Great to have you here on this inaugural article for our new website, ArizonaNORML.org.
I’m Mikel Weisser, the current state director of the Arizona chapter of AZ-NORML. If this is your first visit, there’s a lot to see and learn. The site just launched for 420, April 20th, 2020, but there are already over one thousand pages of content to browse.
If you are familiar with our previous website, NORMLinArizona, you might be thinking, a lot of these articles and pictures look like the same stuff from the old site, except in a better package. That’s cuz it is.
Given the rich history of brave men and women putting their lives on the line to reform marijuana laws in AZ, we knew we could not move forward without bringing that legacy with us.
In the Beginning …
Nationally NORML has been around since 1970, when Keith Stroup, a freshly minted consumer affairs lawyer working for Ralph Nader, decided to launch a consumer protection organization for cannabis users. In his autobiography, It’s NORML to Smoke Pot, Stroup explained he had managed to avoid going to Vietnam because he was in law school and felt he needed to do something immensely important in return.
At the time cannabis, then more widely called marijuana, was illegal everywhere in America, and due to our leadership, in most of the world. That year the Nixon administration launched the bogus, “War on Drugs” campaign and designated cannabis as a Schedule One controlled substance, supposedly among the deadliest drugs on the planet. With federal prison time hanging over every cannabis consumer; consumer protection was simply matter of keeping, or getting, people out of jail.
Initially a group of lawyers and policy makers supported by donations from Playboy Magazine and members of the underground economy, the group grew to national then international stature, jump starting the cannabis reform movement of the 70s. By the end of that decade NORML had successfully changed cannabis laws in eleven states.
AZ Fights 4 NORML
Though the earliest known Arizona cannabis reform efforts date back to ASU students in 1972, Arizonans became involved with NORML in 1990 when a Tempe promoter named Bill Greene first organized his PHX-area friends and fellow smokers into a group that called themselves AZ4NORML. During the rough and tumble 1990s the high-profile and much prosecuted group went through several lineups, including being led by a PHX engineer, Peter Wilson, who would spend time in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tent city leading the fight that brought down the state’s marijuana tax stamp laws.
In the early 2000s the state director at the time, Jon Gettel relocated to Tucson and took the name with him. A PHX NORML chapter rose up for a time, as well as a new statewide chapter known as NORML in Arizona. Under the leadership of Kathy and Nancy Tea (now Kathy Inman and Nancy Myers), the group drove the 2010 campaign that established the AMMA, aka AZ’s MMJ program.
In 2013, Inman handed the reins over to cannabis communications guru, Daron Babin who ran the chapter until 2015. Among his many accomplishments during his tenure, Babin took the group’s stone-age website and revamped it into the NORMLinArizona.org website, which we just now left.
(More on that HERE)
At the height of brutally contentious 2016 legalization campaign, Babin asked a former political writer and teacher/congressional candidate turned cannabis activist to take on the challenge of trying to lead AZ’s cannabis community in the fight for legalization by backing the Prop205 legalization ballot measure.
That is me.
That year AZ was the only state of eight that failed to pass their cannabis ballot measure. The initiative lost by 2%.
Following the defeat, AZ-NORML increased our focus on reforming AZ cannabis laws by advocating at the state legislature. After years of practice and numerous defeated bills, in 2017 our group helped lead the push that put a hemp legalization bill on the governor’s desk. Though vetoed that year, AZ legalized hemp the following year. And in 2019, AZ-NORML led a fight that saw three pro-cannabis bills, including SB1494, passed and signed into law.
Now, AZ-NORML is a leader in the 2020 fight for legalization with the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign. In addition to being a principle consultant in drafting the actual initiative language (focusing on consumer rights, as always), AZ-NORML is the leader in statewide outreach for the legalization message; and I, personally, now serve on the campaign as the rural field director and consultant.
In addition, again in keeping with NORML’s original mandate of keeping, or getting, people out of jail, AZ-NORML has maintained a 24/7 Hotline for cannabis emergencies since 2015 (928-234-5633). Each year we field dozens of calls from sudden defendants caught in the criminal injustice system, from worried parents threatened by DCS “cuz somebody thought they smelled weed,” and from desperate patients hoping cannabis can help them in the fight for their lives.
AZ-NORML works closely with the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association for the protection of AZ cannabis consumers and businesses. We helped craft the defense in the 2019 Supreme Court case, Jones v State, which overturned an appeals court ruling that deemed cannabis concentrates as class four felony narcotics. Our legal counsel, Tom Dean, also wrote an amicus brief in the case, has won four state supreme court cases and is in the national NORML Legal Hall of Fame.
Keith Stroup often laments he did not expect to see NORML have a 50yr anniversary and cannabis still be illegal. I know when I first stepped out of the cannabis closet in 2010 after 35yrs of hiding (THX to Kathy Inman and NORMLinArizona, ten yrs ago today), I had no inclination that ten years later I would be celebrating 420 by typing the state NORML director’s blog. OR, that cannabis would still be illegal.
I am often asked what will AZ-NORML do once cannabis is legal. My first answer is this:
“Even if we could absolutely legalize cannabis tomorrow, it will STILL take another ten years to fix all the errors and clean up the messes eighty years of prohibition has made. AMMA passed ten years ago and we’re still correcting it. Madisen Saglibene (Nevada NORML), this year’s 2019 winner of national NORML’s Activist of the Year award won it 3yrs after her state “legalized.” We have a LONG way to go and a lot of laws to change before NORML can stop reforming.
My Second Answer is:
Hey, legalization is not won yet. If we learned any lessons from 2016, it is that the battle isn’t over till it’s won. As I write this, April 20, 2020, AZ is still more than six months away from our election. The Smart and Safe Arizona campaign had collected more than 320,000 signatures, eighty thousand more than the required number, but they have not been filed and this is the most contentious, highly fraught election America could face in a lifetime. So, don’t spark up the victory dube just yet.
We still have a lot of work to do. Glad you’re here to help. Hopefully you will follow the action as we continue to fight forward. Even better, hopefully someday you will lead it. Welcome to Arizona NORML.
Happy 420 (4/20/20)
Mikel Weisser, State Director