Fare Thee Well Interview Series: Allen St. Pierre of NORML

With The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary shows approaching, and HeadCount organizing a Participation Row” non-profit village at the shows, we are running a series of interviews with key people from non-profits and various social good initiatives tied to the Grateful Dead. Today, we talk to cannabis activist Allen St. Pierre. Click here to view other interviews in the series.

Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML, the nation's largest grassroots organization dedicated to marijuana legalization. At the invitation of Bill Kreutzmann, NORML will be represented on Participation Row in Chicago this weekend. Here, St. Pierre discusses the organization's work and the rapidly evolving state of marijuana reform in the U.S.

Please tell us a bit about what NORML is all about.

NORML is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. A 45-year-old organization committed to ending marijuana prohibition and to replace it with a tax and regulate policy that doesn’t look that dissimilar to alcohol. And so today, the map’s pretty simple: four down, 46 more to go. Four states have legalized marijuana, and 46 states generally still have it illegal. So we’ve existed all these years as a consumer oriented-organization, and we have 160 chapters around the United States. We sort of put the “grass” in the “grassroots” when it comes to marijuana law reform. We’re the first, original, and largest marijuana law reform group, today joined by five or six other ally organizations, some who work for industry purposes. So today it’s a large group of diversified citizens working in Washington D.C. and the 50 state capitals to end what is almost an 80 year prohibition on marijuana.

If I asked you 10 years ago if you thought, in 2015, there would be legal recreational marijuana in four states and legal medical marijuana in a good number of states, would you ever have thought that was going to happen?

So, ten years ago would have had us with places like California already having hundreds of so-called medical marijuana dispensaries. In 2005, I’m sure I would have toured what is known as Oaksterdam, the sort of section of Oakland that enjoyed laissez-faire marijuana laws and dispensaries. So in that little teeny block of Oakland, in that little teeny strip of America, it felt like Amsterdam for a little bit. And so I thought well, if this experiment should go forward unabated, then it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of other parts of the country - notably flagship university towns and progressive cities - that would move in this direction. And that has happened. Oaksterdam University still exists. Oakland is probably the epicenter of the most friendly government in favor of marijuana law reform. And by our counts at NORML there are now 3,800 licensed marijuana businesses in the United States, people who cultivate, sell, label cannabis, test it, infuse it, cook it into products, etcetera. So I guess 10 years ago I felt like we were just on the precipice of getting some places to break through and actually have sanctioned marijuana sales. We surely hoped that five years later, in 2010, the most important state in the union, California, logically, naturally, would have been that first state to do so - and came within 3 percentage points of [passing]. So I thought in 2005 that California was likely the place that was going to be the first, but as we all know, historically, it was Colorado and Washington State.

Who do you think will be next?

Looking at 2015 this year, it looks like an entity of businesspeople in Ohio are going to get onto the ballot in this off-election year. They claimed today in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that they have over 570,000 signatures to turn in, which means they should readily qualify for the ballot. If past is prologue, Ohioans will vote at about the same level as those in other states, like Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Colorado - at about the 54 to 55 percent - so Ohio might be the wildcard this year that sneaks in.

Really, frankly, I think that 2016 is the [big] year for marijuana law reform. Because California, Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Nevada will all be states that have initiatives on their ballots that are well-funded with activists in the states trying to get them to pass. So if all of them pass, then that would be terrific. California again, one cannot stress the importance of it. 1 out of 7 Americans live in California. It is the epicenter of America’s marijuana use and high quality production, so it is crucial that California come on board. It’s so important, I dare say, that if California doesn’t legalize marijuana, frankly the rest of the country will take decades to do so. The rest of the North American hemisphere, our friends in Mexico and Canada, will also not move in this direction - and even in the EU, the 14 or 15 countries that make up most of Western Europe. If California, that little nation-state of ours, does go in this direction, I think it’s a fait accompli that the North American continent, and the EU countries, also sooner than later move towards legalization. So from a strategic point of view, California is the lynchpin.

And what do you think is the key to successful passage?

Well, it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise to anyone who follows macro-politics in America: we’re a country where a majority of voters and a majority of people who live in this country are women. And women are the demographic key to whether marijuana will or will not become legal in our lifetimes. Up until about three or four years ago, in polling and focus groups - and certainly at the voting booth - we could see that women were less inclined to vote for legalization than men were, at such a high percentage that they threw the elections. In 2010 we can see that women were not in favor of voting for legalization in California to get to the majority vote.

So in 2012 in Washington and Colorado most all of the advertising on TV, radio, and print was geared towards what we would call, today, soccer moms, and their attitudes about marijuana. And as we can see now from the data, the election results, women now favor marijuana legalization. So we’re not giving away the playbook here when we say if our opponents who want to keep prohibition in place want to succeed, they have to flip women back to being hysterical and inclined to believe the Reefer Madness. And if they’re successful, it will make reformers’ jobs much harder. But I don’t think that’s likely. I think we’re past that period. There are now many women’s groups that are organized around marijuana, including NORML Women’s Alliance, the industry group Women Grow. I think we’ve probably turned the corner on women being the cornerstone for prohibition support.

You mentioned Ohio before, and that it was a business group that is bringing it forward. I’ve heard some interesting things about that: that they’re structuring the law that very much caters to their own business interests, but that marijuana reform groups like yours certainly feel they still have to support any legalization measure. Can you expand upon that a little, and put that into context?

