The Unofficial History of AZ4NORML – Part 1

The Unofficial History of AZ4NORML – Part 1

The Calling

Current efforts to legalize marijuana in Arizona represent the third wave…at least. Back in the late ‘70s or early 80s, the first tide came in…then went back out. I read about it in a Phoenix New Times historical piece, sometime in the 1990s. I went to one Old Timer’s party, that was “far out” somewhere in south Gilbert, on an orange orchard with the San Tan mountains as a backdrop. There I met some of the players from the first round. This is the story of the second tide; its rise and fall.

My own induction began with a rude awakening at 2 a.m., in the summer of 1990. My next door neighbor, who lived up the hill from us, had brought his drunken friends home after the bars closed, and began blaring music, and LOUD. It was so loud the jack-rabbits were moaning, and they are usually a pretty quiet bunch! Hindsight is 20-20, and I should have just called the cops, but most people reading this will understand my reluctance. Plus, I have a philosophy with neighbors: try talking to them first.

I calculated–wrongly it turns out–that I would have to knock on their door very loudly to get their attention, and was so enraged at the noise that I knew I might bust my hand doing that. So I grabbed my five-year-old son’s plastic baseball bat, thinking that it would be a good implement to pound on the door, without hurting me or the door, and started walking up the hill to his house, about a block away.

About twenty step from the door, I suddenly heard a shout. “STOP YOU M-F A_HOLE! Take one more God-damned step and I’ll get my gun and blow your f_ brains out!”

Sometimes we can be so daft. My neighbor wasn’t in his house, blaring the music. He and his friends were standing on top of it, a Mediterranean-style flat-top, with their arms crossed, watching me approach, and I didn’t even look up until he yelled at me. That’s why the music was so ridiculously loud. Most of the sound was going towards my house, not up on the roof, where he wanted to hear it. In order to make it drunk-loud on the rooftop, he had to turn up the volume all the way and open the door and windows, which faced my house. Ever wonder what the maximum volume on your home stereo is for? It’s for when you’re standing on the roof, skunk drunk, but the speakers are inside the house.

My neighbor will probably die believing I approached the house with a real baseball bat, intending to do some damage, because I never spoke to him again after that. I stopped, took two steps back, then yelled at him in like manner to turn the music down, and waited while he slowly made his way down off the roof, went inside, and turned it down.

While standing there, I did some what-if thinking. The situation had not gotten out of hand, but it could have. About once a week, there is a little two-paragraph article in the newspaper about somebody killed in a fight, sometime between closing time and sunrise. Alcohol is usually suspected of being a factor. Pictured my life reduced to two paragraphs on page 3 of the city section of the paper. Knew that, given the circumstances and culture, my neighbor would probably not even be charged with a crime.

Tried to imagine my family without me. The life insurance would tide things over for a little while, while Barbara got used to being a single parent and the sole breadwinner. But as I stood there in the night and tried to peer more than a few years into the future, I saw a dark cloud. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw it would not be good if I was dead.

I’d done the right thing, backing down, but it all seemed wrong. People who are high, as opposed to drunk, do not become offensive, as my neighbor had that night. Yet, in order to enjoy marijuana, I had to hovel in my home, curtains drawn, in constant fear of going to jail and having a felony conviction on my record. Society judged my neighbor, drunk and obnoxious as he was, the Good Guy; and me, the kind and considerate, Christian neighbor, the Bad Guy. It didn’t seem right. The reminder of my mortality moved me to action. I should do more with my life than reproduce; I should try to leave the world a better place for my children. I resolved to either find an organization working to legalize pot, or found one. Luckily, one had just been founded.

The first meeting I attended was the 2nd or 3rd for AZ4NORML, held at Chuck Hadd Jr‘s duplex in Tempe. The décor was of a beatnik pad from the ‘60s, complete with an uber-cool convertible in the driveway, aptly incongruous for a man who listed his occupation as poetry-editor. I was amazed at my introduction to the affair. My whole life, all I had ever heard from adults about marijuana were stupid lies told by politicians, repeated ad nausea in the newspapers and on TV. Here were real people, saying real things about marijuana, not sounding like idiots. They were being reasonable and coherent, not spouting fear and ignorance. I had never experienced adults conversing intelligently about marijuana. It was brand-new.

Eventually, the talk turned to hemp. Hemp had huge potential. It was illegal for American farmers to grow it, but it could be imported. Hemp seed had all kinds of nutritional value, and bird-owners knew that parakeets would sing more when fed hemp-seed. Migrating birds could spot a field of hemp from a mile high. Clothes could be made of hemp…and were in days-of-old. Hemp cloth back then was for poor people, cotton for the rich, but hemp outlasted cotton many times over. Paper can be made of hemp. Chuck interrupted whoever was speaking. “This is made of hemp,” he said, waving a joint at us. Everybody laughed. I knew I’d come to the right place!

Peter Wilson
Peter WilsonFounder of NORML in Arizona

Those who won’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, so they say. At this time in AZ’s long fight to end cannabis prohibition it is more important than ever to remember the struggles and strategies of the past that brought us to this point. AZ-NORML was founded in the early 1990s by a handful of extremely brave activists at a time when the laws in AZ were among the roughest in the nation. Before the mountains of research, before the support of a social media America, early AZ-NORML activists put it all on the line to get us where we are today. Their story needs to be remembered and the most fascinating tale of that era is the case of Peter Wilson. A man whose life was changed forever when he chose to stand up and fight for the cause. This is part one of a multi-part series.

Mikel Weisser