Marijuana: NORML's Allen St. Pierre on organization's new Colorado office

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Another indication of Colorado's importance in the cannabis-reform movement: Today, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML, opened a satellite office in Denver.

We spoke to NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre about the reasons NORML wanted to have a permanent base of operations in Colorado.

"It works on a lot of different levels," St. Pierre says of the new operation, located at 3888 East Mexico Avenue in what he jokingly refers to as the "Cannabis Commerce Building" due to tenants that include WeedMaps, The Clinic and CannLabs. First among them, he believes, is the opportunity for staffers to "represent consumer interests.

"We're already part of the current governor's working group," he points out. "The group includes people from industry, people from law enforcement, people from the health-care community -- so why not people representing consumers? Consumers make up an important part of the discussion, and NORML is one of the few organizations out there that says, 'Yeah, we're marijuana consumers.'"

As such, St. Pierre continues, NORML has taken the opportunity to weigh in on a slew of cannabis-related topics, including "taxation, over-regulation, access and flash points like drug testing of employees, DUID laws and making sure child-protective services doesn't immediately take children out of homes just because cannabis is present."

In the meantime, he looks forward to more engagement on the question of where and when a person can consume.

"I don't think the model of people buying cannabis but only being able to use it in a totally private space is sustainable," he allows. "We envision having the kind of place where people can use cannabis in a recreational setting that looks very similar to what we use for alcohol -- where there's implied consent, so that if you go into one of these establishments, you know what you're getting into."

St. Pierre feels that what he refers to as "the Amsterdam model" has "a lot of attraction to a consumer -- particularly someone like me, who's a tourist in Denver. After I've purchased legal cannabis, I can't legally use it in my hotel room, I can't use it walking down the road, I can't use it in an automobile. So where can I use it? This is a totally dysfunctional system, and even though some people think establishing places where people can consume encourages more use, I don't think it does. It just says adults want to use cannabis legally in a social, quasi-public setting."

Additionally, St. Pierre feels NORML "is in the best position to educate the public about responsible use. I'm not against some of the public-service announcements about cannabis I've seen here -- I think they're reasonably practical -- but the government doesn't hold a lot of sway on cannabis consumers. And we can reach people because we have credibility on this subject."

Additionally, St. Pierre sees it as important to fight against legalization backlash -- a phenomenon fueled in part by national media outlets looking for a new angle on the story (a weekend piece in the New York Times looked at the "downside of a legal high"), as well as anti-legalization groups such as Project SAM.

"To use a military term, we want to hold the ground," St. Pierre says. He doubts that Project SAM and its ilk "are going to be very successful in moving America back to marijuana prohibition. But they want to use any missteps, any hysterical or sensationalistic things that might happen here or, soon, in Washington, to try to make their case nationally that prohibition should be kept in place for decades to come. I don't think they can make much of an argument, but we want to make sure we hold the ground and build on it."

Continue for more of our interview with NORML's Allen St. Pierre about the organization's new Colorado office. To that end, NORML is teaming up with Oaksterdam University, based in Oakland, to present cannabis courses at its new headquarters with an eye toward better informing people about marijuana; he would like to see such offerings available by the fall. "And we're also setting up a NORML business network so that we can work with the industry to try to get them to make sure they're putting out the safest possible products: well-labeled, well-tested, in proper dosages."

One area of concern cited by St. Pierre involves some of the CBD oils flooding the market. The attention garnered by parents moving to Colorado in order to gain access to the treatment, which has had great success in improving the conditions of children with seizure conditions, has inspired entrepreneurs selling supposedly similar products online. But St. Pierre sees as many risks as benefits in this development.

"Nobody knows what's in these products or where they come from," he says, "but people are paying top dollar for them -- thousands of dollars for ten grams -- and using them for what they hope are health purposes. So we'd like to work with some of the labs, which we hope we can get legally cleared to do, so that we can put out a report in the next six months on what is known about these CBD oils."

At the same time, St. Pierre says the new office is looking to support policy makers to NORML's liking with more than just praise, The organization has established its own political action committee, NORML PAC, which "permits us to provide campaign contributions to office holders and candidates for public office who support NORML-friendly public policy and legislation," according to its website. And he says there's no shortage of politicians here who would be game to accept such funds.

"The last time I was in town, a candidate for sheriff took me aside and said, 'Could I get some NORML PAC money?'" St. Pierre recalls. "And I've met dozens of other people -- aspiring politicians and those already in state and federal government -- who've been interested. So we feel Colorado is a place where the NORML PAC could be extraordinarily effective."

With Washington state having passed its own cannabis-legalization measure in 2012, NORML would like to open a beachhead in Seattle, too. But until that happens, he sees the Colorado office as a great first step -- one that will allow NORML to "be on the ground to see how things are really working. And to help them work better."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa March 12: "Vivian Wilson, New Jersey medical marijuana poster child, moves with family to Colorado."

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