are we going to have to put in jail? How many families are going to be stripped of their earnings? How many homes are there going to be that are forfeited, cars that are taken away, jobs that are lost?

PG: Sounds like you’re talking about Operation Green Merchant. What are your feelings about that?

DF: It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s emblematic of what a tremendous hoax the War on Drugs really is. Here they drum up emotions talking about crack babies and gangs and violence and what’s the first shot they fire? It’s against that innocent soul out there who’s growing his own marijuana. When they talked about the War on Drugs they didn’t talk about marijuana, they talked about crack and cocaine. So we asked why, if we’re not part of the problem, are we part of the solution? And the politicos say that “When you go out on the streets and buy marijuana you’re supporting Colombian drug lords…”

PG: I’ve never been able to make that connection myself, since that is the exact opposite of the situation…

DF: There is not a greater violation of the right of privacy. It seems to me that the intent of this was to try to strike a chord of fear into marijuana users around the country, and it may actually have that effect on some people. One of the things that we’re going to find as we fight this battle is that while some people will give up marijuana, more people will get involved with NORML and involved with the fight. The government has no right interfering with the private lives of its citizens.

PG: Tell me about what you’re going to do for Tom Alexander, of Sinsemilla Tips? [Ed note: Tom lost all of his merchandise in Operation Green Merchant.]

DF: As you probably know, Tom was in Washington, DC recently for the Drug Policy Foundation Conference, and I spent some time with him. One of the things we’re planning is a January fundraiser in Oregon for the Tom Alexander defense fund. He hasn’t yet been charged, but an indictment is forthcoming. So we’ll do what we can to help. He’s been a friend of NORML, so we’ll be a friend of his when the time comes.

PG: Is NORML or its lawyers prepared to make the defense for him?

DF: We’ll be involved, but our role hasn’t been defined yet. I told Tom to tell me what you want and I’ll try to get it for you. We’re also trying to get hold of the affidavits and search warrants and to act as a clearing house for those to see if there was a systematic involved procedure that would knock out the search warrants among other things. We did get out a press release which said DEA raids house, looks for pot, finds citizens stewed. They got a tomato grower. We’ve got five or six confirmed stories of orchid growers being visited during this campaign. The Senate loves to say that we’re sending out the wrong message—but what message are you sending out when you’re depriving someone who has cancer of the opportunity of making their nausea going away? Or depriving someone who’s going blind of a chance to arrest the symptoms of their blindness? Or refusing someone with MS the relief from muscular pain which would allow them to get up out of their wheelchair. We do these things on a daily basis in the name of drug and marijuana prohibition.

There’s also the hemp issue. There are a lot of compelling environmental reasons why this drug prohibition has to come to an end. I don’t think I need to set them out for you—I’m sure you know them already…

PG: I think the most compelling issue of all is the environmental issue.

DF: I agree with that. But the problem with it is that it is the least documented. We need as much documentation as we can get. The medical issue is very well-documented at this point. So, one of the things that we’re working on is to reach out to the universities, scientists, ecologists and the environmentalists and see if we’re accurate when we say that hemp fuel—methanol—can fuel the northeastern factories and take the acid out of the acid rain; or that one acre of marijuana equals four acres of trees; or the positive effect that that would have on the ozone layer.

One of the other things I’ve found to be tremendously effective is talking about the groups that came in to testify in front of Congress at the time that marijuana was made illegal. The least known group were suppliers to pet food stores. They said if you took the marijuana seed away from the song birds, that they would stop singing. The long range effect of that is if you take a gigantic bowl of seeds and throw ten marijuana seeds in, a seed-eating bird will be instinctively drawn to those ten seeds—they’ll eat those first—before they eat anything else. Go and combine that with Dr. Ronald Siegel’s book, Intoxication, where he says that the urge to get high is just as natural as wanting to breathe, have sex and reproduce—man isn’t the only species on the planet that likes to get high. Mammals, amphibians, birds and insects all like to use intoxicants. It’s one of the natural urges that makes this planet work. That’s why song birds like to sing, and that’s why 25 or 30 million Americans smoke marijuana.

One thing NORML hasn’t done for a long time is talk about the fact that it’s a natural urge. We’ve also been somewhat sheepish about talking what a wonderful and safe drug, marijuana is. Being sheepish about the issue hasn’t gotten us very far, has it? So we’ll try to set the record straight on why so many people smoke marijuana. It’s been called the devil’s weed—if I’m l successful in my administration here—maybe when we’re done the country will think of it as God’s gift.

PG: Good luck.

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