Medical marijuana v. recreational use: NORML controversy, Colorado connection
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is the country's most powerful cannabis advocacy organization, and it's long had a close link to Colorado, which hosted its 40th anniversary conference last year. But relations between NORML and Colorado's medical marijuana community are strained due to comments by executive director Allen St. Pierre that were perceived to be anti-MMJ -- observations that Denver attorney Warren Edson played a key role in making public.
The focus of this dust-up is "Allen St. Pierre on Medical Marijuana," published by Steve Bloom's Celebstoner.com website on January 5. The piece, on view in its entirety below, begins with a bold statement: "Defending the 'medical' cannabis industry is so yesterday. Why not acknowledge the political and legal farce it is and focus on the real problem at hand: ending cannabis prohibition?" From there, St. Pierre describes medical marijuana as a "sham" on par with prescription alcohol during the 1920s liquor-prohibition era, accuses the MMJ industry of opposing broader legalization efforts like California's Proposition 19, and maintains that cannabis consumers should be able to get "good, affordable cannabis products without having to go through the insult and expense of 'qualifying' as a 'medical' patient by paying physicians and/or the state for some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card."
In the wake of these words, Edson, his wife Georgia and Mile High NORML director Scott Greene have resigned from the organization. But while the post makes it seem as if St. Pierre wrote an essay on the topic with the intention of widely disseminating his views, these remarks were never meant for public consumption. Instead, they were written as a note to James Clark, a California-based attorney who's part of a LISTSERV for the NORML legal committee -- an electronic mailing list whose members include approximately 450 lawyers across the country.
"I was in an airport in October," St. Pierre recalls, "and a cop in either Colorado or California had published a first-person account, a guest column about him getting a medical marijuana card. He wrote it up as you would expect a cop who doesn't like medical marijuana and thinks it's a farce would, and I posted it to the LISTSERV with no commentary, as I usually do. And this California lawyer [Clark] took umbrage to the fact that I'd posted it, saying, 'I can't believe NORML is not supportive of medical marijuana.' And what is being circulated now is my reply, written on a laptop in an airport terminal."
Not that St. Pierre repudiates the substance of the response. "My first major mistake was not being as articulate as I could by avoiding words like 'sham,' so that it wouldn't be seen as so offensive. And second, I should have thought a little bit more about some people on that list, who at the time were not detractors but would immediately become so -- which was the case of Warren and Georgia Edson. They 100 percent melted down."
Warren Edson doesn't deny being upset by St. Pierre's characterizations, some of which he shared on his Facebook page. "We had a NORML conference in April where my clients and patients had pulled things together and put on what we thought was a heck of an event, only to have Allen call my clients and friends profiteers," he maintains. "And that's not what the industry is like here. No one's buying chunks of gold nuggets with medical marijuana profits. And they said the industry is against legalization, and when that kind of statement is made so broadly, it just isn't true." For instance, Georgia is a very public supporter of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which is all but certainly bound for the November ballot.
While the back-and-forths soon began to escalate, Edson says he tried to be patient: "I waited for about three weeks, hoping NORML would clarify its position -- maybe limit the comments to one state or particular instances, as opposed to the whole medical cannabis industry."
In St. Pierre's opinion, this wasn't necessary, since his note was obviously a critique of excesses in California's medical marijuana business. He says he was shocked someone from Colorado could take it so personally. But that wasn't clear to Edson, who ultimately concluded that "not only was NORML focusing on legalization, but they were going to firebomb medicinal on the way out the door."
Page down to read more about the controversial post.
During this period, Edson also had a number of exchanges with Celebstoner's Bloom. In the end, he says that Bloom asked to see the original LISTSERV response, "and I sent it to him."
After receiving the material from Edson, Bloom says he got in touch with St. Pierre to make sure the comments were genuine, and gave St. Pierre the opportunity to edit them.
"I wrote back and said, 'I don't want to edit something people have seen. It would make it look like I was changing what I said,'" St. Pierre recalls.
Nonetheless, some edits were made -- but by Bloom, not St. Pierre. Bloom took out small portions that specifically referred to Clark, including this line: "James, you can certainly choose to defend a system that benefits those who are largely gaming the system." The original document is also on view below, providing the opportunity to compare and contrast.
