The state of Pennsylvania spends roughly 100 million dollars annually enforcing marijuana laws. Increasingly, Pennsylvanians like Kendra Cooper, Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, are asking us to reconsider our approach to the criminalization of marijuana.
NORML was formed in 1970 by attorney Keith Stroup who had worked for Ralph Nader. Stroup was inspired by the consumer advocate and used the same approaches to end the prohibition of marijuana.
The organization was funded by the Playboy Foundation and magazine High Times. Quickly NORML made an impact. By 1972, the government was considering the elimination of criminal penalties on personal possession, use and transfer of pot.
But soon NORML fell out of favor as the attitude toward drugs became more conservative. Today, NORML is a powerhouse, boasting local chapters across all 50 States, a foundation, political action committee and an advisory board including the likes of singer Willie Nelson, actor Woody Harrelson and comedian Tommy Chong of the duo Cheech and Chong.
This cast of characters is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s nice to be known, it’s no longer helpful to be notorious.
Nearly twenty people are assembled on the terrace of Connexions Gallery on Northampton Street for a meeting of LV NORML. People sign in and grab an agenda. There’s a box of joe on a back table. Of course, someone brought brownies. Store-bought, not edibles.
Kendra Cooper who serves as the Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of NORML introduces the other officers on the board. Then they get down to business.
The main topics are updates on a Pennsylvania medical marijuana bill and local efforts to decriminalize marijuana offenses. The discussion is freeform and bounces around from fact to anecdote to opinion to fundraising to mild paranoia to action steps.
At the center of it all are two obstacles: how to frame the issues in the public and how to shift the perception of the stereotypical user.
The people here aren’t all users. In fact, some don’t smoke at all. Their reason for attending places them across a broad spectrum: recreational users, medicinal advocates, social justice activists and libertarians.
Cooper is a social justice activist. She faced a charge of possession several years ago when she was pulled over for a blown headlight in a borrowed car where an officer found someone else’s stash.
While the charges were dropped, she could have faced a year of probation, thousands of dollars in fines and the loss of college financial aid. She saw the injustice and took it head on after completing a sociology course in community organizing.
That’s where she met April Tyburski, who now serves as treasurer of NORML. Tyburski was disturbed by the racial disparities in marijuana offenses and saw policy changes as the way forward.
Rick Nicolazzi and Laini Abraham, both board members, suffer from medical conditions. Both tried traditional treatments that ultimately failed. Marijuana could help if prescriptions were possible. But neither want the THC properties in marijuana which cause the mind-altering psychoactive response. Instead they seek cannabidiol or CBD. It can regulate nausea, seizures, inflammations and anxiety while combating cancer cells.
So these folks aren’t the wake-and-bake variety of pot smoker. There are too many rallies to attend, politicians to speak with and people to persuade.
They are hopeful about several House Bills in the works, looking for one that mirrors Senate Bill 3. Last year it passed in the Senate only to be defeated in the House. To ensure the bill’s success, NORML members want the public to better understand the issues and look past the stoner stigma.
“A marijuana possession charge can have damaging and long-term consequences,” says Cooper, “such as probation, jail time and loss of financial aid or employment. With that being said, many people who use marijuana either medically or recreationally are productive citizens Arresting non violent drug offenders is causing our criminal justice system to be over-burdened and turning other wise law-abiding people into criminals.
Ultimately, decriminalization of marijuana would save taxpayers a lot of money while allowing law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes.”
Marijuana has a branding problem caused by the pothead archetype. Here’s the recipe: One part Cheech and Chong. One part Bob Marley. One part Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Mix that with someone who’s unemployed, unmotivated, unreliable and unkempt. Together it forms a dirty hippie wearing a tie-dye who lives by the beach in a smoked filled van blasting “One Love.”
This stigma doesn’t help the cause. “There are those classic stoner stereotypes, that are funny, but just not true,” says Cooper. “I think one of the biggest misconceptions about marijuana possession is that it decreases the use of harder drugs in our society, which hasn’t been the case. Despite a 40 year war on drugs, drug use in our country has steadily risen. Our government has taken a very narrow-minded and punitive approach on drugs rather than rehabilitation and preventative programs, which actually work.”
That said, a new industry is emerging in states where smoking is legal: branding agencies focused on pot. Excuse me, they call it cannabis. They consume it rather than smoke it. They hire planners who organize cocktail hours, dinner party pairings, upscale edibles and yoga classes. They turn dispensaries into brand experiences with classy decor and uniformed workers.
No more dudes in hoodies standing at a counter selling Maui Wowie chocolate brownies.
With moms, business executives and young entrepreneurs vaping cannabis and using tinctures, the doors have been opened. People have stepped through, out from behind the shadows.
But those shadows still exist in states where it isn’t legal.
As the face of change, NORML members risk emerging from the shadows. While they break the stigma, they hear all the jokes and endure all the stereotypes. If they ever said they were users, they could face legal consequences. It’s what makes local decriminalization efforts difficult: They risk personal exposure fighting an issue that needs luminaries.
As they discuss the decriminalization, NORML members decide to hold a town hall meeting and invite the mayor, city council and police chief. Only then can they share the template that has worked in Philadelphia—an ordinance that allows for possession of certain quantities and reasonable fines for violators.
But such an ordinance can be hard to sell. A law in Easton means little to police officers in Wilson or Palmer, let alone Northampton County magistrates.
“There is still a heavy stigma lingering from the anti-marijuana propaganda of the Nixon era,” says Cooper. “The same arguments that have been used to sport the prohibition of marijuana can also be used regarding alcohol. The fact that adults can legally drink alcohol, a substance that kills over 100,000 people per year from overdose alone, while prohibiting the use of marijuana, which has a “0” death rate from overdose, is blatant hypocrisy.”
Even the New York Times in a recent op-ed said, “federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies […] Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime.”
The federal government won’t allow banks to serve growers, retailers or dispensaries. Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin and LSD and comes with stiff penalties. And city, county and state legalization efforts create a patchwork of varied and contradictory laws.
Until the federal government steps in, local NORML members work behind the scenes. Taking their knowledge, research and passion out to a public that speaks out of two sides of its mouth.
One side believes the rhetoric: marijuana is a gateway drug, kids should “just say no” and DARE programs are important.
The other side holds a joint: Because nearly half of Americans admit to trying pot.
And that just might be the half who are willing to tell the truth.
In Cooper’s opinion, “Public opinion is continuing to shift on this issue and I believe, inevitably, we are moving towards country-wide decriminalization or legalization of marijuana.”
As the meeting ends, I head back onto Northampton St. As I walk on by, the beam from the street lamp only casts a small circle of light, making it easy for the shadows to cover what we don’t want others to see.