Before we get started, let me make clear that this list is not “The Best People” or “The Worst People” or “The Most Important People”. It is also not NORML’s official endorsement or condemnation of anyone listed. This is merely my review of some of the personal stories in cannabis law reform, some whom you’ll recognize, others who appear briefly in a news report and are forgotten, that I felt needed recognition. In fact, if you count them up, it’s more than ten people.
The Top Ten People in Marijuana in 2011 (audio mp3)
10. William Breathes – Journalism defeating unscientific and inaccurate DUID laws in Colorado
When you say “medical marijuana” to most Americans, they will think “California”. But Colorado has actually the most regulated and state-developed medical marijuana program in the country. Per capita, Denver has far more medical marijuana dispensaries than Los Angeles or San Francisco/Oakland. So I had no doubt that someone from Colorado would have to be included on this list.
Unfortunately, most of activism headlines out of Colorado in 2011 detailed the kind of immaturity and shenanigans that reflect poorly on marijuana activism. 2011 saw Miguel Lopez hectoring a legislator into dropping a patient privacy amendment, lecturing legislative committees, and accused of stealing and destroying legalization petitions. Corey Donahue was jailed for disrupting a meeting organizing supporters of a legalization initiative, had his “Crazy for Justice” propose making April 20th a state holiday, and is accused of stealing documents from the state’s medical marijuana enforcement division (awaiting re-trial following mis-trial because Miguel Lopez was filming the jury selection). Kathleen Chippi, Robert Chase, and Laura Kriho boasted openly about their active opposition to legalization efforts.
Thankfully, the “pot critic” of Denver’s alt-weekly, WestWord, comes to the rescue with an inspiring tale of one journalist’s use of the scientific method to help defeat bad anti-cannabis legislation. Colorado had proposed a “5ng/mL per se DUID” standard, sort of the idea represented by a 0.08 blood-alcohol level to supposedly net drunk drivers. The problem is that cannabis isn’t alcohol. The science shows no reliable “impairment standard” for THC for every person. Marijuana smokers can test above 5ng without displaying any impairment, and frequent consumers, like medical marijuana patients, can be way above 5ng with no recent consumption at all.
Breathes, a patient, took it upon himself to abstain from marijuana use for fifteen hours. He was then tested and found to be at 13.5ng/mL, even as he was completely sober after a night of restful sleep. This front-page news and subsequent support from new studies and a deadlocked task force of experts forced the Colorado legislators to kill the proposal. Which, sadly, was then embraced by…
9. Alison Holcomb – New Approach Washington’s legalization adopts Colorado’s defeated DUID provision
Washington State is poised in 2012 to have a marijuana legalization proposal on the ballot that stands a serious chance of winning. Alison Holcomb, the Drug Policy Director at ACLU of Washington, has done a remarkable job lining up high-profile supporters, including travel guru Rick Steves, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, former US Attorney John McKay, and former FBI Special Agent in Charge of Seattle Division, Charles Mandigo; as well as securing the big-dollar funding an initiative needs to be successful.
However, controversy within the Washington marijuana movement erupted as activists got wind of the details within I-502, the Holcomb-sponsored marijuana legalization initiative. ACLU’s polling showed the two biggest obstacles to legalization support among the public are “What About the Children?!?” and “Beware the Stoned Drivers!!!”. To assuage the public’s fear of stoned teenagers, I-502 sets a 21 age limit and zero tolerance for any use by drivers in that age group. More controversially, to mitigate the stoned driver fear, I-502 adopts the same 5ng/mL per se DUID standard that had just been defeated in Colorado.
That DUID standard has caused longtime legalization advocates, including NORML attorney Douglas Hiatt, NORML Board Member Jeff Steinborn, and Seattle Hempfest Director Vivian McPeak, to publicly condemn I-502. (To their credit, none of them have been arrested for stealing from and disrupting their opposition, a la Colorado above.) It will be up to the voters in the Evergreen State to decide whether a few innocent tokers jailed on DUID is worth the potential of all tokers being innocent of possession.
