Reforming NORML?By David Burton
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 and Washington 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 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.
Most of these questions are 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,” says Douglas Hiatt, a longtime cannabis legalization activist, criminal defense attorney and, for nearly a decade, a member of NORML’s Legal Committee. “It’s kind of gotten into that syndrome that a lot of nonprofits get into, where you’ve got founders that just need to take a different role, step aside and let other folks reinvigorate and manage the organization. It’s not functioning as it should, and hasn’t for a long time.”
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. Supporters of I-502 describe it as a kind of legalization brass ring: If voters grab it—and polls suggest they will—then 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.”
“I think you should vote for 502 if you believe that people who want to manufacture or distribute marijuana have to sign up for a list that must be turned over to the feds,” he says. “If you believe the courts will not prosecute, if you believe the feds will not immediately trump this law the same way [Washington Gov. Christine] Gregoire vetoed the last measure, if you believe all these things and if you believe this thing will actually work and that the chances of it working justify a mandatory DUI law that’s been rejected by every legislature that’s considered it and will certainly mean that patients and users cannot legally drive, then you should vote for it.”
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,’ like decisional fatigue, where you make so many decisions you just get tired and give up,” he continues. “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.”
But Hiatt, who with Steinborn is a key supporter of the marijuana legalization group Sensible Washington, has another 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 critics of I-502 find so repugnant.
According to Hiatt, the I-1068 campaign was endorsed by both national NORML and Washington NORML and was on the cusp of receiving major cash backing when supporters of I-502 quietly approached and convinced NORML’s leadership that the Sensible Washington measure was not financially viable. NORML switched its support to I-502, the result being that the 502 campaign received the promised major cash backing and 1068 died from lack of money.
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. They haven’t been included in [Progressive Insurance chairman] Peter Lewis’s largesse or in [financier] George Soros’ largesse because those funders have problems with the founders of NORML. Those guys aren’t going to give money as long as Allen and Keith are running NORML. Rick Steves might, but they’re not going to get funding from the big boys.”
TO ENDORSE OR NOT TO ENDORSE?
Responding to comments by members of Sensible Washington accusing NORML of being fickle with its endorsements, Stroup released a statement in July stating, in part: “To correct the record, NORML has never endorsed any of the proposals put forward by Sensible Washington. Organizationally we do not endorse any voter initiative until it has qualified for the ballot, and Sensible Washington has never come close to qualifying.”
Hiatt’s response to Stroup’s statement was unequivocal.
“Keith is into lying now,” he says. “NORML never endorsed Sensible Washington? You’re just lying now, chief.”
St. Pierre was equally unequivocal: “NORML didn’t endorse I-1068. We never have.”
Stroup’s statement highlights another issue rankling activists: NORML’s stated policy of not supporting legalization ballot measures until after they’ve made it on the actual ballot. The question of whether the organization did endorse I-1068 during its signature-gathering process is a matter of dispute—numerous online articles dating back to March 1 state it did, including at least one in which St. Pierre was quoted acknowledging it did. But the policy exists, and the executive director insists it’s a good one.
“There are common-sensical reasons the organization doesn’t endorse every initiative that doesn’t make it on the ballot,” he says. “In many cases, they’re competitive, competing against each other for funding. As a board member, it makes eminent sense that we only support initiatives when they’re actually on the ballot. We allow the locals to work it out themselves, in almost a Darwinistic way. Once it’s on the ballot, there’s no way NORML’s not going to support it. It’s a fait accompli.”
What’s more, he says, initiative organizers tend to place entirely too much emphasis on NORML’s support, since that support typically doesn’t include the financial variety. That, he says, almost always comes from the big money guys – financier George Soros, Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis and Apollo Group CEO John Sperling.
“[Grassroots legalization campaigns] don’t need our support,” St. Pierre says. “Historically, almost no ballot initiative has made it to the ballot without the help of billionaires named Soros, Lewis and Sperling. That amalgam has brought about 99 percent of the reforms, comes at the end of those three men’s philanthropy. NORML doesn’t raise money for these things, historically—no organization does. All reform measures, for all intent and purposes, have come from those three billionaires.
“These local workers who believe NORML’s support can make a difference would be historically incorrect, because grassroots campaigns don’t fund their own reforms—those reforms come from the elite,” he says. “In the end, NORML’s endorsement is cultural at best, really. It isn’t going to raise additional funding, and it doesn’t have any media persuasion.”
That’s exactly the problem, say Hiatt and others, who insist NORML endorsements matter a great deal when it comes to persuading “the money people” to back campaigns. Without that backing, a ballot measure—no matter how well written, no matter how favored by the cannabis community—has little chance of making it to the ballot. In practice, critics charge, NORML’s policy surrenders the very reason for its existence—reforming marijuana laws—to the whims of wealthy donors.
“With 502, NORML jumped on the bandwagon to show they’re big players and be able to say they achieved a victory,” he says.
