NORML 40th anniversary conference in Denver preview: A celebration of cannabis commerce

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According to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), today's 4/20 bashes in Denver and Boulder are the biggest rallies of their type "on earth." And he expects that they'll ready the faithful for NORML's 40th annual conference, April 21-23 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Why was Denver chosen for the convention? "The State of Colorado has the most advanced cannabis commerce system in the United States -- love it or hate it," notes St. Pierre, who just arrived in Colorado from Washington, D.C., where NORML is based. "It's also in clear violation of federal and international laws. Even in the Netherlands, when one goes into a coffee shop, as they're known, they can purchase as much cannabis as they like -- but there, we're told sales are tolerated, and there's no taxation system. But here, we have Mr. Hartman and Mr. Cook" -- a reference to the Department of Revenue's Dan Hartman and Matt Cook -- "and they're collecting revenue for the state.

"Everyone points to California as the place where all this began politically, and they should," he goes on. "But Colorado, unlike California, actually stepped up to create a mature reply to a sociopolitical public-health quandary and created a taxation and regulatory scheme. So we brought the conference here to acknowledge this, to learn from it, and in some respects, to honor it."

Is the conference also meant to salute those mammoth 4/20 rallies, too? Not exactly, St. Pierre acknowledges. Many folks on the NORML staff feel there's so much going on around 4/20 that it's tougher to get attention for the conference. But the NORML board has also received complaints from marijuana cultivators that conferences staged in September and October, as they've been in recent years, fall smack dab in the middle of growing season. So after plenty of debate, they decided to embrace the 4/20 hoopla -- which is being covered by numerous mainstream networks this year, including Spike and G4 -- rather than shying away from it.

The agenda is certainly packed. Among the sessions St. Pierre highlights is a Denver mayoral debate slated for 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, to be emceed by veteran talk-show host Montell Williams; the High Times and NORML Activist Awards and Art Auction at 7 p.m. that evening, featuring a special acoustic performance by Ziggy Marley; a cannabis-and-commerce panel on Saturday; a keynote luncheon featuring Representative Jared Polis; and an appearance by Lester Grinspoon, a retired Harvard professor who St. Pierre calls "probably the most respected author and researcher on the topic of cannabis in our lifetime."

"In 1968, the federal government was worried about all these kids smoking pot," St. Pierre goes on, "and Dr. Grinspoon was assigned to figure out what was wrong with it. And in the end, he said to the federal government that he couldn't point to anything that said cannabis was dangerous. In fact, it was very close to harmless. And when the federal government said, 'That's not the response we want' and didn't publish his research, he published a book called Marijuana Reconsidered, which had an enormous impact for the movement on an intellectual level." St. Pierre adds that Grinspoon, who's now 82, rarely makes public appearances anymore, lending even more cache to his talk.

Full disclosure: I've also been asked to be part of a panel discussion about social media and blogging at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.

In regard to NORML marking its 40th birthday this year, St. Pierre concedes that the benchmark is "incredibly bittersweet. The greatest hope of people at NORML to this day is to be able to call the landlord and tell him, 'Take your suite back. Here's the key. We're going home to where we want to live, instead of Washington, because cannabis has been legalized.'"

He concedes that "this political reality is not on the close horizon -- but in the forty years since our founding, we've gone from outright prohibition to a hodgepodge. Thirteen states have decriminalized marijuana, and that covers 130 million Americans. We now have fifteen states and the District of Columbia that have legal protections for qualified medical-marijuana patients, and that covers 90 to 95 million Americans. So a very appreciable portion of the people in the U.S. live in states and municipalities where the law reforms have moved in a way that's beneficial to anyone who is not a partisan against drugs or who doesn't make money off prohibition."

Even so, he acknowledges that only 46 percent of Americans in recent polls support full legalization of marijuana -- and he believes that number must hit 60 percent before this goal will be accomplished. However, he believes "one can get up every day and see the progress -- and that's one thing NORML is proud of. We put the grass in grassroots. The organization is thriving now more than it ever has, and it still serves as the central hub for anything having to do with cannabis."

Which makes Denver the center of the marijuana universe this week -- although some advocates argue that's the case every week.

The registration fee for the conference as a whole is $225. Click here for info.

More from our Marijuana archive: "High Times Cannabis Cup report: Pot critic William Breathes catches the buzz (PHOTOS)."

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