8. Willie Nelson – the case of the living legend and the evaporating marijuana
Bless Willie Nelson, he’s been a lifetime supporter of NORML and voices many pro-legalization ads on our radio show. He’s always been synonymous with pot smoking. But this year, he was one of the 850,000+ arrests for marijuana possession. The case of Willie Nelson in Sierra Blanca, Texas, shone a spotlight on the idiocy of marijuana prohibition. In its prosecution, it highlighted the disparity of the “justice” system when it comes to drugs and the rich and famous vs. the poor and anonymous. The fallout has been a nascent political movement and another successful year of touring for the 78-year-old.
In late 2010, Willie was busted by Border Patrol when his tour bus passed through Sierra Blanca, Texas. Cops seized six ounces of marijuana according to the reports. In response, Willie notified Steve Bloom of CelebStoner that he was calling for a “Teapot Party” to promote the cause of legalization, which in 2011 gained mainstream political coverage for endorsing Republican Gary Johnson for president, before backpedaling to account for the singer’s support of Democrat Dennis Kucinich.
As Winter 2011 gave way to Spring, the six ounces of marijuana somehow became just three ounces of marijuana. The county attorney joked, “Between me and the sheriff, we threw out enough of it or smoked enough so that there’s only three ounces, which is within my jurisdiction.” But the traditional media didn’t get the joke when they reported Willie would be able to get out of jail time if he sang “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” in court and pay a fine. The judge confirmed the hoax and said Willie could just plead guilty by mail and pay a fine.
Also in the Spring of 2011, eleven hours’ drive across the state in Tyler, Texas, a jury sentenced Henry Walter Wooten to 35 years in prison (that’s 420 months; dig the irony) for the possession of four-and-a-half ounces of marijuana. He did have two felony convictions from around two dozen years ago, one for having a gun without a permit and another for selling cocaine. Most of all, he can’t sing “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” worth a damn.
This summer, prosecutors agreed to let Willie plead guilty not to three ounces of marijuana but just possession of paraphernalia, which put him out $780 in fines and court costs. In that deal, there was no punishment or acknowledgement of possession of any marijuana. But so far the judge isn’t accepting that, saying the singer doesn’t deserve “special treatment”.
7. Patricia Spottedcrow – Single mother of four imprisoned a decade over $31 worth of pot
Every year there are busts of marijuana consumers that tug at the heart strings. This year, the tale of Patricia Spottedcrow in Oklahoma garnered national attention:
(AOL News) Patricia Marilyn Spottedcrow, a 25-year-old mother of four, and her mother, Delita Starr, 50, sold an $11 dime bag to a police informant in Oklahoma on Dec. 31, 2009. The informant returned two weeks later to buy $20 of marijuana. Spottedcrow, who worked in nursing homes before her arrest, told The Oklahoman she did it to get some extra money.
The women were charged with drug distribution and possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor, because Spottedcrow’s children were in the house during the transaction. They were offered plea deals of two years in prison but decided to enter a guilty plea instead, a gamble they took because neither had prior convictions and because the amount of drugs sold was so small.
The gamble did not pay off. Spottedcrow was given sentences of 10 years in prison for distribution and two years for possession, to run concurrently. When she was picked up to be taken to prison, she had marijuana in her jacket pocket, which led to another two-year concurrent sentence and a fine of nearly $1,300.
The judge in this story feels like she was compassionate in not sentencing the grandmother of Spottedcrow’s children, ages 9, 4, 3, and 1, to any jail time so she can raise the grandkids while mom is in prison. Gee, thanks judge! The family is so struggling to make ends meet they sell dime bags, so lets give grandma four mouths to feed all by herself.
But at least this high-level criminal mastermind is behind bars. Oklahoma is safe now that $31 worth of weed was taken off the streets and an underpaid nursing home attendant is locked up.
6. Mackenzie Allen – Former cop’s legalization question tops Presidential survey
Continuing a theme he established even as a candidate, President Obama solicited the American people on their concerns on the most pressing issues facing America today. In January, he utilized YouTube to have citizens ask video questions, to be voted on for response. Mackenzie Allen, a retired law enforcement officer who represents LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) asked the top rated question, which garnered 13,842 votes – over 1% of all votes cast (people could vote for more than one question). Of the 193,060 people who voted more than 7% voted for the LEAP question. That’s about one in fourteen people who took the time to Ask Obama.
