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What the Slow Arc of Pot Legalization Looks Like from the Activist Front Lines

“Social change takes much longer than we ever thought. In fact, political movements are usually multi-generational efforts,” writes Mikki Norris, iconic cannabis reform and social justice activist.

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All photos courtesy of the author

When my husband, Chris Conrad, and I became cannabis activists in 1988, it was the height of Reagan's "Just Say No" and zero tolerance era. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, so the arrest and incarceration rates were starting to amp up, and people who enjoyed pot were heading back into the cannabis closet.

Chris was at an election victory party for insurance reform the night George H. W. Bush won office. Smoking a celebratory joint in the parking lot with his political allies, Chris announced that it was time to do something about the marijuana laws. He felt it unfair that responsible pot smokers were, literally, being kept out in the cold. They stood in the November night, vulnerable to arrest, while their colleagues were indoors freely drinking alcohol. Feeling inspired by the injustice of the situation, he asked everyone to join him in a quick campaign for marijuana legalization.

"Are you crazy?" they retorted. "You will lose all credibility and destroy your reputation. Marijuana will never be legal. It can't be done."

Chris took that as a personal challenge and bet that he could make and implement a successful plan. Within weeks, he formulated and launched the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp (BACH) as a five-year strategy to legalize marijuana in North America. At the time, there were no hemp businesses except hemp birdseed and twine. BACH's goal was to restore the perception of hemp for industrial use, allow medical marijuana, legalize personal adult-use and home grows, and regulate the commercial cannabis market.

Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris in 1996

A five-year plan seemed doable, with plenty of time. We developed educational materials to inform people about the many uses of hemp, its benefits to the economy, environment, civil and human rights, as well as health care. In 1989, we formed the Family Council on Drug Awareness, then the American Hemp Council, and held organizing meetings at our Los Angeles apartment. We developed a national network of hempsters interested in changing the laws. Pre-internet, Chris designed literature to be photocopied by activists — "The Many Uses of Hemp," "Ten Things Every Parent Teenager and Teacher Should Know About Marijuana," and "Marijuana and the Bible," to name a few. He collaborated with Jack Herer to edit and design what became the best seller of the hemp movement, Herer's The Emperor Wears No Clothes. We did hemp events at our local federal building and cross-country speaking and networking tours in the early 1990s to spread the word.

Obviously, once enough people knew how great and beneficial cannabis is, there would be no reason to keep it stigmatized and prohibited. The truth will set us free, right? With other volunteers, we wrote the comprehensive California Hemp Initiative using petition drives as good educational opportunities. People loved our messaging, but lacking money, we came nowhere close to landing on the ballot.

Hemp and cannabis reform was gaining ground, though. Judge Francis Young told the DEA to reschedule medical marijuana. The movement was rolling on many fronts.

So we went to Europe for a year in 1991 to experience other cultures and see what was happening in the cannabis community internationally. We lived in Spain, where Chris wrote his first book, Hemp: Lifeline to the Future. We came back to publish it but returned to Amsterdam six months later in 1993 to design and curate the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum with Ben and Alan Dronkers. We experienced a semblance of what cannabis freedom and tolerance looked like in The Netherlands. The Dutch model gave consumers pleasant environments at coffeeshops to buy and consume cannabis — without fear of arrest — and this was just what we wanted for the United States.

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Ben Dronkers, Mikki Norris, and Chris Conrad at the opening of the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum of Amsterdam, 1993

The clock was ticking on our five-year plan, though. In 1994, we helped form the Hemp Industries Association to support early hemp businesses selling clothing and other products. And then Canada legalized hemp farming, so we met part of our five-year goal to legalize cannabis in North America, but it was far short of full legalization.

Legalization was taking longer than we expected. At a 1995 meeting of the Cannabis Action Network, I was handed photos of a young woman named Jodie Israel and her kids, along with a fax from her mother. It read, "They have made orphans of the children. They cry and miss their parents who they love and were good to them." Jodie had been sentenced to 11 years behind bars under conspiracy laws and mandatory minimums (MMS). Her Rastafarian husband, Calvin Treiber, got 29 years in federal prison. Both were first-time, non-violent marijuana offenders. Why such long sentences for peaceful, pot offenders? What about freedom of religion? How dare our government orphan children as a matter of policy! Those photos changed my life.

Compelled to expose this injustice, we looked for ways to frame cannabis offenders as political prisoners of conscience and met Virginia Resner, the California Families Against Mandatory Minimums representative. Virginia had already started collecting photos and stories of female, low-level drug offenders serving disproportionately long sentences due to conspiracy laws and MMS. We decided to create a photo exhibit together, and reached out to inmates who felt their rights were violated. Putting the Drug War in context with the U.S. Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we illustrated how America was violating many of their articles — cruel and unusual punishments, illegal search and seizures, asset forfeiture, racist enforcement, etc. Our government showed blatant disregard for protecting our families, culture, religions, personal sovereignty and more. America in 1995 was feeling eerily like pre-Nazi Germany. The U.S. was becoming the world leader in incarceration, largely due to the forces of prohibition and the way it treats people who use or sell targeted drugs.