"I also said I'd rather [Bloom] not publish it, because it was an internal discussion -- just a dashed-off note," St. Pierre continues. "And he said, 'I think I'm going to publish it as is.' And I said, 'I hope you put it in the proper context.' But then it gets published, and it has my name on it and the note, and that's all. So a reader would probably think I was trying to be unnecessarily provocative."
Since the piece ran, Bloom acknowledges that he's received criticism for his decision not to describe the background behind the post, and he understands it. But he doesn't apologize for sharing St. Pierre's thoughts in what he sees as a straightforward manner.
Although St. Pierre calls the subsequent firestorm "unfortunate," he feels that "in the end, it's a good thing, because NORML is seen as standing on the side of honesty, transparency and science -- and I can live with that." He doesn't dispute that cannabis has medical efficacy. As he puts it, "For every ten marijuana consumers in the United States, there's one who's an absolutely genuine sick, dying or threatened person who really does benefit from access to botanical cannabis." But he thinks the other nine are currently being put in the position of exaggerating their ailments in order to obtain the substance for recreational use -- and even if the rise of medical marijuana may somehow enhance the prospects of broader legalization, he's uncomfortable with this methodology.
"I don't want to be associated with political obfuscation, shenanigans, misdirection," he says. "It reminds me of a sporting analogy: You can put the ball under your shirt and get across the goal line, and it might be a touchdown. But nobody looks at that as a very honest, clean or enduring victory." He also points out that others at NORML have been saying similar things for years.
Edson, for his part, rejects any suggestion that the medical marijuana industry in Colorado is an elaborate ruse, and he feels St. Pierre has damaged the community by painting with such a broad brush. After posing the rhetorical question "What are they doing here?," he says, "They're creating a rift in Colorado between the legalization community and the medical community that doesn't really exist."
Page down to read the original LISTSERV note, the published Celebstoner piece and an essay shared by St. Pierre. Authored by Florida attorney Norm Kent, it's entitled "Don't Blame NORML, Part 2."
Original LISTSERV document:
Kicking my friends or encouraging them to please wake up from their hazy field of dreams?
Defending the 'medical' cannabis industry is so yesterday (unless you've been hired to legally defend a dispensary or to establish one...). Why not acknowledge the political and legal farce it is and focus on the REAL problem at hand...ending Cannabis Prohibition?
The law and court precedents are fairly clear here....self-preservation (yes)....large scale cultivation and sales (no).
It is just this simple.
The numerous actions by the feds and state govts in the last two weeks make this abundantly clear:
*ATF memo (no Second Amendment rights for patients)
*Feds crack down on banks doing business with CBCs
*Feds send forfeiture notice to CBC landlords
*Feds send warnings to local CBCs that they must move or shut because they're within 1,000 of federally subsidized school
*IRS 280E decision against HHC (can the current retail industry survive this blow?)
*Feds send shut down notices to 25% of the CBCs in San Diego
And what MORE re-assertion of primacy will we get today from the feds?
If this were the 1920s, your advocacy of the 'medical' cannabis industry of today would sound like a lawyer back then fronting for the legal sellers of 'prescription' alcohol during Alcohol Prohibition (who, of course, opposed actual legalization...just like last year's Prop 19 was opposed by the pot prohibition profiteering communities in the state's northern 'grow' counties).
Prescriptive alcohol was a sham then, the 'medical' cannabis industry (not medical cannabis itself) is largely a sham now.
Is this news? NORML, and lawyers like Bill Panzer, have been warning ganjapreneurs and their legal counsel at our seminars and conferences about this political and legal box canyon since at least 2002.
Cannabis consumers, who NORML represents, want good, affordable cannabis products without having to go through the insult and expense of having to 'qualify' as a 'medical' patient by paying physicians and/or the state for some kind of 'get out of jail free' card.
How intellectually honest is all of this?
James, you can certainly choose to defend a system that benefits those who are largely gaming the system, however, NORML prefers to take a more honest and transparent approach that advocates that cannabis should be legal for all adult consumers, including healthy ones.
