This longtime force in the cannabis community has been instrumental in making legalization of marijuana a reality in many states and for gaining ground at the federal level.
This year, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, referred to as NORML, turns 50. The organization is marking this milestone by continuing to push hard for legalization of cannabis at the state level and for the end of the federal prohibition.
To date, cannabis is legal in 11 states, and 33 states have medical cannabis programs. This is a far cry from the landscape in 1970, when cannabis was considered a dangerous substance on a par with heroin and cocaine. But with increased knowledge and extensive advocacy on the part of organizations such as NORML, perceptions about cannabis have changed considerably.
“We have won the war on public opinion,” says Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML. “A recent poll indicates that 68% of adults support legalization of marijuana among responsible users, with 90% supporting legalization of medical marijuana. We also have a burgeoning industry of lobbyists who go up to Capitol Hill on a regular basis to promote our agenda. In fact, I would even venture to say that we’ve made more progress, especially in the area of federal legalization, in the past six months than we did in the previous 50 years.”
Altieri bases this assertion on NORML’s robust representation at both the state and federal levels. With chapters in just about every state in the country, the organization has been able to galvanize local populations, which in turn put pressure on their federal representatives.
“That’s generally the way social reforms happen across the board,” Altieri says. “The federal government doesn’t lead the parade, but once the line forms, it runs to the front. Colorado is a good example of this trajectory. Although Sen. Cory Gardner was initially opposed to legalization of marijuana, after the state legislature approved it, he bowed to the wishes of his constituents. In fact, he has become one of the leading advocates for buy-in at the federal level.”
There are other important signs that the mood on Capitol Hill is changing. In 2019, Gerry Nadler of the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee introduced a bill called the MORE Act, which calls for an end to the federal prohibition of cannabis, as well as for the expunging of records of individuals who have been arrested for cannabis use. In addition, the bill includes a provision to make loans available to communities of color to help add diversity to the industry and remove barriers for those most affected by the mass arrests and incarcerations that took place in the 1990s.
“Improving access to marijuana and representation in the new legal industry to people of color is key,” Altieri says. “Legalization is a big win inherently for social and racial justice, but now that we’re developing a new industry, we need to make sure there’s room for people who suffered for so long. We have not achieved our goals in this area, and we are working hard to do so.”
Nonetheless, the bill that is pending in Congress is significant for several reasons. For the first time in history, a hearing was held on legalization legislation. What’s more, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill in a bipartisan way, a huge milestone for the industry. On top of that victory, another bill that allows businesses in legal states to access banks was approved by the full House.
“There is a growing realization that the tension between state and federal policy is untenable,” Altieri notes. “Moving toward ending federal prohibition is not only popular, it is also good policy.”
The ultimate goal of all federal legalization efforts, however, is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. Then it could be managed in much the same way as alcohol is, enabling states to move forward and set up their own regulations and laws.
The War Is Not Yet Won
Although the progress that’s been made on the cannabis front is impressive, there are still many more battles to fight before the war is won. Some of the remaining work involves moving ahead on legalization, but steps also need to be taken to protect people in the workplace and even in their own homes.
For example, 600,000 people still get arrested each year—a situation that would be rectified once the federal prohibition is lifted. In addition, workplace discrimination continues to occur. “Employers can decide to do random drug testing on a Monday after a weekend where people enjoyed marijuana,” Altieri says. “If an employee tests positive, his or her job could be at risk. The federal prohibition gives employers cover, so this can happen even in states where marijuana is legal. The District of Columbia and New York City are working to put protections in place against such practices.
“Child services can disrupt the lives of marijuana users with children in much the same way,” Altieri continues. “As long as the federal prohibition is in place, they can sweep in and use marijuana use as an excuse to take people’s children away from them. Needless to say, this, too, must be stopped.”
Another issue that arises when states legalize cannabis is price inflation. In the early days of legalization, supply may be scarce, which means that prices may be higher. But as shown in states such as Oregon and Colorado, where cannabis has been legal for a while, prices tend to come down over time.
Just like other issues surrounding cannabis, pricing would also improve once federal prohibition is removed. Then the door would open for interstate commerce, which would allow states with an excess of cannabis to sell it to other states. This would go a long way toward evening out prices.
On the medical cannabis front, NORML is involved in both education and implementation. The organization is instrumental in providing people with access to scientific research, which provides evidence of the benefits of medical cannabis for many ailments. Furthermore, NORML works in several states to help them set up their medical cannabis programs.
“Our position is to keep the programs as open as possible,” Altieri explains. “We believe that doctors should decide which conditions should be eligible for treatment with medical marijuana, not state legislators. We’re also working in several states, including Mississippi and South Dakota, to get medical marijuana laws passed.”
Progress in all these areas—from lifting the federal prohibition of cannabis to improving access to expanding medical cannabis programs—would never have occurred without grassroots involvement. Organizing engaged communities into chapters and giving them the tools to advocate for what they believe has proven to be NORML’s strength and a key reason for its success.
“We’ve seen firsthand that change only comes when people come together to advocate for the laws they want to see changed,” Altieri adds. “They can make their voices heard in a variety of ways, including through small-dollar donations. We have reached a tipping point in our struggle to change the marijuana landscape. In this next stage of the struggle, we continue to rely on activists to help us ensure that no person is treated like a second-class citizen or a criminal because of their marijuana use.”
— Marilyn Fenichel is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.