Allen St. Pierre was born in Belfast, ME to an upper-middle-class blue-collar commercial fishing family. He had an almost cinematic upbringing on scenic Cape Cod, where his family continues to own a variety of water-born businesses. To this day, he says, “my father doesn’t know where the front-door key is.”
Ironically, although he studied wildlife at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he graduated there in 1989 with a degree in legal studies. While working at a Washington, DC–based law firm, St. Pierre was asked to do some volunteer legal work for NORML; he accepted, he says, “because I was a stakeholder with marijuana use back then, as I am today.”
Following an employee purge, St. Pierre was asked if he’d accept a consolidated position at the organization – for 70 percent less than his law-firm salary. He said yes, thinking he would be there for “six or seven months, to help NORML through a rough gap.” Twenty years later, he’s now the longest-serving, continuously employed marijuana-law reformer … ever. St. Pierre claims he’s a hippie who’s forced to wear a suit and tie and is often mistaken for a lawyer: ”In fact,” he jokes, “I play one on TV.”
High Times sat down to speak with NORML’s executive director four weeks before California voters cast their ballots on a historic measure to legalize marijuana in the Golden State, on the occasion of NORML’s 40th anniversary.
Okay … if California doesn’t legalize marijuana, what happens?
If it [Proposition 19] loses by a small percentage, it will absolutely establish a baseline, politically speaking, of 50 percent. We’ve already told everybody and their brother that we are coming right back in 2012. It’s already a fait accompli. California will continue to be in the vanguard of legalization – not only for the country, but also for the world.
So is the War on Marijuana winding down?
Well, it’s funny: You’ve got troops in the field, and they’re out there fighting and dying at just a horrific pace, but the generals back in Washington are talking peace.
Clearly, one can see that decrim and medical marijuana are the bridges to legalization; that is all absolutely underway and really can’t be contested. However, at the same time, one would not be wrong to whistle by the graveyard and admit that the data still points to massive arrests, massive incarceration, massive drug testing, massive forfeiture of people’s homes and properties, record amounts of children being taken away from their parents, people being denied organ transplants if they’re medical consumers …. All of those terrible ills of a 74-year War on Marijuana – marijuana prohibition – are still terribly present.
Is marijuana still the third rail of American politicians: Touch it and you die?
It’s definitely no longer the third rail, there’s no doubt about that. In the 1980s, there was a period I call the “marijuana mea culpa,” after Judge [Douglas H.] Ginsburg was denied his ability to get to the Supreme Court because he admitted to having smoked marijuana. And you had many senators and congressmen who wanted to run for president – the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Gores, even Sam Nunn; I mean, God, I could go back—
Newt Gingrich! All these folks immediately came out and tried to vet the fact that they had used marijuana. And then Obama pushed the level further here with “Of course I did and I used cocaine …. ”
Should marijuana stakeholders be pissed off or happy with Obama?
They should, in toto, be happy with him. He was transparent about his own use; his answers are pretty candid and culture-enhancing. The other politicians have tried to give a culturally relevant answer while still being damning of the behavior, whereas Obama turned it around and said, “No, I thought the point was to inhale.” And he notably said that to a group of students.
No president has taken an abeyance like he has from the Drug War; from Richard Nixon forward, every single president except Jimmy Carter has rung that Drug War bell very loud. Obama coming up with the Department of Justice memo basically saying that the states have autonomy is stark. But then we saw that the arrest rates haven’t really abated at all; they’ve actually picked up a bit. There are still federal raids in California – but clearly we can see a large reduction in the number of people arrested for medical marijuana during these raids. Prosecution is incredibly subjective.
Has medical marijuana been an impediment to legalization?
No, it hasn’t. It could be in time if those who profit and sell or cultivate medical cannabis put money up to oppose the legalization of marijuana. Under the guise of “medical cannabis only,” we will find that the legalization of marijuana will largely stall out for any number of reasons.
I think “medical cannabis only” is a very dangerous box canyon to pursue as a strategy. You can be a medical-marijuana consumer and still be denied your Second Amendment right to own a gun, you can be denied an organ transplant, you can be denied the custody of your child, you can be denied the ability to get on an airplane or get health benefits from the federal government, including Section 8 housing. That’s a huge tradeoff. You can walk into a place that has about 200 strains of marijuana, but if you go home and use it, you’re about half a citizen. So I would ask a medical-marijuana consumer: “Why?” In some ways, a sub rosa illegal marijuana user maintains more rights and privileges than a medical-marijuana consumer.
In the end, we want good, legal cannabis at the most affordable cost. Prohibition is an anathema to that. Medical marijuana clearly is not serving that end, and only the end of prohibition will get us to that point.
There are quite a number of marijuana and drug-law reform organizations, and the balkanization among these groups is a well-known—
Has that factionalization been an impediment to legalization?
It would be better if they worked together in a greater degree of concert. Another component of this – a vexing thing about this balkanized group of folks – is that they’ve been so reliant on such a small, almost incestuous pool of donors. The reliance on such narrow funding conduits has made it much harder than not to get all the groups to work together in a cohesive way.
Where does NORML get its funding?
About 95 percent of NORML’s budget comes from people who donate, on average, $53 per year. People project onto NORML that we must be supported by celebrities, that people like Willie, Woody and Bill Maher write us massive checks. Almost none of our money comes from that.
