NORML: Keeping Stoners Out of Prison Since 1970

“”You’ve got to fight for your right to party.””
— Beastie Boys

In America today, we wage a very real war on drugs. We spend billions on it, and hundreds of thousands of arrests are made every year. The rate of arrest for marijuana offenses is roughly one person every 45 seconds. Few can credit the drug war as being successful so far, and critics call it futile.

With the federal government staving off states’ attempts to change marijuana’s illicit substance status, you should know who is on your side of the fight.

One such group is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which started in 1970. This is a national organization composed of a head office in Washington, and made up of state and local chapters, though there is no chapter in San Diego. The Web site, http://www.norml.org, serves as both the history of marijuana’s criminalization and the up-to-date state of affairs all across the country.

Marijuana’s history in the United States extends over 400 years ago as hemp, when it was used in the Americas as a fiber, all the way through the 20th century. In addition, its presence as medicine and in American medical journals has been around for almost as long.

As the 1930s saw the end of alcohol prohibition, the institution that dealt with upholding and enforcing anti-liquor laws found itself with nothing to do. At the same time, the U.S. government was looking for a way to get Mexican workers out of the United States because migrant workers were no longer seen as beneficial.

Kris Krane, affiliate coordinator of NORML’s national office, said, “”The government found that many of these workers used marijuana in some form, and that few Americans outside this select group had any exposure to what marijuana is or does,”” with the exception of the African-American Jazz scene. When the Federal Bureau of Narcotics formed in 1930, the new image of “”weed,”” or the “”Devil weed,”” was born, and hemp became widely known as marijuana.

In typical U.S. government fashion, the FBN, headed by Commissioner Harry Anslinger, began the misinformation war that brought the ultra-violent and insanity-inducing image of “”reefer smoking”” to the populous via the media. Exaggerated headlines and movies like “”Reefer Madness”” created an image of marijuana as leading to rape, murder and always ultimately to total insanity and death.

The result was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which Krane said was a way to circumvent the problem of criminalizing marijuana. “”The problem was that people didn’t think you could make marijuana illegal without an amendment to the constitution, just like they did with liquor,”” Crane said. “”So they taxed marijuana instead.””

“”To have marijuana you would need to get a stamp saying that you had paid the tax, but there was never any intention of allowing anyone to procure marijuana,”” Crane continued. “”The intent was overtly prohibition.””

As for the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act, the hearings lasted only an hour. “”The two main witnesses were Anslinger, who created the Tax Act, and Clinton Hester, assistant general counsel for the Department of the Treasury, who both were in support,”” Crane said.

The lone voice of opposition to Congress was the American Medical Association, which was represented by legislative councilmember Dr. William C. Woodward.

“”He brought to light that no data other then newspaper reports were offered,”” Krane said. “”Nothing from the Bureau of Prisons or the Children’s Bureau supported the FBN’s position.””

Woodward concluded with remarks on the problems of cutting physicians off from a therapeutic substance. Congress saw this as little more then standing in the way of legislative progress.

The House of Representatives’ handling of the bill was very shady. According to NORML’s Web site, less then 90 seconds of “”debate”” took place during which only two questions were asked. First, House Speaker Sam Rayburn was asked to summarize the bill. He replied, “”I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it is a narcotic of some kind.””

The second question was regarding whether the AMA supported the act, to which a member of the Ways and Means Committee said they did. After continuing to sail through both houses with ease, President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law Aug. 2,1937.

The “”Marihuana Tax Act”” took effect Oct. 1 of that year. This is how things have stood at the federal level to this day.

The past points to the present — can an individual make a difference? Krane’s response was next to pleading. He insisted we can make a dramatic effect if we are willing to write and call our elected officials.

“”What we constantly hear from politicians is that they won’t support an issue when they only hear from constituents who oppose it,”” Krane said.

NORML’s Web site includes forms that can be printed out and mailed to government officials. Also, there are action alerts for local areas that have impending bills.