That kind of talk didn’t win Hiatt any favors with the group’s leadership, which after repeated clashes with him over I-502 kicked him off the NORML Legal Committee (NLC) and—perhaps more significantly—removed him from the committee’s email message board, the NLC list-serve.
Of all of NORML’s functions, the one that affects the cannabis community most directly is its ability to connect marijuana users in legal trouble with one or more of the 485 attorneys across the country serving on the NLC. As Steinborn puts it, “You can call me from Okefenokee saying you’ve just been arrested, and I can usually find you a lawyer in that neighborhood.” Key to that function is the NLC list-serve, through which lawyers communicate back and forth about their cases, the finer points of marijuana statutes, developing case law and anything they else they find relevant.
Since few of the cases NORML refers is done by attorneys pro bono, access to the list-serve is important to the NLC lawyers’ bottom line. That effectively gives whoever controls access to the list-serve real power over the NLC, and critics accuse NORML’s leadership of using the message board to stifle dissent.
“I was a member of the NLC for about a decade, and then was kicked off the list-serve because they didn’t like me criticizing 502,” says Hiatt. “They purged me. Keith then lied and says I’d been kicked off because I didn’t pay my dues. Which was bullshit—I did a lot of free work for NORML cases, and Keith had says he’d waive fees for pro bono work.”
St. Pierre insists Hiatt’s removal from the NLC and the list-serve had nothing at all to do with his criticisms of the I-502 endorsement, and everything to do with his failure to pay $150 in dues.
“We’ve been telling Doug Hiatt since last year that if he sends in his $150, he’d be a member,” St. Pierre says.
This claim—that Hiatt, a well-known and respected marijuana activist, was kicked off the NLC after 10 years of service not because of his ferocious criticisms of the I-502 endorsement but because he owed NORML $150—tested this writer’s credulity, and I said as much to St. Pierre.
“Hiatt is a paid lawyer,” St. Pierre replied. “For all the years he’s been on the list, we’ve been giving him discounted rates as a public defender. There’s a lot of money on the list, and a lot of attorneys who don’t ask for freebies. I don’t think Hiatt is in any position to get free things that other lawyers have to pay for.”
Hiatt wasn’t the only NLC member to run afoul of NORML’s leadership over the list-serve. Another was NORML board member William Panzer, a vociferous critic of I-502 who was temporarily suspended from access to the list after publicly locking horns with an NLC attorney and whom Stroup once called “a piece of shit” in a board email.
The other was Dennis Roberts, a highly respected criminal and civil-rights attorney and longtime NLC member most famous for having helped defend the Chicago 7 and Angela Davis.
“Allen [St. Pierre] says to me he didn’t like what I says about him and kicked me off the list-serve,” Roberts says. “I complained to Paul Kuhn, who says I’d be restored to the list, and I was restored 10 days later. Allen’s kind of petty—he’s not a very big person. Someone who’s running an organization like this ought to be bigger than that.”
Roberts and other NLC members were particularly incensed by an attempt by NORML’s leadership last year to restrict all postings on the list-serve to “on-topic” comments, meaning posts pertaining to anything but specific marijuana topics would not be allowed. Further, all posts would first have to be cleared by a moderator before being listed. This new policy did not go over well at all with many of the NLC attorneys, who, having focused their careers on defending marijuana arrestees, are almost genetically opposed to anything they view as censorship.
Mara Felson, an NLC attorney based in San Diego, viewed the new policy as not only philosophically repugnant, but as potentially damaging to a lawyer’s ability to defend his or her clients.
“Anyone on the list-serve can ask legal questions or pass along cases—that’s the whole intent of it,” she says. “Marijuana law is not discrete. Marijuana law touches on civil law, criminal law and constitutional law—issues like the First, Tenth and 14th amendments. You need to be able to reason and argue these issues from many different perspectives, kicking in all those different subjects. You can imagine that, with lawyers across the country, sometimes issues can get heated. But for me, the more heated it becomes, the more people cite those things that support their position.
“Then Keith says there will be no off-topic conversation,” she says. “In addition to that, they created it so no longer could a person just post to the list—it began to go out to a censor. All of this came from Keith. How is that a legitimate use of his time? It seems a bizarre micromanagement. All of these changes seemed to arise because people were taking issue with the direction of NORML’s leadership. It just irritated people to no end.”
Stroup admits the idea of the policy was his, but one that was also ratified by the NORML board in a full vote. He rejects the notion that the new stay-on-topic rule had anything to do with censorship.
“We had a number of lawyers who asked to be removed from the list-serve, saying they were simply getting too many emails,” says Stroup, whom I reached by phone as he was returning from Seattle Hempfest, where he had argued the merits of I-502 in a debate. “So, rather than continue to lose members, we decided to restrict the list-serve to on-topic posts. That’s the policy now, until the board changes it.”
