Guest Editorial: Don’t Blame NORML


Natl NORML/flickr
NORML Board Member Norm Kent responds to criticism of Executive Director Allen St. Pierre’s recent statements about the medical marijuana industry

‚ÄčEditor’s Note: Toke of the Town recently called to task Executive Director Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) for statements regarding the medical marijuana industry.

In the interest of presenting both sides of the controversy, here is a response from NORML Board Member Norm Kent.
Don’t Blame NORML

By Norm Kent
Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive...” ~ C.S. Lewis
It is time to responsibly address the issues raised by Allen St. Pierre in his controversial comments about the medical marijuana programs in California.
First, that requires putting aside those personal issues that have foolishly fractured the dialogue and emotionalized the discussion on the NLC list-serve.  Let’s excise those straightaway.
In short order, we know Mr. St. Pierre has always protected the reputation and stature of NORML, governing the organization with endless energy and managing it with integrity. In his capacity as Executive Director, he has worked tirelessly, sacrificed financially, and committed himself exhaustively to keep the organization alive and afloat. Allen has been a nationally recognized and responsible voice for marijuana law reform for decades. It is an affront for anyone on the Board of Directors or within the list-serve to suggest anything else. Those who have done so do a disservice to NORML and are being disingenuous and unfair to Allen. 
Having said that, let’s start the discussion by assuming the worst; that the statements Mr. St. Pierre made about medical marijuana were inappropriate politically and hurtful personally to many in California working for reform. Were they irreparably damaging or thoughtful and provoking? I suggest the latter. I submit his comments wisely and prudently pushed the needle- moving us in a new direction that may yet prove to be smarter.

In light of the recent federal enforcement policies instituting draconian crackdowns on the medical marijuana programs, shouldn’t the leader of a national reform movement be allowed to advocate an alternative? Of course he should, and we should applaud him for having the initiative to do so. Instead, our message board has been populated by isolated voices accusing St. Pierre of ‘setting back the movement,’ as if he was the first one to ever advocate these positions. That’s nonsense.
The comments Allen St. Pierre made on did not have their genesis last week,. They were cogently advanced in the earliest days of the medical marijuana movement 15 years ago, long before there were pharmacies for the federal government to raid.  Mr. St. Pierre is hardly alone in his views. 
In March of 1997, Thomas Szasz, the noted civil libertarian, writing in Liberty Magazine, warned us about the dangers of creating a therapeutic state. Here are his exact words:
“Drug prohibitionists were alarmed last November, when voters in Arizona and California endorsed the referendums permitting the use of marijuana for “medical purposes.” Opponents of drug prohibition ought to be even more alarmed: The advocates of medical marijuana have embraced a tactic that retards the repeal of drug prohibition and reinforces the moral legitimacy of prevailing drug policies.”
No one at NORML is saying that marijuana is not medicine. No one is saying that the war on drugs has not been an intrinsically evil exercise. The Executive Director’s position is that the path to legalization, which is best for everyone, including patients, is that we should advance straight up decriminalization. Let’s face it. Our road of endorsing state-supervised medicalization has led us onto a highway of federal law enforcement. Innocent people are getting arrested and prosecuted. By speaking out against what we have, St. Pierre is suggesting what could be. Maybe he should not have used the word “sham,” but he deserves credit, not criticism.
Why should we require any free citizen, patients included, to have to explain to a doctor why they are responsibly consuming a natural herb they should otherwise be free to use as they wish anyway? 
Why should we embrace a system, where we know in advance, some people are going to use a ruse to get their medicine? It has contributed to the very consequences we are dealing with today.
When you position yourself as being an advocate of medical marijuana programs supervised by the state to help sick patients, you are correspondingly saying that the substance being administered should be regulated and controlled by that entity. You are not saying it should be freely disseminated to the general population at their leisure.  NORML has a broad duty to serve the general public, not just a limited obligation to protect the medical marijuana clientele. Regrettably, the federal government is now demonstrating with arrests where that path has taken us, ignoring even decisions made by the states for their own citizens. 
Americans need to author their own drug policy, and not abdicate that right to physicians, the pharmaceutical lobby, or the government. Thomas Szasz was prophetic when he warned we were blinding ourselves by asking the government to adopt a “more rational policy.” Take note, Ethan Nadelmann. Any policy orchestrated by the government is simply another instrument of control inhibiting what should be the inalienable right of free citizens to decide which substances to use or avoid within their own bodies. If we bought into this idea of medicalization with governmental regulation, it was only because we hoped it would be a stepping-stone that would facilitate legalization. The broad primrose path sometimes leads to a nasty place. 
Articles in the New York Times dating back to 2004 warned about the abuses inherent in California’s pioneering medical marijuana program. Shrewd reformers at the local and national level knew that these defects would eventually lead to a law enforcement backlash, which could potentially undermine the ability of patients to get their medicine. Sadly, we face that today from a hypocritical Obama administration. We can say we are surprised this particular president reversed his course. We cannot say we are surprised that this day has come.
Many in our movement saw this day coming years ago. Numerous lecturers and media investigations warned us collectively about the laissez-faire administration of dispensaries. While justly empowering citizens to acquire marijuana as a medicine, we also saw it could lead to more stringent controls. Consequently, rather than enhancing our civil liberties, we may have set into motion a process which diminished them. Medical marijuana does not now, nor ever has, equaled freedom. 
“Anyone committed to individual liberty must reject medical marijuana as counterfeit compassion,” wrote Sheldon Richman, a former senior editor at the Cato Institute two years ago. No one called for his censure. The debate Allen St. Pierre’s comments should spark should be one of policy, not personality. This is the discussion the NORML Board of Directors must have, and this is the argument the National Legal Committee should be having on this board. 
Trying to uncover who sent what email to whom and leaked what message where is not only an embarrassing waste of time, It is humiliating to all of us as professionals. It will only cause more members to tune off and drop out. It has already reduced the discussion to personal attacks instead of thoughtful commentary. 
Let’s move to a higher plateau and address the real issue of freeing nearly one million Americans a year from arrest and prosecution for the use of marijuana, medicinally or recreationally. A civil liberty is a civil liberty regardless of why you exercise that right.