Sure. It’s a good question, because it speaks to the ever-changing evolution of who is trying to change marijuana laws and why. NORML itself, we would just think of as stakeholders. We’re people who use marijuana, we enjoy marijuana, we get busted  marijuana, and we don’t want it to be the case anymore. We’re grassroots organized. The other entities we usually describe as grasstops.

Groups like Drug Policy Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union - these entities are really sort of do-gooder organizations. They don’t talk in the first person about their marijuana use, they don’t advocate that, you know, they don’t want to get arrested and they don’t want to go to prison. But they argue for good government, for civil liberties and for fairness and equity, that we would have a better public policy for legalization than for prohibition. And that group has been the one that has successfully made the tens of millions of dollars necessary to get most of these law reforms to happen at the state level. And again, that’s the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then you’ve got a third entity: groups that are involved in the industry itself. Groups that come out of the bosom of the National Cannabis Industry Association, groups like Marijuana Policy Project which are largely front groups for the industry. I mentioned, there are about 3,800 of these licensed marijuana businesses in the United States. Who better to start to fund their own liberty, and to get involved with consumer gain to affect prohibition in a positive way for them? But they have not to date really stepped up and put up the money.

To your question regarding the folks in Ohio, and frankly another example can be found in Michigan, where - and I’m describing this as the fourth way in the recent column I wrote for High Times - and that is we now see a fourth way. We see that there are entities who have never been involved in marijuana reform, they’re not do-gooders, they’re not involved as stakeholders or from the industry perspective, but they’re business-people who think marijuana prohibition is stupid and think that clearly somebody should be making money off of it. They think it should be them. And these groups already have a track record in these states of organizing on something kind of similar, and that is casinos. In my lifetime - I’m nearly 50 years old - we’ve gone from just 2 places in the country you can legally gamble in, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, to I dare say hundreds of towns in the United States where one can now go to a casino.

So these folks in Ohio and Michigan are well politically connected. They certainly have the capital to advance these policies if they want, and it looks like they are. They’re going to use the model from the past where we’ve got casinos legalized in their states, and those with the money get the first crack and licenses, and try to get obviously the biggest amount of market share they can from the beginning. So, yes, we don’t begrudge the intentions or the sources of people’s capital who are trying to reform the laws. NORML represents consumers, so we’re always trying to get down to just pure basic words here: best bud, lowest cost, best product, lowest cost. So we’ll always have that natural tension with producers and sellers because, duh, consumers went best product, lowest cost. So if these are the only initiatives to get on the ballot and there aren’t more consumer-friendly ones, then we might have to hold our noses in some situations and vote for these. But I’d suggest these are definitely worth voting for as compared to keeping prohibition in place. We’re hoping that in two, four or six years, a more idealistic or consumer-friendly measure will be passed. Because we’re seeing that even if you pass any of these initiatives, which in one respect or another are flawed in people’s minds, that afterwards, once the prohibition is over, it’s a lot easier to go down to that state legislature as legal business-people, as legal consumers, and seek to get the laws amended.

Now, at HeadCount we don’t take any stand one way or the other on marijuana legalization. But our position is that we think every eligible person should get out there and vote. What do you think the power of these initiatives are to get people engaged in democracy, and maybe bring people out to the polls who haven’t voted consistently?

Excellent question, because now, at this point, this would almost appear doctrinaire in political circles. Here in D.C. there are Democrat and Republican operatives that see that putting a ballot initiative out there having to do with marijuana law reform is an excellent way to get voters out who otherwise wouldn’t do so. And this is now a strategy on both of these major parties’ parts. So I’d suggest that we’re going to certainly see in 2016 at the state and federal level where the newly savvy, forward-looking political parties are going to be putting this on the ballot and embracing it, so they can get a new wave of generally speaking younger voters, what are sometimes called low-information voters, to come on out who otherwise maybe would not.

And do you think that there’s an opportunity to educate voters so they, at least on this issue, know where candidates stand, and what the ins and outs are of the particular ballot initiatives? It seems like a lot of people still don’t know as much about this topic as they’d like. Do you think there’s still a vacuum there that can be filled at all?

Oh, there’s a tremendous vacuum of information. Normally we’re producing, in the election year, a congressional report card, a governor’s report card, and an analyses of the presidential race in real time as these candidates come on and they have known positions on marijuana. Take for example someone like [New Jersey Governor] Christie, a former prosecutor, who’s made it clear: if he was to be elected president, he would do everything he can to roll back marijuana laws. Compared to another Republican say like Rand Paul, whose answer is: well, I might not want marijuana legalized, but if the state wants to do it, I think they should have the right to do it. So, I think voters need to know that these candidates have very far, wide-ranging views on marijuana that will definitely affect policy in the future. So yes, I think that policy in the future regarding these sort of so-called political report cards - we should be able to put those out without any fear of any legal reproduction or status problems. Because NORML is non-partisan ourselves, but we definitely own the business of putting out as much information as we can for voters, so they understand what policymakers and challengers use on this.

That sounds great. We’re really happy that NORML is going to be part of Participation Row at Fare Thee Well shows. It came about because Bill Kreutzmann specifically asked that NORML be included, and we’re glad that one of your California chapters and Illinois chapter will be represented there.

We’re very honored. I’ve been following the Dead for virtually my entire life - from the time I was 10 years old. It’s a great honor to be involved in this year’s event.