Most average cannabis consumers may not know this but NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which is based in Washington DC, has been their advocate for a long time—since 1970, to be exact.
While NORML is behind several federal marijuana reform initiatives, it also prides itself on being an organization that promotes homegrown activism. “Change has always begun from the grassroots level,” says Paul Armentano, the nonprofit’s deputy director. “Grassroots support turns into majority public support, which turns into changes in local and cultural regulations, which leads to changes in state law, which eventually bubbles up to the federal level.”
He describes NORML’s efforts as three-pronged: educating the public and mainstream media about cannabis, enlisting a branch of criminal defense attorneys to defend the rights of cannabis consumers when they run afoul of the law, and having a network of more than 150 NORML affiliated chapters that serve as local resources and action centers.
We sat down with Armentano to talk about NORML initiatives, fostering the growing public support for cannabis as a way out of the opioid crisis, and how we’ll all still have our work cut out for us when marijuana use becomes legal at the federal level.
Q: Tell me about one of NORML’s recent successful initiatives. What kind of work goes behind getting something like that off the ground?
We were behind the recent citywide marijuana decriminalization initiative that passed in Kansas City earlier this year. Regional campaigns like that are determined by a number of different factors. For one, you need to be in a district that allows for direct voter initiative campaigns; not every city or state allows these. You also need infrastructure on the ground: enough people to run a campaign, to gather the required number of signatures, to submit those signatures to qualify for the ballot. And then you need people to actually run that campaign and convince 50% of voters to vote in favor of your proposal.
Q: NORML managed to get a marijuana decriminalization act passed in what’s probably a more conservative area of the country. Tell me about that.
Yeah, in fact it passed with over 70% of the vote. Even in parts of the country that may not seem favorable to reform, the major battle is getting the effort qualified to the ballot so there can be a vote. Because once we get the general public talking about these issues, once they have the opportunity to vote on these issues, in most cases, we win.
Consider the recent Gallup poll: 64% of U.S. adults say that marijuana ought to be legal. Think about that—that’s a national percentage. That means that in some parts of the country, support is maybe 70% in favor of legalization. But it also means that even in parts of the country that we don’t stereotypically associate with having a sympathetic view towards marijuana reform, we’re still talking about majorities in those places that are supportive of this issue.
Q: If the general public is behind the legalization of marijuana use, what’s up with Washington? I’m specifically referring to the letter released by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this month that essentially stated that cannabis has no place in the solution to the opioid crisis.
One of the things NORML prides itself on is we try to stick to the evidence and promote the overwhelming scientific evidence that speaks in favor of reforming America’s cannabis policy. We have a publication that has reviewed some 400 peer-reviewed scientific papers, specific to the safety and efficacy of cannabis for the treatment of various diseases in different patient populations.
We were cautiously optimistic, that when President Trump got an executive order to put together this opioid commission that they would at least review this growing body of literature, and perhaps even consider having this literature influence some of their recommendations on how to address the opioid crisis.
Unfortunately, not only did the commission ignore this evidence, but they essentially doubled down in their “cannabigotry” by claiming that they believe that the use of marijuana was associated with a greater likelihood that one is going to become opioid dependent—again a finding that’s in direct conflict with what the majority of the literature tells us.
Q: How will NORML respond to Gov. Christie’s statement rejecting marijuana as part of the solution to the opioid epidemic, and what kind of impact do you think it will have on public opinion towards cannabis?
The public is well ahead of the politicians when it comes to the subject of marijuana policy. In much of the public mind, cannabis can serve as either an adjunctive treatment to allow people to mitigate their current use of opioids, or in some cases it can act as a substitute for the use of opioids.
There was a paper that was published about six months ago that simply gathered all of the Twitter posts that had to do with opioids over about a six-month period of time, and the third most popular topic was specific to the use of marijuana as a substitute for opioids. The public is already talking about this, even if their elected officials are not. At the end of the day, so much of what we do is bypass lawmakers who simply refuse to understand this issue and take it straight to the public.
Q: What can people do to help NORML in its mission to reform laws around marijuana?
If the patient population in this country has come to the realization that marijuana represents a potential safer substitute to opioids, then they need to take the reins and educate their physicians to that fact. And when physicians along with patients come to that realization, then I think you’re going to see a significant change in the culture, in subscribing patterns and in the drug use patterns in this country.
Patients need to become their own advocates—that’s number one. And they become their own advocates by learning about the science behind this issue. The role we see ourselves playing most of all is representing and empowering the individual consumer—educating them and giving them the right tools so that they can educate and influence others.
I’d also make a plug for people to get involved. [NORML is] an organization that survives on the actions and donations of our individual members. Because we represent the individual consumer, we aren’t necessarily aligned with many players in the emerging cannabis industry; it’s not always the case that the interests of the industry align with the interests of individual consumers. To maintain clean hands, our financial backing and our support are largely derived from lots of individuals.
Q: If NORML’s mission statement is to move forward public opinion and reform marijuana laws, then what are you going to do when federal law changes?
What people don’t realize is that’s really when the hard work begins. Can you imagine, if in 1964, after the Civil Rights Act was passed, if groups then just packed up shop and said, “Okay, we’re done!” Of course, that’s when the real battle truly began—and we’re still fighting that battle. We want to end “cannabigotry,” but we can’t even begin to address that discrimination until we’re in an environment where cannabis is longer considered to be contraband.
Even in states where the adult use of cannabis is now legally regulated, responsible cannabis consumers still face discrimination. They face discrimination in the workplace, where they’re subject to random drug testing and sanctioned for their off-the-job use of cannabis in a way that users of other legal substances aren’t. They face discrimination when child protective services tries to take away the young children of a couple, simply because of evidence that they use cannabis in their home. If someone is a medical marijuana patient and they need an organ transplant, in many jurisdictions, they will be kicked off the waitlist, even if they’re in a state where medical use is legal.
These are the sort of issues NORML will continue to address and emphasize even in an environment where some of the statutory regulations are changing, but some of the cultural stigmas and discrimination against marijuana continue to exist.