Some state is going to eventually become the first one to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana without first legalizing medical use. If Randy Quast and Minnesota NORML have their way, it will be Minnesota.
I just returned from frigid St. Paul where I participated last Thursday in a Minnesota NORML fundraising educational event with NORML’s founder, Keith Stroup, and the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Neill Franklin. (Interesting trivia: None of us goes by our first names -- John, Russell, and Stanford.) The museum is hosting Daniel Okrent’s exhibit “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and Minnesota NORML took the opportunity to present us to speak on the modern day prohibition of cannabis.
Randy Quast, Minnesota NORML’s executive director and now a member of the National NORML Board of Directors, began the evening by retelling the story of how he got involved in activism. He was just an entrepreneur, building his family’s regional trucking company into a multi-million dollar success. One day, a burglar strikes his home and is scared off by a neighbor while attempting to haul Randy’s safe up a steep backyard hill. Randy calls the police who are more interested in what was so important in the safe than who tried to rob him. One drug dog later, Randy’s looking at felony time for the three ounces of weed in his safe.
So, like many people whose bust galvanizes them to activism, Randy decided to start pouring money into ending marijuana prohibition. (Full disclosure: Randy’s been a prime supporter of my activism efforts with 420RADIO.) Certainly the caliber of the event proved that, with catered hors d' oeuvres and a jazz trio playing for 200 guests in one of the swankiest event spaces in which I’ve spoken.
Randy introduced Keith Stroup, who was agog at the quality of the event, telling me later that it was one of the best in his 40 years of marijuana activism. Keith told his story and explained how important the work of Minnesota NORML is and how lucky they are to have someone like Randy funding their efforts. “If we had a Randy Quast in every state,” Keith told the crowd, “marijuana would have been legal nationwide years ago.”
Neill Franklin from LEAP spoke next, telling the crowd his story of his 30 years in Baltimore narcotics enforcement and how he lost his partner and friend, Ed Totely, when a cocaine dealer decided shooting and robbing Ed was how their last deal would go down. Neill spoke on the futility of policing people for drug use and the radical transformation that has had on the job of law enforcement. He told how the drug war is funding many police budgets through asset forfeiture and leading to an “us vs. them” mentality among police. “For police officers,” Neill explained, “they get the accolades, they get the awards, and it becomes part of their identity. Now all of a sudden that identity is being threatened. You might as well tell them ‘You have to change their name -- first, middle, and last name.’”
Next it was my turn. Since everyone was revealing their activism origin story, I told mine. I once had a career in information technology, doing jobs by contract to avoid drug testing. When a two-year contract ended at one corporation, they offered to hire me on permanently, contingent on passing a hair follicle drug test. I’d been shaving my head due to baldness, so the drug test consisted of taking off my shirt and having a woman shave off my chest and armpit hair to collect in a plastic baggie. When I failed the test and felt the humiliation and anger at being denied the position I had worked hard for because I smoke a joint after work instead of pounding beers like my co-workers, I swore I’d put all my corporate training to work ending the discrimination against hard working marijuana consumers like me.
The Prohibition exhibit was outstanding. Over 100 artifacts from the temperance movement of the late 1800s to the early 20th century and prohibition itself from 1920-1933 illustrated in great detail how we’d become a nation of drunken men in saloons, how women started a social movement to ban drinking, how their emerging right to vote and the institution of income taxes set the stage for the 18th Amendment, and how 13 years of abject failure led to another women’s movement calling for the 21st Amendment’s repeal of prohibition.
Yet as I explained, alcohol prohibition doesn’t fully compare to marijuana prohibition. First, during prohibition, you could own a bottle of liquor and drink it -- possession wasn’t illegal, just manufacture, trafficking, and sales. During Prohibition, you could get a prescription for medical liquor in any state -- in fact, one of the pharmacists who held one of the few federal licenses to write liquor prescriptions turned it into a profitable company called Walgreens. During Prohibition, you could get an exemption to use alcohol for religious purposes -- something today’s Rastafarians and Coptic Christians don’t enjoy. During Prohibition, you could buy a brick of concentrated grape (there was one in the exhibit) that bore the instructions, “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for 20 days, because then it would turn into wine.”
Friday night, Randy provided dinner for the Minnesota NORML board to meet with Neill, Keith, and I. During dinner we discussed how Neill and I would be in town Saturday until late afternoon and it was a shame we couldn’t organize an event for earlier in the day. Before we could finish dessert Randy had sent out an email to 3,500 members of Minnesota NORML inviting them for an early afternoon event at their new headquarters in Minneapolis. We were skeptical about how many would show on such late notice, but by Saturday at noon we had three dozen braving -2F weather to meet with us. I did my presentation on the new “third way” drug war framing of Kevin Sabet and Patrick Kennedy. Neill gave a short talk and took some audience questions. Then I closed the day with a round of our 420RADIO Drug Test Game Show featuring two teams of Minnesota NORML members competing in marijuana reform trivia.
Minnesota’s still a tough place to legalize. Activists have tried getting a strictly regulated medical marijuana bill through the legislature to no avail. But with Minnesota NORML raising enough money to hire two full-time staff members to augment their already stellar volunteer efforts, it won’t be long before Minnesota legislators see the success of legalization in Colorado and Washington, maybe also Alaska and Oregon, and decide that their state can go straight to legalization.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."