The New NORML?
By David Burton
The country’s oldest legalization group calls medical marijuana a “sham,” alienates its own members—and sells out, critics say
Say what you want about the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, it’s the first—and, for most of its existence, the only—name in cannabis legalization advocacy.
Founded in 1970 by attorney Keith Stroup, the organization has over the years become synonymous with pot policy reform, so much so that Americans who know next to nothing about cannabis or cannabis politics know about NORML and its mission.
But much has changed in the nearly 43 years since NORML came into being, starting with NORML itself. The little nonprofit has grown into a massive network of 135 chapters, an army of committed volunteers and more than 450 lawyers—all theoretically working toward the Holy Grail of full marijuana legalization. Stroup remains on board, ostensibly as legal counsel but really as the voice behind the group’s executive director, Allen St. Pierre. NORML has a 16-member governing board with a new chairman, Tennessee native Paul Kuhn. But when people talk of the organization’s leadership, they’re talking about Stroup and St. Pierre.
So it’s no coincidence that now, with states like Colorado poised to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for the first time since 1937, serious marijuana advocates are asking serious questions about the leadership, effectiveness and even the relevancy of NORML in the 21st century. These questions—very relevant to the Inland Empire because of its medical marijuana landscape and cannabis reform groups—aren’t exactly new. NORML has always had its critics. But what’s different is who’s asking them—highly respected civil rights activists, lawyers on NORML’s Legal Committee and even members of NORML’s own board—and the way they’re being asked: publicly.
Other changes have taken place since NORML set up shop, not the least of which being the rise of medical marijuana. The advent of medical cannabis coincided with the appearance of other big players on the legalization stage. Some—like the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Americans for Safe Access (ASA)—are focused exclusively on cannabis reform, and others—like the Drug Policy Alliance and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—are committed to lifting prohibitions against all drugs. Suddenly, NORML and its companion nonprofit, the NORML Foundation, were no longer the only game in town.
And as the landscape changed, questions arose about NORML—including criticisms aimed squarely at Stroup and St. Pierre, who’s served as NORML’s executive director for the past seven years. Fed up with what they perceive as damaging blunders on St. Pierre’s part and infuriated by what they describe as an arrogant leadership style intolerant of dissent, critics are now openly criticizing the leaders’ performance. Some are flat-out asking for St. Pierre to step down or be removed.
“NORML is an organization that needs reform . . . It’s not functioning as it should, and hasn’t for a long time,” says Douglas Hiatt, a longtime cannabis legalization activist, criminal defense attorney and, for nearly a decade, a member of NORML’s Legal Committee.
Hiatt’s falling out with NORML’s leadership is intimately tied to the NORML board’s endorsement of Initiative-502, a Washington state cannabis legalization measure that goes before voters in November and that Hiatt and many other activists vehemently oppose. If it passes, Washington cannabis users will finally be able to legally consume small quantities of the drug, sales of which would be taxed by the state.
Critics of the initiative describe it as a colossal sellout on the part of NORML, a “Machiavellian masterpiece” designed to appeal to pot-averse soccer moms but which leaves hemp supporters and marijuana growers out to dry and could expose thousands of users to felony DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs) arrest through a provision allowing drivers to be blood-tested for THC.
Jeffrey Steinborn, a NORML board member and criminal defense attorney based in Seattle, describes I-502 as “a tragedy.”
But if I-502 was such a bad initiative, then why did the NORML board vote to endorse it?
“My position is not popular among all the board members at NORML,” Steinborn says. “Along with our endorsement, we all agreed we would publish a statement listing our concerns over the law. Unfortunately, that statement of our concerns never got out. I have no idea why not.
“I think there is something going on in the movement that I would call ‘reform fatigue’ . . . I think our reformers have been working so long, they’ve just kind of given up and were ready to get on the first train they thought would take them to their destination, regardless of how many people are ground up under the wheels of that train.”
There’s theory for why NORML endorsed I-502.
In 2010, Sensible Washington was poised to place its own legalization measure—Initiative 1068—on the ballot. Co-written by Hiatt, Steinborn and others, the measure would have removed state criminal penalties on marijuana possession, use and cultivation, and contained none of the DUID provisions. According to Hiatt, NORML switched support from I-1068 to I-502 after that measure got strong financial backing from the initiative’s strongest backer—travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves.
This behind-the-scenes hardball wasn’t just a low act on the part of the I-502 campaign, says Hiatt. It was NORML selling out the marijuana community—literally selling out, he says, because NORML switched its support after one of I-502’s biggest financial backer—travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves—donated $50,000 “to honor NORML’s long history as advocates for marijuana consumers,” according to NORML Board of Directors Chairman Paul Kuhn. For some, this NORML-associated donation backing I-502 represented a bribe in all but name.
“[T]here are 50,000 reasons why NORML endorsed it,” Hiatt says. “They need that money, and they have not gotten that money before.”