As a police officer, I saw how waging the war on drugs has cost a trillion dollars and thousands of lives but does nothing to reduce drug use. Should we discuss legalizing marijuana and other drugs, which would eliminate the violent criminal market?
As an honorable mention, our own Erik Altieri in September penned NORML’s legalization question which garnered the most votes in the “We the People” survey. This latest incarnation of “Change.gov” / “Open for Questions” / “Citizen’s Briefing Book” / “Ideas for Change” / “Ask Obama” marked the ninth time the president has asked and the ninth time the American people have screamed, overwhelmingly, “legalize it!”
5. U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy – One of four engaged in “crack down” on California medical marijuana
The four US Attorneys in California, apparently acting without direction from President Obama or Attorney General Holder, moved to crack down on what they consider to be “abuses” of medical marijuana laws of California. Referring to Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that excepted medical use of marijuana from criminal prosecution, Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. attorney for California’s central district, said “What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is the Compassionate Use Act has really turned into the Commercial Use Act.” (It remains unclear to me why federal US Attorneys think they have standing to evaluate what is and isn’t an abuse of state law, but I’m one of those weirdos who’s read the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.)
But I’ve singled out Laura E. Duffy of the four because she went above and beyond her colleagues in not only ignoring her boss’s previous policy statements and the 9th & 10th Amendments, but in also threatening the 1st Amendment over medical marijuana:
(California Watch) Federal prosecutors are preparing to target newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets that advertise medical marijuana dispensaries in California, another escalation in the Obama administration’s newly invigorated war against the state’s pot industry.
U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, whose district includes Imperial and San Diego counties, said marijuana advertising is the next area she’s “going to be moving onto as part of the enforcement efforts in Southern California.” Duffy said she could not speak for the three other U.S. attorneys covering the state but noted their efforts have been coordinated so far.
“I’m not just seeing print advertising,” Duffy said in an interview with California Watch and KQED. “I’m actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to our children – it’s against the law.”
4. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer – loves fed marijuana policy, hates fed immigration policy
There was no shortage of state governors I could have chosen for this spot. New Jersey’s reprehensible Chris Christie has stonewalled every step of the way in implementing The (No) Garden State’s medical marijuana law, even trying to turn the mandated six dispensaries into only four, limited to growing but three strains statewide that measure less than 10% THC. Montana’s quirky Brian Schweitzer won praise for vetoing an attempt to repeal medical marijuana, only to earn scorn for allowing “Repeal Lite” to pass without his signature. Washington’s spineless Chris Gregoire line-item vetoed a legislative measure to establish regulated medical marijuana dispensaries on the pretense of protecting state workers, as did Rhode Island’s invertebrate Lincoln Chafee, when the feds sent a threatening letter. But then Gregoire and Chafee petitioned the feds to reschedule cannabis so they could operate their dispensaries. Maryland’s sensible Martin O’Malley signed an expansion of affirmative defense and Delaware’s compassionate Jack Markell signed his state into becoming the 16th medical marijuana state. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s vile Mary Fallin signed a law that could mean a life sentence for making pot brownies, but Connecticut’s reasonable Dan Malloy made his state the 14th to decriminalize personal possession by adults.
However, for sheer boldfaced unadulterated political hypocrisy, I have to recognize Arizona’s two-faced Governor Jan Brewer. First she campaigned against Prop 203 but later said she “believed in the will of the people” who passed that medical marijuana initiative. Then she was lecturing police that they didn’t do enough to campaign against Prop 203 while admitting that she was “too busy” to do more herself. Then she was stonewalling on the issuance of dispensary permits that the “will of the people” approved, because she was suing to see that the “will of the people” be denied by a federal court.
In other words, if the people of Arizona pass a law to get illegal marijuana to Arizonans, because Washington DC is out of touch, then the “will of the people” be damned. Gov. Brewer will sue in federal court to uphold federal law. But if the people of Arizona pass a law to get illegal Mexicans out of Arizona, because Washington DC is out of touch, then the “will of the people” is sacred. Gov. Brewer will sue in federal court to uphold state law. (I have no word on the governor’s position on illegal Mexican immigrants who need medical marijuana, but I’ll bet it is confusing.)
3. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson – former Republican, now Libertarian presidential candidate
On the other end of the governor spectrum we find former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. The two-term Republican governor had been touting his “Our America Initiative” in 2010 and appearing at NORML Conference and other pro-marijuana festivals in full-throated support of legalization of marijuana for adult use. His vocal support only grew in April 2011 as he announced his run as a Republican for the presidential nomination of the party, and not only continued to appear at pro-legalization rallies, and even had Willie Nelson’s Teapot Party (briefly) endorse his presidential run.
Alas, the Republican party and traditional media didn’t agree and denied Johnson all but a couple of chances on the national debate stage to state his case. The marijuana issue was ignored despite strong public inquiry about it, even among Republicans. Johnson continued to speak out on the issue to those who would listen. But this week, he has abandoned his bid for the Republican nomination and taken up a presidential campaign for the Libertarian ticket.
To his credit, Rep. Ron Paul remains in the race for the Republican nomination and even comes in 2nd in the current polling in advance of next Tuesday’s Iowa caucus. Paul, a longtime supporter of NORML’s mission, has also introduced The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2011 and been a co-sponsor of other pro-marijuana federal legislation. But the last time Rep. Paul spoke directly to an audience of marijuana activists was 1988.
2. Rep. Barney Frank – the lion of legalization retires from Congress
After sixteen terms in the US House of Representatives, liberal Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts is set to retire. He’s sponsored or co-sponsored just about every pro-marijuana bill that has ever died in Congress. He’s spoken directly to pro-marijuana audiences. For me, though, my favorite Barney Frank moments are when he is chiding conservatives on their decidedly big-government, wasteful-spending, anti-states-rights support of marijuana prohibition:
1. Steven DeAngelo – Harborside’s CEO rebukes recreational legalization on Weed Wars
Last year I was very encouraged by one Bay Area medical marijuana entrepreneur. In 2010, Richard Lee put 1.5 million dollars of his own money to legalize marijuana for adult use, regardless of the reason why someone might choose to use it. For months, I had predicted that the longer medical marijuana was an “industry”, the more that industry would fight to protect itself, even from legalization.
In 2011, I have been discouraged to have been proven right by another Bay Area medical marijuana entrepreneur, Steven DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center, the world’s largest marijuana dispensary. In January, the IRS was auditing the books of Harborside, building a case that the dispensary was in violation of IRS Section 280E, which explicitly bans any tax deductions related to “trafficking in controlled substances.” The pressure on DeAngelo wasn’t surprising. ”If 280E is applied literally and strictly,” DeAngelo said, “it has the potential to close down Harborside and every other medical cannabis dispensary.”
In an effort apparently calculated to steer the IRS away from any claim that Harborside’s business might not be serving strictly medical needs, DeAngelo began casting aspersions on Richard Lee’s legalization effort, which he had publicly supported the year prior. ”I warned people who were pushing Prop. 19 that losing elections would have consequences,” DeAngelo said, “In large part what we’re seeing is the consequences of an overreach by our community.” DeAngelo published a manifesto entitled “At the Crossroads, or Wellness, Not Intoxication”, where he chides the legalization supporters fighting for a right to recreational cannabis use, saying, “very little cannabis use is actually for recreational purposes, or intoxication. This truth is not negated by the fact that many users of cannabis buy into the misconception that their own use is recreational.”
Steven and his brother Andrew DeAngelo then became the subjects of a Discovery Channel reality show called Weed Wars. In the press tours promoting the show, both brothers clearly said “I don’t believe that any psychoactive substance should be used for recreation“ and “we do not support the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes.” Activists were outraged and what followed from Steven DeAngelo were semantic explanations and rhetorical absurdities.
This all culminated in the fourth installment of Weed Wars closing with Steven DeAngelo saying “I don’t believe in legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes; I think cannabis should be used for purposes of wellness.” Again, activists were outraged, pointing out DeAngelo was a lifelong legalization activist. DeAngelo responded again with more rhetoric about believing nobody should be subject to criminal penalties for marijuana and justifications about promoting “wellness” and dissing “recreation” being just a strategy for achieving legalization (which he’s told the public he’s against). He even tries to shift the blame to editing at the Discovery Channel, when his appearances on live TV show that he meant exactly what he said after editing on Weed Wars.