Marijuana’s Top Lobbyist Told Us Why There Will Be Several Viable Legalization Bills Next Year In Congress
Allen St. Pierre is the Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the main marijuana use advocacy group in the United States.
NORML is the lobbyist, Political Action Committee, and electoral powerhouse behind medical marijuana laws, decriminalization laws, and now legalization.
Needless to say, he’s ecstatic about the results.
“A major corner has been turned in American politics,” St. Pierre told Business Insider. “Without being too hyperbolic, for all intents and purposes cannabis prohibition likely began its end last Tuesday night.”
He’s got a lot of reasons to be confident. Voters in Washington and Colorado voted at around 54% to completely legalize the cultivation, sale, regulation and consumption of marijuana. This is a first not just in the U.S., but in the world.
While the Netherlands are known for their tolerance of marijuana, it’s not actually legal to consume it. Colorado and Washington have sincerely changed the game.
The votes are also relatively conclusive. “These folks are not aberrational. They don’t speak to a level of liberalness or progressively in these states,” St. Pierre said.
That seems to be true. two major groups that have evaded legalization advocates women and Latinos came out in large margins to support the measures. Republicans, while not supporting it in the majority, voted around forty percent for it. By all counts, this isn’t a one-party issue.
What happens now is the truly interesting part: What happens when something goes from the black market to legality?
“That’s the $40 billion question,” St. Pierre said, citing the high-end estimate for the current marijuana market.
Bolstering confidence is the President’s silence. That’s exactly what advocates like St. Pierre wanted to see.
“The Obama administration committed no political capital to oppose these initiative. Usually a week or two out from these initiative votes we would see the organs of the government pushing hard.”
NORML couldn’t find any evidence of Attorney General Eric Holder, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, or any other federal official publicly opposing the initiatives. “They wouldn’t even return phone calls from ABC News and others leading up to the election,” St. Pierre said, “and here we are a week later and they’re still pretty much sitting on their thumbs.”
What’s happened is a “crossing of the Rubicon” moment for marijuana reform, according to NORML. According to the 1961 Narcotic Treaty, no nation is supposed to let a constituent state legalize marijuana. Allen joked that even he, as the head of NORML, could see that clearly “the state of Colorado is in total violation of federal and international law.”
“I assume we’re probably going to take another rocket ride up to the Supreme Court again,” he said.
Now, NORML may actually have a shot in the high court. The last time they were in front of the Supreme Court in 2005, they lost their case in a 6-3 split. But what is going on outside the marble columns of the Court is even more interesting. Then, there were only around 300 marijuana dispensaries. Today, there are more than 5,000 marijuana businesses nationwide. Did they really lose?
As a result of this real-world shift, the political climate on Capitol Hill is much more willing to talk pot.
“Ten years ago, we were lepers,” said St. Pierre. “They wouldn’t even take our PAC donations. So what happened in this election? Numerous governors, congressmen, and senators called and said “Hey, I’ve changed my mind, I support these reforms, give me money.”
As lobbyists, NORML has been writing and proposing legislation for years designed to tackle the “baby steps” of marijuana legalization.
They’ve got bills that would enact degrees of decriminalization, making certain violations of the law into infractions rather than misdemeanors with jail time. They’ve got medical marijuana bills, bills for industrial hemp, and sentencing reform.
When they recently began getting phone calls from congressmen looking to enact marijuana reform, they rolled out the usual script.
“When we sat down with these representatives, we began with our usual playbook,” St. Pierre said. “They said “We don’t care about decrim anymore. We want a tax and regulate bill from you folks.” And that’s where we find ourselves now, up to our ears with the staff and the parliamentarians writing at breakneck speed, because we’ve got folks competing on the Hill now against each other as to who is going to write the biggest, best, most popular marijuana bill.”
Allen said with near certainty that yes, there will be a marijuana legalization bill with actual support this year.
In fact, he said, there will be multiple bills, from different parts of the country, all trying to beat each other. “This past week,” St. Pierre said, “the didactic, the polemic, and the strategies have all changed.”
The question then becomes: What the heck is President Obama going to do about this?
St. Pierre is confident. He said that as a Senator Obama gave one of the most compelling, lucid arguments for marijuana decriminalization out there. “This is the first President of the United States who has a genuine history of using and enjoying marijuana,” St. Pierre said. “He knows the right end of a joint.”
Even more, it’s only a matter of time before industry gets involved. The most applicable business model is the tobacco companies’, and St. Pierre has reached out to the major firms already.
“They’ve been either growing or purchasing in massive quantities vegetable material, properly curing it, packaging it in usable form, and then working closely with all level of government while delivering massive taxes.”
He sent two memos the morning after election day One to the President, the other to the heads of the major tobacco companies. The message was simple: “Isn’t it time that we meet?”
Now, after 22 years at NORML and 15 at the helm, St. Pierre is seeing returns on all the work. What once was dismissed as a quixotic political strategy is in vogue. He’s got the attention of Governors, the ear of congressmen, and the strength of the people. This is the hard part, but the pitch remains the same.
It is an absurdity, he says, that people are paying hundreds of dollars for dried vegetable matter. The even bigger absurdity, in his eyes, is that the Government is getting nothing out of the deal. In a post-November 2012 America, that’s on the track to change.