Among the national organizations, NORML has the greatest brand recognition but traditionally has had the smallest budget. Those with larger budgets would say that NORML is doing something wrong there.
In this regard, NORML is: It made a mistake in hiring me as its director – I’m not a fundraiser. I will do it, of course, because you cannot run a nonprofit organization that is in the public interest unless you ask people for money. But when I was offered the job, I told the board that I hoped that, “during my tenure as director, you never measure me against how much money NORML has raised juxtaposed necessarily against other organizations, if we’re still doing all of our mission-stated goals of advancing the laws, educating the public, working with the media and policymakers” … and to do it with credible, verifiable information. That’s what I said before 14 of them voted to make me director and three of them voted not to. I am a policy wonk.
You became executive director of NORML in what year?
What’s the difference between NORML in the 20th century and NORML in the 21st century?
It’s got to be pre- and post-Internet. The Internet totally changed the ability of the organization to reach people, to cast a narrative. We have currently about 1.3 million people in our opt-in network – people on our Facebook page, Twitter feeds and list-serves. If we had to mail just one ounce of first-class mail tomorrow to 1.3 million people, the organization would be completely bankrupt. The ability to communicate through the Internet has changed everything.
Also, NORML has been around long enough to see the baby boomers come into institutional power. The boomers have such a different experience with marijuana than the World War II generation. For the first 17 years I worked at NORML, I spent a lot of time talking to the media about the “gateway effect” of marijuana, does it cause amotivational syndrome, does it effect your sexual reproduction …. Today, we answer almost no questions like that anymore. The questions we’re getting are much more fundamental ones like: Where will marijuana be sold? Who will sell it? What will the taxation rates be?
That was an institutional answer. How is NORML different in the 21st century under Allen St. Pierre?
Oh, personally? If I had to put this on a chart, it’s very simple: The more responsibility and work one shoulders at NORML, the more there is a clear one-to-one reduction in how fun the job is.
I suspect the personal toll has increased with the responsibility. Is it difficult to juggle your personal life with your professional life?
[The question prompts a long pause as Alan decides how to answer it. Finally, he does so haltingly.] Yeah, it’s really hard … and something that I never really publicly talk about …. However, that is the opportunity of this occasion, the opportunity of our friendship, so ….
I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never pissed in a bottle … I’ve never been ill affected by marijuana prohibition per se …. And I’m not a complainer – I feel blessed to have been able to work at NORML in any capacity. But having said that … the amount of personal sacrifice, at this juncture in my life, is becoming … less tenable, mainly because I have other people in my life – most notably, my partner Sara. On the occasion that I spend time with my larger family, principally on Cape Cod, it’s so … self-evident … how aberrational my life is …. When I’m not really exposed to my family, I can probably better ignore all these conventionalities [smiles weakly] – but that’s not an argument to stay away from my family.
So, it is acute in my mind today, this very day, that I, uh … that I don’t have a child … and that’s of my wont …. While not married to, I have otherwise found myself divorced from … some amazing women … who could not, and should not have had to, put up with as much selfishness on my part – in essence, showing total devotion to NORML and to marijuana-law reform. And so, at this time in my life, there is a greater impetus to try and strike some sort of balance between ma familia and this social cause.
Describe the workload.
It’s just strange beyond belief – you work pretty much 70 to 80 hours a week no matter what you think or do. You take little to no personal holiday time. People question not only your sanity, but rightly question what kind of health pattern one is enduring. I mean, it’s not just me: There are a lot of people around me who could use some more average living conditions – but we all chose to do this. It’s impossible to find any mode of me to complain about it, even though there’s a natural propensity to stop and throw your arms up and say, “Holy moly! This is crushing!”
There really is a terrific overkill of how much stuff comes in – and again, going back to our bittersweet friend, the Internet, you can be besieged by five to seven hundred communications a day from third parties about what’s going on in the world of marijuana. I myself get, every single day, seven to nine hundred emails from people who actually want me to reply to that email – and who rightly deserve a reply.
You don't have somebody to take care of that?
Actually, I do – my assistant, Sabrina Kendrick – but I still have 800 to 900 emails a day! We have 155 chapters, 600 lawyers, 16 board members, and we work in a coalition of 35 other drug-law reform organizations. I do 2,000 to 3,000 media interviews every single year.
Is it worth it?
Well, it’s worth it in the sense – and I have to answer this now on an almost monthly basis to my better half and my family members, for sure … but I can point to something that even they recognize as incremental improvement. They acknowledge, when I ask them to think about our conversations 10 or 15 years ago – they acknowledge that some remarkable progress has been made. It’s been an amazing trip, and I have a hard time wondering what I’ll be doing post-NORML.
Is there life after NORML?
Many people in drug-policy reform are being headhunted by the medical-cannabis community. They can pay wages, offer a lot less stress – and you can access hash anytime you like. At some point, there might be one of those proverbial offers one cannot refuse. I certainly have been offered a doubling and tripling of my salary to leave the organization and jump with both feet into a big, large, moneymaking medical-cannabis endeavor. Who knows where that chapter is going – but my inclination is, I’m just too much of a policy wonk. There are other things in my life that I really care about that have nothing to do with marijuana-law reform. Those are the things that tell me there’s life after NORML, sure. I am the eighth director of NORML; there will be a ninth director – and she’ll be great.