The Last Straw
But while critics of NORML were angered by the board’s endorsement of I-502 and other internal matters, it was St. Pierre’s statements earlier this year regarding medical marijuana that sent them howling for his head. To insiders, St. Pierre’s disdain for what he sees as the excesses of the compassionate-use industry was no secret. But to the average marijuana user, the column that ran Jan. 20 in Celebstoner.com under St. Pierre’s name was a stunning revelation.
“Defending the ‘medical’ cannabis industry is so yesterday,” the column began. “Why not acknowledge the political and legal farce it is and focus on the real problem at hand: ending cannabis prohibition?”
St. Pierre went on to claim the medical marijuana industry opposes cannabis legalization and was a sham, and accused the MMJ community of being “intellectually dishonest.”
For medical cannabis patients, caregivers and providers, the Celebstoner column was a kick in the gut—considering the federal government essentially makes the same accusations against the MMJ industry. For those whose dissatisfaction with St. Pierre was already at the breaking point, it was the final straw.
“What concerns me more than anything is the idiotic remarks by Allen St. Pierre, in which he says [that] medical pot was a sham,” says Dennis Roberts, a highly respected criminal and civil-rights attorney and a longtime NORML Legal Committee (NLC) member most famous for having helped defend the Chicago 7 and Angela Davis. “It was really so stupid, so shortsighted and offensive. A lot of people [have said] to me, ‘What’s the matter with NORML? I won’t give them a penny of my money now.’”
None of this surprises Don E. Wirtshafter, a former NORML board member and Ohio legalization advocate who moderated the I-502 debate at Hempfest in which Stroup participated.
“NORML, as an organization, has created 10 times more refugees than it has members . . . Some of the NORML refugees started the Marijuana Policy Project,” he says. “Rob Kampia and Chuck Thomas walked out of NORML and started the MPP because they couldn’t stand the lack of organization.”
In fact, Kampia and Thomas were fired from NORML in 1995 by director Richard Cowan after calling for institutional changes.
St. Pierre—a smart man who gets his point across—responded to criticisms against him and NORML by suggesting they were isolated complaints from troublemakers.
Even the Celebstoner column was the work of troublemakers, he says.
“I didn’t speak to the media,” he says. “What you’re quoting from was from the list-serve, which was sent to Celebstoner by a dissident Legal Committee member who’s since resigned, Warren Edson from Denver, who seemed to take umbrage with my view. I didn’t write it for Celebstoner. I didn’t edit it. I had nothing to do with it.”
The resignation of Edson, a board member of Colorado NORML and a guiding force behind that state’s medical marijuana law, left Colorado without a functioning chapter. He resigned—along with his wife, Georgia and Mile High NORML director Scott Greene—from the organization in protest of St. Pierre’s missive.
But regardless of whether he intended the piece for public consumption, St. Pierre did write it, and when asked about the views stated in it on the medical marijuana industry, the director was no shrinking violet. Simply put, the executive director of NORML and the NORML Foundation fundamentally agrees with the federal government’s position on medical marijuana: Compassionate-use laws are being subverted by pot profiteers for their personal enrichment, the very notion of dispensaries as medicinal outlets is a joke, selling cannabis for medical or any other purposes is illegal and anyone who gets busted for trafficking in medical marijuana has only themselves to blame.
“For anyone to go and say, ‘I have the ability to sell marijuana to anyone for money,’ and to extend that to say what they did was a compassionate act, that they were a caregiver, just stretches the definition of the word to the limits of credulity,” St. Pierre says,
“It’s the difference between intellectual honesty and being dishonest,” he adds. “When the name of the winning medicine at the Medical Cannabis Cup was called ‘God’s Pussy,’ that’s when I stopped believing in the honesty of medical cannabis.”
NORML founder Stroup, while more guarded in his remarks, fundamentally agreed with St. Pierre.
“Again, I’m glad we continue to support medical-marijuana use all across the country, but I think it’s important that we not try to game the system and act like healthy people are sick in order to get pot.”
Nonetheless, Stroup and St. Pierre’s views on medical cannabis didn’t stop NORML from entering into a trade agreement last year with WeedMaps, a company and website that primarily connects medical marijuana patients with medical marijuana providers. In return for WeedMaps’ updating NORML’s website, the nonprofit runs a banner ad of the for-profit company’s various online entities at the bottom of NORML’s home page.
Asked about the incongruity of NORML financially benefiting from the very industry its founder and executive director find so troubling, Paul Kuhn, the nonprofit’s new board chairman, says he sees no conflict.
“That’s fine—I’m an investment banker,” Kuhn says. “[St. Pierre’s] statement was not against profiteers, or, if it was, it was about profiteers that game the system. Our agreement with WeedMaps was reached a long time ago, well before this year. It really consisted of needing our website updated, and the folks at WeedMaps were offering the work. We could not afford it.
“I would hope marijuana smokers want NORML and any other organization to take the money that’s available to help advance the cause,” he adds. “The sources of those funds are just logically going to be from the businesses in the same movement.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described a $50,000 donation given by travel writer Rick Steves in support of I-502. The donation was not made to NORML, it was given in NORML’s name by Rick Steves.