“”It shouldn’t be limited only to when there is a bill being brought up,”” Krane said. “”Constantly, I would say at least once a month, write your politician. Or call their office. You are their constituents, they are beholden to you. If you live in someone’s district, they have to listen to you, and they will take your phone call. If they aren’t there, their staff will take note of what you say.

“”People need to get active and talk to their politicians and tell them how strongly they feel about this issue,”” Krane continued. “”Not many people realize quite how affective this really is. Get in touch with your politicians and tell them how you feel; tell them you want to stop arresting people who smoke marijuana. Tell them you want patients to have access to medicinal marijuana. Tell them that students should not be denied financial aid because of drug convictions.””

Krane emphasized why it is so important for students to get involved in the fight.

“”As of two years ago, with the passing of a provision to the Higher Education act, if you have a drug conviction, you are denied financial aid for one year,”” he said. “”Two convictions, two years — more than that, and you are barred for life from receiving financial aid. Now what’s more damaging? Smoking marijuana, or being cut off from a college education? And who does that affect? Not the rich kids who are getting their education paid for. It’s poor and minority kids who get slammed. Students really need to get involved on these issues.””

Krane encourages all marijuana smokers to join NORML to help it lobby for marijuana smokers’ rights.

“”If you are a marijuana smoker, you almost have an obligation to join a group like NORML, who’s trying to keep you out of jail. That’s what we do, and our members give the money to lobby, and number power to back up our lobbying.””

Short on cash? Don’t think you can afford a membership? Krane has the answer. “”Buy one less eighth a year and spend that money on helping us keep you out of prison.””

Krane closed with one final word of warning about the most oppressive state in the union toward marijuana: “”Stay out of Oklahoma,”” and if you are a marijuana smoker who lives there, “”get the hell out.””

For more information on marijuana’s history, legal issues, racial breakdowns of arrests and convictions, the status of the legalization process, or to get involved, please go to http://www.norml.org

For the ACLU’s “”bustcard,”” with information on what to do in an encounter with police and law enforcement go to: http://www.aclu.org/issues/criminal/bustcardtext.html The page is available in Spanish at: http://www.aclu.org-/issues/criminal/bustcard_spn.html

NORML Facts:

Notable NORML affiliates include Country singer/guitarist Willie Nelson, who has been a NORML supporter for over 30 years. Among others are George Zimmer, owner of the Men’s Warehouse, and Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance.

* Presently, law enforcement arrests a marijuana smoker every 45 seconds. This represents a 60 percent increase in marijuana arrests since Clinton took office.

* Over 10 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges since the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse issued its recommendation to Congress in 1972 to decriminalize marijuana.

* Blacks and Hispanics make up 20 percent of the marijuana smokers in the United States but comprise 58 percent of the marijuana offenders sentenced under federal law last year.

* Between 1978 and 1996, 34 states passed laws recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic value.

* Annual federal government expenditures on the “”war on drugs”” average $15.7 billion annually. In addition, state and local governments also spend $16 billion per year enforcing drug laws.

* In 1995, nearly 600,000 of the total 1.5 million drug arrests in America were for marijuana offenses.

* The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement does not need a search warrant to search your garbage. The rationale is that by discarding refuse, you are relinquishing ownership and privacy over it. Because this makes garbage public property, police can search your garbage for stems and seeds to get a search warrant for your house.

* Marijuana prohibition costs American taxpayers between $7.5 and $10 billion annually in enforcement alone.

* Marijuana remains the third most popular recreational drug of choice in the United States despite 60 years of criminal prohibition. Only alcohol and tobacco are regularly consumed by a greater percentage of the population.

* United States Department of Health and Human Services found that 57 percent of all current illicit drug users report that marijuana is the only illegal drug they have used; this figure rises to 77 percent if hashish (a more concentrated form of marijuana) is included.

* Millions of Americans use marijuana; few abuse it.

* If you are being pulled over for a routine traffic stop and the cop asks to search your car, you can say no. Without probable cause, law enforcement needs a search warrant to search your car with out your consent.

* Marijuana smokers in this country are no different from their nonsmoking peers, except for their marijuana use.