The Celebstoner version:
"Allen St. Pierre on Medical Marijuana"
Defending the "medical" cannabis industry is so yesterday. Why not acknowledge the political and legal farce it is and focus on the real problem at hand: ending cannabis prohibition?
The law and court precedents are fairly clear here. Self-preservation (yes), large-scale cultivation and sales (no). It's just this simple. The numerous actions by the Feds and state governments over the last few months make this abundantly clear:
• ATF memo (no Second Amendment rights for patients)
• Feds crackdown on banks doing business with CBCs (cannabis buyers' clubs)
• Feds send forfeiture notices to CBC landlords
• Feds send warnings to local CBCs that they must move or shut because they're within 1,000 feet of a federally subsidized school
• IRS 280E decision against Harborside Health Center
• Feds send shutdown notices to 25% of the CBCs in San Diego
And what more re-assertion of primacy will we get from the Feds today?
If this were the 1920s, advocacy of today's "medical" cannabis industry would sound like a lawyer back then fronting for the legal sellers of "prescription" alcohol during Prohibition. The med-pot industry, of course, opposes actual legalization, such as last year's Prop 19, which was also opposed by the profiteering communities in the state's northern "grow" counties.
Prescriptive alcohol was a sham then, and the "medical" cannabis industry (not medical cannabis itself) is largely a sham now. Is this news? NORML, and lawyers like Bill Panzer, have been warning ganjapreneurs and their legal counsel at our seminars and conferences about this political and legal box canyon since at least 2002.
Cannabis consumers, who NORML represents, want good, affordable cannabis products without having to go through the insult and expense of "qualifying" as a "medical" patient by paying physicians and/or the state for some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. How intellectually honest is all of this?
NORML prefers to take a more transparent approach, advocating that cannabis should be legal for all adult consumers, including healthy ones.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML
The Norm Kent essay:
"Regarding the Medical Marijuana Movement: Don't Blame NORML, Part 2"
By Norm Kent
My thought today is to expand the discussion I engaged a week ago. One subsequent posting by my colleague from the left coast, Bill Panzer, suggested that I believed the medical cannabis movement has been a mistake from its inception. No, I did not say that. I would like to think no one has read it that way. That is also not the position of NORML. Bill, my friend, it seems you were perhaps indulging in a new strain, Instigator Indica.
Let me say again that it was my intention to draft a polemic pointing out that there are many responsible persons in the anti-prohibition movement who have suggested 'regulation by medicalization' is a false panacea. Whether or not the mechanisms of any system embracing that concept is utopian or dysfunctional is an entirely distinct and separate issue. That was my point.
What spurred these discussions was controversy generated by Allen St. Pierre's comments denigrating the California system as a 'sham'. My feeling is that he has wrongfully been tarred and feathered for it. Mind you, I am not saying that his choice of words was the most prudent thing to say in his capacity as the leader of a national marijuana reform organization, but let's try looking at it clinically, rather than emotionally.
Calling to task flaws in an operational system does not correspondingly mean you intended to harm its inventors or practitioners, its assemblers or architects. You in fact may be the heroic lineman warning about the dangers ahead on the track, telling everyone to jump before the cars derail and crash. You may even be a weatherman knowing which way the wind blows.
Many people say Allen should not have used words that could later be used by others to haunt us. They say that those words could set back our movement, and he should have known better. Point taken; move on. This song is not about Allen. It is about our movement to reform marijuana laws.
However, for those of you who still want a pound of flesh, understand exactly what it is you are asking for. You are saying Allen should have spoken more like a dishonest politician then a true reformer. His 'gaffe' was daring to speak a blunt truth instead of furthering a blatant lie. The California system may not be a sham, but it is shamelessly flawed. Own up to it.
I am entirely grateful that California has paved the way in leading the country to a path of legalization. I proudly hold a dual residency between California and Florida, and show my medical card from Cali to envious compatriots in Fort Lauderdale all the time. But the truth is I acquired my last card for fifty bucks by walking into a mobile RV that was parked at a metered spot adjacent to a medical marijuana festival, without ever documenting my medical history. I earned my card with a year of chemotherapy and cancer, but my partner got one too, and he is a fit 25-year-old college graduate, whose worst ailment in life has been an extended case of athlete's foot.
