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Radical Rant: Mr. NORML Goes to Washington

Russ Belville

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I began this week waking up in Anchorage, Alaska, and I conclude this week writing to you from our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. My frequent flyer account is 10,000 miles richer!

I’m here as part of NORML’s Legislative Fly-In, joining dozens of activists from Wisconsin, Louisiana, Washington, Georgia, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri and elsewhere. We participated in a day of seminars designed to train us on the basics of lobbying, followed by a day on Capitol Hill meeting with our Congress-people and Senators.

The curriculum was stellar. NORML’s leadership – Chairman of the Board Mitch Earleywine, Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, and Founder Keith Stroup – opened the Wednesday event held at the George Washington University auditorium where CNN’s Crossfire used to be filmed.

The instruction began with expert drug reform lobbyists Aaron Houston and Bill Piper explained how to broach legalization issues with elected federal officials and how a DC legislative office works. They were followed by Philly NORML’s Chris Goldstein, California NORML’s Dale Gieringer, and Colorado NORML’s Kevin Mahmalji explained their efforts at lobbying state legislators.

The midday keynote speaker was DC Councilman David Grosso who chronicled the fight to get the District legalized and the battles that lie ahead in instituting some form of legal market for cannabis.

On return from lunch, longtime activist Eric Sterling examined the many diverse audiences we have to present our case to and the best arguments to persuade them. Sterling’s presentation was followed by the panel of Peachtree NORML’s Sharon Ravert, National NORML’s Erik Altieri, and Missouri NORML’s Dan Viets speaking on how to frame reform arguments for red states and Christian conservatives.

SSDP superstar Lauren Padgett delivered her remarks on addressing women and speaking to their concerns about marijuana legalization. I was up next to represent Portland NORML, along with Washington NORML’s Kevin Oliver and Colorado NORML’s Kevin Mahmalji to discuss how the game has changed in the legal states when it comes to enacting our laws and fighting for better regulations.

Then, I was up to deliver my presentation on framing the marijuana debates not for legislators, but for the redneck uncle at your family dinner, your True Legalizer friend who won’t support modest reforms, the recovering addict who sees pot as a gateway, and the parent you know who just wants to protect their kids from drugs. The gist of the presentation that it it’s not the good we see in legalization that will motivate them, it’s the evil in prohibition that we get them to recognize that will change hearts and minds.

The closing presenter for the day was NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano, who delivered a fiery presentation demolishing every bullshit reefer madness talking point of our opponents. This presentation is a must-listen as Paul runs down all the verifiable, gold-standard, scientific proof of our arguments and bankruptcy of theirs.

On Thursday, we all braved the DC rain and made our way to the US Capitol Visitors’ Center. We were met in an auditorium by US Congressman Steve Cohen from Tennessee. You’ll remember him as the sharp bespectacled congressman who’s made a laughing stock out of DEA heads, drug czars, and sheriffs when they dare to utter reefer madness in their congressional testimony. Congressman Cohen granted me an interview and then spoke for about thirty minutes to the assembled NORML reformers from around the country.

Then we split up to begin our lobbying day. My federal representatives are Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley; all I really had to do is say “thank you!” for their trail blazing support for legalization. Instead, I accompanied the ladies from Georgia and North Carolina as they sought out their representatives.

On the way we met up with Howard Wooldridge. He’s a founder of LEAP who now organizes COP – Citizens Opposing Prohibition. He’s about 6’2”, wearing a broad cowboy hat and a t-shirt that reads: “COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT – ASK ME WHY.” The man is a lobbying machine and following him around as he delivered pointers and techniques in handling the too-brief time you get to meet a congressperson was an invaluable “on the job training” that perfectly supplemented the “book learning” we heard the day before.

Of course, there’s not all that hard work without some play. On Wednesday night, we all gathered at a local bierhouse’s second floor to network and socialize. We couldn’t light up in the bar, but we were granted access to the alley where about thirty of us passed around a dozen joints, airing a celebratory cloud of freedom into the Washington air. The scene brought our friend from North Carolina, witnessing it from the second floor, to tears of joy as she realized all those people were smoking pot in public and no cops were coming because nobody cared. “I wish it could be like this in North Carolina,” she sniffled.

Thursday night we gathered at a quirky place called Mansion O, a huge three story public house with 70 rooms. The place was packed with all sorts of kitschy memorabilia and featured secret doors throughout that had our group wandering through the rooms on a sort of treasure hunt. Soon, we gathered outside by the pool for another huge smoking circle, then later out front on the street as we got rousted from the back.

The mansion held the NORML Awards ceremony, at which Maryland NORML was named Chapter of the Year, California NORML’s Ellen Komp won the Pauline Sabin Award for Female Leadership, Portland NORML’s Randy Quast won Outstanding Cannabis Advocate of the Year, and Philly NORML’s Chris Goldstein won a Special Appreciation Award for his work protesting federal prohibition with the Smoke Down Liberty protests at the Liberty Bell.

Delivering Chris’s award was NORML Chairman Mitch Earleywine who brought down the house with his opening line, “I’m Dr. Mitch Earleywine, I’m the chair of the NORML Board, I’m the author of Understanding Marijuana, and I am too high.”

Audio from the event is archived below:

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