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June 8, 2008 -- Aspen Daily News (CO)

Cannabis Crusaders

By Andrew Travers

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

There are some things higher than the laws. -- Clarence Darrow, 1920

The number of Americans arrested for marijuana-related offenses is inching toward 20 million. The first such arrestee, it turns out, was an unemployed overall-clad Colorado farmhand who sold two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover federal agent in a Denver hotel in October 1937.

Sentenced to four years in prison, Samuel Caldwell died of stomach cancer in Leavenworth prison before he could complete the term -- also making him, some believe, the first unofficial medical marijuana patient.

But if the attorneys for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have their way, smokers and dealers will no longer fill the nation's prison beds. The dope lawyers descended on Aspen this weekend for a legal seminar covering everything from the intricacies of medical marijuana laws to search-and-seizure statutes to high-driving standards.

Despite the skunky scent in the air this weekend at The Gant, where the conference was held, this is not a circle of zooded Funyun-munching stoners. It is an assembly of committed reformers fighting against what they believe are unjust drug prohibition laws.

Since its founding in 1970, the organization has lobbied legislators and bent local laws with vigilant persistence. And after almost four decades, they believe the green tide of justice is slowly turning in their favor.

"The federal government remains recalcitrant on every level," said Allen St. Pierre, NORML's head lawyer and self-proclaimed Head Head. "But on the city and state level we're making progress on medical and decrim. And look at the culture. Look at the popularity of the show 'Weeds.' Look at this whole 4/20 phenomenon that popped up organically while the feds were spending millions on anti-drug ad campaigns. How many states will it take before the federal government takes action? 25? 26? The national culture and the states are going to push Congress into action."

NORML was founded by attorney Keith Stroup, who remains active in the organization. He attended the weekend conference, and is currently appealing a Massachusetts conviction entered against him for smoking pot at a rally with High Times publisher Rick Cusick last year.

Two years after Stroup started NORML, a federal commission convened by President Richard Nixon concluded that marijuana use did not pose a threat to society and they recommended eliminating criminal penalties for adult users.

Nixon rejected the commission's recommendations. But NORML was emboldened. And Stroup's bifer army has since made inroads to legalization, getting medical marijuana provisions passed in 14 states -- including Colorado -- and decriminalizing it from New York to California.

Their efforts have rendered the drug quasi-legal in much of the country, and they believe outright legalization is no longer a pipe dream, but an inevitability.

However, the progress has also brought some unintended and undesirable results. The least of which is the quality and availability of the drug ("When we get legalization we're going to have a lot of demands for the government on growing and taxation," Stroup said).

Overlapping and contradictory local and federal drug laws have ensnared hundreds of drug users in recent years. Marijuana may be legal to smoke when prescribed by a doctor in places such as California and Colorado, but transporting it is still illegal. Thus, as attorney William Panzer pointed out, a nurse carrying medical cannabis down a hospital hallway is technically a felon.

Panzer co-authored California's Proposition 215, the nation's first successful medical marijuana ballot initiative, and said most of the new laws are intrinsically flawed. In Colorado, for instance, it is legal for people with debilitating medical conditions to grow up to six marijuana plants or to possess two ounces of dried buds.

But the number of plants is essentially meaningless, Panzer said, because of their varying size and harvest potential. If they yield more than two ounces of marijuana, for instance, the legal plants yield an illegal crop.

"Plant numbers don't make any sense," Panzer said. "That's like trying to guess how much 10 dogs weigh." More than 100 medical marijuana-prescribed patients are currently facing criminal charges in California, Panzer claimed.

The transforming legal landscape is also killing people, said Seattle-based lawyer Doug Hiatt. Hiatt gave an impassioned presentation at the conference Friday about ill clients of his who have been knocked off of organ donation lists because they tested positive for marijuana that had been prescribed and administered by their doctors.

"I don't think anybody who voted for a medical marijuana law in the state of Washington saw this bullshit as a result of it," Hiatt said. He told the story of a hepatitis patient who medically qualified as a top donor recipient for the liver transplant he needed. But the state donation board denied him the organ because he was a medical marijuana patient, and he died while Hiatt appealed the decision.

In addition to the legal seminars, the NORML conference provided a social gathering for the like-minded legalization advocates. Evening smokeouts were held at the Aspen home of former National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Gerald Goldstein and at the Woody Creek ranch of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson.

"These conferences are the most intellectually stimulating thing I get to do every year," former Washington state Senator George Rohrbacher said over a poolside joint at The Gant. "We're not making any money off of this work. We just believe in an America that doesn't lock people up for getting high."

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