The truth is that card is a ticket to freedom I should already have had. That is why I have fought in this movement for forty years, from the days Stuart Mott held parties for us in Washington, D.C., when Ramsey Clark was Attorney General. That was a time, I think, when some of us thought marijuana would be legal by 1980. We know in our hearts that the hand was never theirs to give and the arm is rightfully ours. I should not have to tell my government in 2012 that I want a license to use a medicine that kept me alive when I had cancer in 1999; that I used comfortably as a college student in 1969.
I am supportive of each and every person who wants to use marijuana medicinally or recreationally. The point I raise for your consideration is that many honorable reformers who wholeheartedly believed in unfettered legalization may have unintentionally compromised their principles when they enthusiastically endorsed medical marijuana initiatives.
By submitting to a regulatory authority supervising the dispensation of marijuana in a controlled environment, we did not stand our ground and insist that responsible adults be allowed to freely acquire cannabis without restrictions, regardless of whether they were ill or not. We instead accepted what the government gave us, because decent and honorable reformers saw the medical programs achieving two goals.
First, they were fulfilling a legitimate need while being responsive to a demanding public. We wanted cannabis accessible medically, and we grasped for it, at any price or cost.
Second, these noble experiments were excellent stepping-stones that we all hoped would logistically facilitate knocking the government out of the marijuana regulation business entirely. We chose medical because it was expedient and would push the needle our way. Now we can all have our medical cards, but look at the hand we have dealt ourselves. Instead of using marijuana privately in our homes, we have told the government where they can find us. That is pretty ironic in and of itself, isn't it?
Sadly, the reality now is that the process of medical regulation by state agencies is threatened by increased federal law enforcement. Worse, everyone is blaming the permissive flaws in the California system for creating stringent controls in their own. This does not mean the cause was a mistake or the goals were not honorable. It means we may have to explore alternative avenues and new roads. California dispensaries were raided last month, Colorado ones this week. What does this tell you?
As I write this morning, there are proposals before the Los Angeles City Council to authorize a ban on medical dispensaries. Have we all sold our clients a bill of goods? Have we encouraged them to open up clinics and comply with state licensing laws only to see the cities shut them down while the federal government seizes their properties corporately and prosecutes them individually? What did Edison say: "Is this what God hath wrought?" Is this what we intended when we began the fight to allow patients to acquire marijuana medicinally?
We call our organization the 'National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.' A few years ago we debated changing our name to the 'National Organization for Responsible Marijuana Laws'. Some have suggested we call ourselves the 'National Organization for the Legalization of Marijuana'. We have never been, and should never allow ourselves to become 'The National Organization for the Administration of State Regulated Medical Marijuana.'
NORML is more than willing to assist states seeking to make cannabis more accessible to its citizens, and we will endorse, support and speak out on behalf of those who fight for the same. Where necessary, NORML will find lawyers and go to court at our expense to fight for consumer rights. Look at the NORML website, and you can see it is populated with cogent information on statewide medical marijuana laws. Like others, I wish we could have done more. There is always more all of us could have done.
Last month's ABA Health Lawyer Newsletter, published a marvelous article entitled 'The Cannabis Conundrum: Medication vs. Regulation." Basically, it said we are dealing with an ideological dance between adversaries seeking to expand access to marijuana versus those seeking to control it. The article by Moira Gibbons reached a conclusion that "the ability to satisfy all stakeholders in the medical marijuana juggernaut seems largely illusory...but as traditional medications fail patients who have serious or debilitating illnesses, and no other viable treatment options are available, providing access to marijuana for medical purposes is humane and arguably a form of public health protection."
Somewhere in these threads I read, in the last 24 hours, a comment that marvelously brought cohesion to the issue.
When we debate methods of regulation, supervision, or control of cannabis, we can easily become divided. When we advocate for responsible adult access and a corollary end to prohibition, we are united. When we have intelligent discussions, we can come up with rational solutions.
We have been brothers and sisters in arms in a global struggle against prohibition. Let's keep it that way.
Attorney at Law
110 SE 6th Street
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.
More from our Marijuana archive: "4/20 in Boulder preview: 'An orgasm of cannabis consumption.'"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.