The High Times Interview: NORML’s Head ‘Head’
By Rick Cusick, Associate Publisher, High Times Magazine
Allen St. Pierre was born in Belfast, ME to an upper-middle-class blue-collar commercial fishing family. He had an almost cinematic upbringing on scenic Cape Cod, where his family continues to own a variety of water-born businesses. To this day, he says, “my father doesn’t know where the front-door key is.”
Ironically, although he studied wildlife at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he graduated there in 1989 with a degree in legal studies. While working at a Washington, DC–based law firm, St. Pierre was asked to do some volunteer legal work for NORML; he accepted, he says, “because I was a stakeholder with marijuana use back then, as I am today.”
Following an employee purge, St. Pierre was asked if he’d accept a consolidated position at the organization – for 70 percent less than his law-firm salary. He said yes, thinking he would be there for “six or seven months, to help NORML through a rough gap.” Twenty years later, he’s now the longest-serving, continuously employed marijuana-law reformer … ever. St. Pierre claims he’s a hippie who’s forced to wear a suit and tie and is often mistaken for a lawyer: ”In fact,” he jokes, “I play one on TV.”
High Times sat down to speak with NORML’s executive director four weeks before California voters cast their ballots on a historic measure to legalize marijuana in the Golden State, on the occasion of NORML’s 40th anniversary.
Okay … if California doesn’t legalize marijuana, what happens?
If it [Proposition 19] loses by a small percentage, it will absolutely establish a baseline, politically speaking, of 50 percent. We’ve already told everybody and their brother that we are coming right back in 2012. It’s already a fait accompli. California will continue to be in the vanguard of legalization – not only for the country, but also for the world.
So is the War on Marijuana winding down?
Well, it’s funny: You’ve got troops in the field, and they’re out there fighting and dying at just a horrific pace, but the generals back in Washington are talking peace.
Clearly, one can see that decrim and medical marijuana are the bridges to legalization; that is all absolutely underway and really can’t be contested. However, at the same time, one would not be wrong to whistle by the graveyard and admit that the data still points to massive arrests, massive incarceration, massive drug testing, massive forfeiture of people’s homes and properties, record amounts of children being taken away from their parents, people being denied organ transplants if they’re medical consumers …. All of those terrible ills of a 74-year War on Marijuana – marijuana prohibition – are still terribly present.
Is marijuana still the third rail of American politicians: Touch it and you die?
It’s definitely no longer the third rail, there’s no doubt about that. In the 1980s, there was a period I call the “marijuana mea culpa,” after Judge [Douglas H.] Ginsburg was denied his ability to get to the Supreme Court because he admitted to having smoked marijuana. And you had many senators and congressmen who wanted to run for president – the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Gores, even Sam Nunn; I mean, God, I could go back—
Newt Gingrich! All these folks immediately came out and tried to vet the fact that they had used marijuana. And then Obama pushed the level further here with “Of course I did and I used cocaine …. ”
Should marijuana stakeholders be pissed off or happy with Obama?
They should, in toto, be happy with him. He was transparent about his own use; his answers are pretty candid and culture-enhancing. The other politicians have tried to give a culturally relevant answer while still being damning of the behavior, whereas Obama turned it around and said, “No, I thought the point was to inhale.” And he notably said that to a group of students.
No president has taken an abeyance like he has from the Drug War; from Richard Nixon forward, every single president except Jimmy Carter has rung that Drug War bell very loud. Obama coming up with the Department of Justice memo basically saying that the states have autonomy is stark. But then we saw that the arrest rates haven’t really abated at all; they’ve actually picked up a bit. There are still federal raids in California – but clearly we can see a large reduction in the number of people arrested for medical marijuana during these raids. Prosecution is incredibly subjective.
Has medical marijuana been an impediment to legalization?
No, it hasn’t. It could be in time if those who profit and sell or cultivate medical cannabis put money up to oppose the legalization of marijuana. Under the guise of “medical cannabis only,” we will find that the legalization of marijuana will largely stall out for any number of reasons.
I think “medical cannabis only” is a very dangerous box canyon to pursue as a strategy. You can be a medical-marijuana consumer and still be denied your Second Amendment right to own a gun, you can be denied an organ transplant, you can be denied the custody of your child, you can be denied the ability to get on an airplane or get health benefits from the federal government, including Section 8 housing. That’s a huge tradeoff. You can walk into a place that has about 200 strains of marijuana, but if you go home and use it, you’re about half a citizen. So I would ask a medical-marijuana consumer: “Why?” In some ways, a sub rosa illegal marijuana user maintains more rights and privileges than a medical-marijuana consumer.
In the end, we want good, legal cannabis at the most affordable cost. Prohibition is an anathema to that. Medical marijuana clearly is not serving that end, and only the end of prohibition will get us to that point.
There are quite a number of marijuana and drug-law reform organizations, and the balkanization among these groups is a well-known—
Has that factionalization been an impediment to legalization?
It would be better if they worked together in a greater degree of concert. Another component of this – a vexing thing about this balkanized group of folks – is that they’ve been so reliant on such a small, almost incestuous pool of donors. The reliance on such narrow funding conduits has made it much harder than not to get all the groups to work together in a cohesive way.
Where does NORML get its funding?
About 95 percent of NORML’s budget comes from people who donate, on average, $53 per year. People project onto NORML that we must be supported by celebrities, that people like Willie, Woody and Bill Maher write us massive checks. Almost none of our money comes from that.
You can read the rest of the interview @ High Times… January 30, 2011