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Virginia Resner, Mikki Norris, and Chris Conrad at the opening of "Human Rights 95" exhibit in San Francisco, 1995

We launched the photo exhibit, Human Rights 95: Atrocities of the Drug War, in San Francisco on the United Nations' 50th Anniversary. It was the first time people could look into the eyes of War on Drugs victims filling our prisons, as well as their families who were left behind. Some viewers thought the display was about Americans caught in other countries and couldn't believe that the U.S. was incarcerating its own non-violent people for such long sentences, ravaging families and communities, stealing ("forfeiting") property, killing innocent people in overzealous and violent police raids, and denying people life-saving medical cannabis. These abuses all resulted from policies and laws enacted by our elected state and federal legislators.

We hoped that if enough people saw this powerful display, the good American people would not stand for it — they would rise up, demand change, and end the Drug War. It soon became clear that the "Human Rights 95" project needed more than one year to spark social change, so we changed the name to "Human Rights and the Drug War." For years after, we schlepped that massive exhibit to conferences, libraries, and public events, as well as made 30 smaller sets for activists to set up around the country. The exhibit woke up a lot of people and compelled some extraordinary activists and leaders to join the cause. Next, we wrote a book, Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War, to make this information even more accessible.

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Meanwhile, the medical marijuana issue was heating up. Gay rights activists and AIDS patients who needed cannabis to help manage symptoms linked up with patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, and other illnesses. California cannabis activists met, decided to focus strategically on medical rights, and put the Compassionate Use Act on California's ballot. With adequate financial backing and a professional political campaign, Proposition 215 passed with a 56 percent yes vote.

It was 1996. As California goes, so does the nation, right? Not so fast.

Chris Conrad at the Vermont Hemp Rally, 1994

Our activism continued for many more years, trying different tactics. Chris became a marijuana expert witness in the courts, influenced case law, and kept lots of people from going to jail.

We launched the Cannabis Consumers Campaign in 2002 to create a platform for people to come out of the cannabis closet, change the image of pot smokers, and help lose the excuse for prohibition. We had speaking engagements throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and South America. We worked on Senate Bill 420, published additional books and two newspapers, worked to pass local "lowest law enforcement priority" initiatives, and backed two state legalization initiatives, Propositions 19 and 64.

On election night 2016 — 28 years after Chris' original proposal, we finally hit our main goal in California with the passage of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, joining seven other states to legalize recreational cannabis.

It was a bittersweet night due to the election of Donald Trump. Trump made Jeff Sessions the U.S. Attorney General, who is bent on rolling back all the reforms and gains our movement has made. Yes, Prop. 64 allows adults to legally use, possess, grow, share, and buy small amounts of cannabis from licensed businesses — great progress, but we still don't have equal rights or social use clubs like Amsterdam's coffeeshops. The cannabis community is still subject to harassment, incarceration, educational, job, and housing discrimination, disadvantages in custody battles, and the denial of benefits, on top of other roadblocks. It's still illegal for adult use in the majority of the country. Federal prohibition remains. Thousands of people are still sitting in jails for non-violent cannabis crimes, and black and brown people still bear the brunt of the flailing Drug War.

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While medical marijuana is now backed by about 93 percent of Americans, only 30 states and Washington D.C. allow their residents to legally use cannabis medically in varying degrees, not counting CBD-only states. Although we've made a lot of progress, the struggle continues.

At the beginning of the hemp/cannabis movement, we knew most of the people involved with it. Now reform conferences are mostly replaced by medical and industry expos. So many newbies come — looking for ways to cash in on legalization — that we have a hard time finding a familiar face. We are meeting the children and grandchildren of the OGs. Most know little about the long, hard-fought struggle that led us to this point, or the people who pressed the envelope and were taken down — the individuals who sacrificed so much along the way.

It saddens me to recall our activist friends who didn't live to see or experience the progress we've made. Now I know that social change takes much longer than we ever thought. In fact, political movements are usually multi-generational efforts.

At a 2011 Drug Policy Alliance conference, Board President and former American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Ira Glasser put it all into perspective. He gave a brilliant speech on social justice movements, such as civil rights and women's rights, that have taken hundreds of years and still are not completely over. Glasser cited the Rev. Martin Luther King's famous quote referencing abolitionist Theodore Parker's statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

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"Movements are never over," Glasser informed us. "They have no end points. They have victories and they have defeats. And they go on longer than our lifetimes. And you don't want to ever make the mistake of being frustrated because you haven't won yet. You'll never get to win, you just get to fight…. These victories, these social justice movements of which we are one, but not unique, never stay won. We just get to keep fighting and progressing."

He continued: "It's often said that the fight for social justice is not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's more than a marathon; it's a marathon relay race. And the length of the relay race, as Rev. Parker said back in 1853 about the arc of justice… you just take the baton and run as hard as you can, and as fast as you can, and as strategically smart as you can for as long as you can, and then you give the baton to the next one. And that's how you build a movement… It doesn't bend by itself. It bends because of you."

So activists must never get discouraged. We must carry on and do what we can to advance freedom and justice for all. Future generations are depending on us.

For more on Mikki Norris and Chris Conrad, visit their website here and check out The Leaf Online, too

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