THE FINAL STRAW
But while critics of NORML were angered by the board’s endorsement of I-502 and the list-serve policy, it was St. Pierre’s statements earlier this year regarding marijuana that sent them howling for his head. St. Pierre’s disdain for what he sees as the excesses of the compassionate-use industry’s “ganjapreneurs” (his word) was no secret to those who closely follow the minutia of cannabis politics. But to the average MMJ patient, 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, referred to the “profiteering communities in the state’s northern ‘grow’ counties,” and accused medical marijuana supporters of being “intellectually dishonest.”
For medical cannabis patients, caregivers and providers, the Celebstoner column was a kick in the gut, particularly as it came just as the federal government was in the process of arresting them in great numbers. For those whose dissatisfaction with St. Pierre was already at the breaking point, it was the final straw.
“I don’t know anything about 502, although it sounds like all the people who are for it are the wrong people,” Roberts says. “What concerns me more than anything is the idiotic remarks by Allen St. Pierre, in which he says [that] medical pot was a sham. 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.’ If it were up to me, he’d be gone. I was told Allen did an excellent job when he ran the NORML Foundation, but I think he does a disastrous job as executive director. The only thing he seems capable of doing is alienating people.”
“Keith and Allen don’t just burn bridges,” says Felson. “They burn them in glorious bonfires. They don’t take criticism. The characterize criticism as some isolated discontent from some troublemakers, but it’s just not true . . . It’s heartbreaking that you have this organization with such name recognition and with so many people who want to get behind it, but when they get to know it they just throw their hands in the air.”
None of this surprises Don E. Wirtshafter, an Ohio legalization advocate who moderated the I-502 debate at Hempfest in which Stroup participated. In 2000, Wirtshafter submitted a report to his fellow members of the NORML Board of Directors spelling out his belief that the organization was owed money and other assets under the trust set up by Tom Forcade, the late founder of High Times magazine. The board responded by voting 13-2 to kick Wirtshafter off the board.
“I stayed away from anything to do with NORML since then,” Wirtshafter says. “NORML, as an organization, has created 10 times more refugees than it has members—three generations of activists turned off by the organization’s lack of organization. Some of the NORML refugees started the Marijuana Policy Project. 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.
“I think the leadership style of Keith and Allen is very much a power-control thing,” Wirtshafter says. “You can do presentations at meetings, but having presentations where members can discuss or organize themselves, that can’t happen—they might organize to take over the administration. You’ve got people getting kicked off the list-serve, and Allen and Keith being very negative about medical marijuana. It’s a lot of ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome. Since they don’t have any ideas of their own, they condemn those who do.”
My call to St. Pierre for his response to all this—the I-502 flap, the list-serve policy, the Celebstoner article and the complaints about his and Stroup’s leadership—resulted in a nearly 1 1/2 hour conversation in which the director talked nearly nonstop.
St. Pierre is an affable man, but difficult to interview. He speaks quickly and in an almost stream-of-conscious manner, rarely finishing the same sentence he started and not infrequently using words that aren’t, technically, words. But he’s also a smart man who gets his point across, and over the course of our talk he responded to the criticisms by suggesting they were isolated complaints from troublemakers. Roberts was a “seven-time violator” of the list-serve rules. Wirtshafter’s claims about the Forcade High Times trust were “completely and totally irresponsible and incorrect, and he “continues to make the claims knowing they were incorrect.”
The director also had choice words for board member Steinborn.
“Jeff Steinborn finds himself in a conundrum,” he says. “He voted with the board, unanimously, to endorse 502. The second vote on stipulations failed 7-3. Now he’s embarrassing NORML. I don’t know if he’s embarrassing himself, but it’s certainly confusing why he’s taken this position when he voted for the endorsement. He’s definitely trying to convince some board members that the vote didn’t happen the way it did.”
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.
To hear St. Pierre talk about medical marijuana is eerily similar to listening to U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag talk about marijuana.
“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, “so much so that the courts have said, ‘Unless you’re providing a range of services to individuals to whom you’re selling, you’re just selling marijuana.’ That’s retail access. NORML wants retail access for adults to use marijuana, however they choose. But the medical cannabis community has proliferated to the degree that there are some 3,300 cannabis business in the U.S. Not all of them are making millions of dollars a month in sales, but for those of us who have been involved long before there were retail sales of marijuana, it’s pretty hard to argue California’s law has been anything but damaging to the movement as a whole.
“It’s the difference between intellectual honesty and being dishonest,” he says. “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.”
THE WEEDMAPS CONNECTION
NORML founder Stroup, while more guarded in his remarks, fundamentally agreed with St. Pierre.
“I think the basic division has to do with whether you agree with Dennis Peron, which was that all use is medical use,” he says. “I think anybody should be allowed marijuana regardless—I don’t think it’s the government’s business. But I think we need to keep the issue of medical-marijuana separate from the issue of recreational use. 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 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.
“There’s nothing wrong with profit, or for-profit drug stores or pharmacies or dispensaries,” Kuhn says. “I would think over time, unless you have a true cooperative, which is pretty rare, there’s certainly a profit motive. That’s fine—I’m an investment banker. [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.