The Russ Belville Show

There are only three things you can’t do at this hotel – smoke cannabis, smoke marijuana, and smoke pot!

Yesterday Karri and I flew into Long Beach airport from Portland to attend the NORML National Conference at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.  I’ve attended these annual conferences every year since 2006, but this is the first conference where I’m not a NORML Chapter leader or an employee of NORML.

It is a miracle that we’re here at all.  As of last week, I was lamenting having to miss this one.  Then Keith Stroup, NORML’s Founder, emailed to say there was a press pass for us if we happened to make it down there.  Then a sponsor agreed to purchase our plane tickets.  Then a friend in Bel Air agreed to give us a place to sleep.  It’s like the universe wanted us to go to NORML Conference.

We missed the Wednesday Night Social.  The conference runs Thursday through Saturday, but on Wednesday Nights there is always a casual early check-in and mingle session.  Apparently, as would be customary, many of the NORML attendees gathered in the open air plaza outside and lit up joints and pipes.  After all, many are medical marijuana patients and this is California.

“I really believe that I will see a state with legalized marijuana in my lifetime.” – Keith Stroup

Indeed, it is California – a place that has gone “No Smoking” statewide.  So during one of the panels at the conference, Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s Executive Director, had to read a dispatch from the hotel management on the issue.  Not only is there to be no smoking of anything within the hotel rooms, but the entire block of the Omni Hotel is a business area known as “California Plaza” and there is to be no smoking anywhere within that boundary, including the big open air plaza the NORML crew had blazed up on the night previous.  If there are any violations, St. Pierre warned, they will shut down the entire conference.

This did not sit well with some of the attendees, who booed and catcalled the announcement.  “Why did you pick out this hotel?” cried one heckler from the back.  St. Pierre explained that the board tried to find a place that would accommodate the special need of a NORML Conference but that everywhere they asked they were rebuffed by California’s “No Smoking” policies.

If California Medical Association pushes for rescheduling cannabis, that will strongly influence the AMA to do so.

I didn’t make it in time to see Former California Assemblyman Tom Hayden’s opening speech.  As I arrived, a panel including Allen St. Pierre, Keith Stroup (NORML Founder), Dale Gieringer (California NORML), Dr. Mitch Earleywine, and Emily Dutton (American University) was discussing the 75th Anniversary of Marijuana Prohibition.  Allen reminded the room of Keith’s original prediction that marijuana would be legal by 1978.  Keith responded that we have won the hearts and minds of the American people – a majority now support legalization – and that he was happy that he would see at least one state legalize marijuana in his lifetime.

The next panel examined what a tax and regulate system for marijuana could look like in America.  Dr. Larry Bedard spoke about the need for federal rescheduling before any state-run system could be fully implemented.  Dale Gieringer spoke of the actual costs and economics of a legalized marijuana market.  Patrick Oglesby of talked about the legal ramifications of being civilly disobedient when setting up marijuana markets.  But the most compelling speaker was Dr. Angela Hawken of Pepperdine UNiversity who spoke of researching the marijuana movement from the outside and how our biggest struggle is to present our issue in a credible way by avoiding “overselling” of the changes that would occur once marijuana is legalized.

“I’m starting RAMP – Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition!”

For the panel “Cannabis & The Demo Gap”, Sabrina Fendrick (NORML Women’s Alliance), Paul Kuhn (NORML Chair), and Stephen Downing (LEAP) spoke about the need to bring in women, parents, and seniors into our movement.  However, Ann Lee, mother of Prop 19 proponent Richard Lee, stole the show.  She talked about being an 84-year-old Texas Republican who learned about marijuana when her son told her “marijuana works for me.”  Since then, she’s learned about “The New Jim Crow” and carries that book by Michelle Alexander like a Bible.  She spoke passionately about how racism is the cancer that has been with America since slavery and this drug war is the continuance of that.  “I’m going to start RAMP,” she told the audience, “Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition!”

We didn’t push hemp away from marijuana activism – hempsters pushed us away from them.

Robert Platshorn (“The Black Tuna Diaries”, “Square Grouper”) spoke via Skype for the next panel on Cannabis and Seniors.  A short film clip of his “Should Grandma Smoke Pot” informercial was shown and then Robert addressed the audience on the need to convert seniors to supporting legalization.  Satirist Paul Krassner, academic Constance Gee, and WAMM founder Valerie Corral also appeared on the panel.  Corral spoke of her experiences comforting the dying and expressed how we need not fear death, as it is something we all must experience, so how bad could it be?

The final panel of the day asked “What ever happened to hemp?” as a part of marijuana activism.  Chris Conrad (West Coast Leaf) and David Bronner (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap) explained the legal status of industrial hemp and the explosion of the hemp products business.  Patrick Goggin (Vote Hemp) described the legal status of hemp in the states that have approved production, but can’t get past the DEA ban.  Rick Cusick (HIGH TIMES) expressed that part of the answer to “what ever happened to hemp?” is that as the hemp movement ramped up in the 1990’s, the hempsters in the 1990’s pushed away the marijuana legalizers, saying “it’s rope, not dope!”

The night concluded with the awarding of the NORML Activist Awards.  Dominic Holden from The Stranger won the Hunter S. Thompson Journalism Award.  Diane Fornbacher won the Pauline Sabin Award for female activism.  Kevin Zeese won the Lifetime Achievement Award.  Orange County NORML won the first-ever Chapter of the Year award.  The full list of award winners will be posted on the NORML website shortly.

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