First the Seed, Then the Weed

NORML is getting back to life in South Florida. Which is good news for anyone in favor of health-care reform, a dramatically improved economy, a cleaner environment, or civil rights.

"There hasn't been a chapter in South Florida this vigorous and active in almost seven years," says Norm Kent, the 42-year-old director of the Florida branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, referring to a new grassroots group of legalization proponents. "We have not less than 25 people who've already gotten 500 petitions signed. We're no longer pissing in the wind. This is a great group of young activists who are really motivated to do something about these unjust laws."

In the spacious living room of a Broward County apartment, five of Kent's Young Turks reel off the reasons pot laws (in 1992, 285,000 Americans were arrested on reefer charges) came into existence, and why they are unjust. They note that while people have used cannabis for thousands of years, it's been illegal in this nation for only five decades. They explain that the plant fell out of favor in the Thirties, when the petrochemical industry lobbied successfully against the competing resource, and that the lobby was bolstered by famed publisher William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers' inaccurate scare stories, by a pliant U.S. government, by cheesy propaganda such as the film Reefer Madness, and by blatant racism. "And our economy is dying because of this," notes one of the group's members, Melanie Cretens.

The list of reasons they cite for legalization is long and oft-repeated, but no less well thought out: It's wrong to put people in jail for possessing a harmless weed and it's also expensive; the money from taxes on legal dope would reduce the national debt; beleaguered farmers would be given a new lease on life; countless hemp products could be cheaply and efficiently manufactured in this country; trees would be spared; fuel prices would plummet; air pollution would be greatly reduced; the critically ill would be spared a measure of suffering; world hunger would be cut; drugs that actually cause pain and crime could be more adequately controlled; and it doesn't hurt you to smoke or otherwise utilize cannabis.

Along with Cretens, Jon Escott, Bubba Gooding, Brian Andrews, Nickie Marzo, Gabe Fergus, Matt Ibach, and other members of the South Florida chapter of NORML draw not only on research, but on personal experience. Four of them were recently arrested and charged with trespassing for disseminating literature at Broward Community College. (Charges against two were dropped, those against the other two are pending.) "By being a part of NORML, I've given up my right to privacy," says Escott. His colleague Cretens cuts in: "No, it's been taken away from you."

NORML was originally formed to protect young people like Escott and Cretens, especially those sentenced harshly for possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana. In 1970 several maverick lawyers teamed in Washington, D.C., and filed a lawsuit seeking to change pot's status as a Schedule I controlled substance A which meant that, legally, it had no medicinal use. That case remains unresolved to this day. "We've won every aspect of it," says Allen St. Pierre, the assistant national director of NORML. "But we've been thwarted by courtroom tactics." The organization reached its apex in 1978, when legalization almost became a reality. "We were receiving huge block grants, the support of Playboy and Rolling Stone, and a legalization endorsement from President Carter." Then things got scary. "The minute Ronald Reagan put his hand on the Bible," St. Pierre says, "a long series of attacks began. Dope was vilified. The movement wasn't galvanized in opposition to this because people were scared to death. People with mortgages, families, jobs -- a life -- didn't want their names in our database. So now in Miami you have 25 kids carrying the weight. They're the only ones who can do it."

The new members range in age from 19 to 23. About three months ago some of them were attending a Cannabis Action Network rally at the Broward County Courthouse, where they hooked up with attorney Norm Kent, who for a decade has almost single-handedly represented NORML interests in this area. They quickly organized, began collecting petitions, and set up a hotline (452-2888). Currently they are in the process of moving their headquarters from the apartment on the outskirts of Davie to an office in the Libertarian Center at 800 W. Oakland Park Blvd. in Wilton Manors, where their neighbors will include Advocates for Self Government, the Libertarian Party of Broward, and other freedom thinkers. They traveled to Sarasota on June 26 for a gathering they report as highly successful. "It was smashing," Escott says. "We sold out every T-shirt, met up with Gold Coast NORML, and not a single arrest all day." This Monday they've scheduled a "teach in" and on July 24 they hope to bring together at least 100 people willing to fire up in front of the Broward Sheriff's Office. "They'll have to arrest us all," notes Nickie Marzo.

Should that occur, they'll have a lawyer. Apart from the obvious economic, ecological, and medical benefits being denied Americans through prohibition, Norm Kent advocates legalization on a humanistic basis. "There's always a concern about possession laws," he says, "because so often we forget how many people still get arrested, how many young people have to post bail and spend nights in jail and have their cars confiscated under forfeiture laws. In 1967, when I first got involved, there were 120,000 drug arrests. Last year there were a million drug arrests, nearly a third of them for marijuana. Background data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests more than 75 million Americans have smoked pot. We've criminalized one-third to 40 percent of this nation. If [smoking dope] was a roadblock to success, [admitted one-time toker] Clarence Thomas wouldn't be on the Supreme Court."

Kent fights prosecution on all levels. "To ignore the criminal end of it is to forget the drug war's tools of illegal surveillance, invasion of privacy, forfeiture, the compromising of the Fourth Amendment. If you deny that, you're fooling yourself." Perhaps the most irksome of all the restraints on marijuana, Kent adds, is the one deployed against those who need pot for medical reasons. "With AIDS and chemotherapy patients, the problems include vomiting and weight-loss syndrome. The inhalation of marijuana restores the capacity to eat. The idea of 'the munchies' has a scientific basis in fact." Kent says he will represent any AIDS patient busted for using reefer -- pro bono.

The attorney's new army of activists -- all volunteers, all struggling just to pay rent and buy groceries -- stands right behind him, out in the open and armed with the evidence to win the war on cannabis prohibition. "I like to think we're a powerful lobby," the NORML veteran adds, preferring not to mention his 75 million fellow Americans who also could line up behind the cause of legalization. "Maybe the national organization is a little more disorganized than I'd like, but it's getting itself together. It better, because if they can't tap in to the local activist energy springing up all over the country, we'll abandon a great opportunity. I want to be known as the Johnny Appleseed of pot for spreading the word."

A nice thought, but Kent is just a bit late. "A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded." Abraham Lincoln said that.

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Greg Baker