It’s the first day of spring. I’m looking down from a hilltop, over a valley bordered by the base of the Appalachians. Bare-limbed trees reach skyward on a cloudless day and the temperature is rising toward sixty degrees. I’ve got a fresh bowl of some homegrown, a glass of orange juice, and everything is all right.
I’m here preparing for the second annual Southern Cannabis Reform Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Heading up the effort is Sharon Ravert, the head of Peachtree NORML. I first met Sharon when I was working for NORML, coordinating local chapters. In just three years, she and her intrepid band of volunteers, including Kelley Hammock and Dean Sines, have taken marijuana reform to new heights in the South.
Yesterday, Kelley, Dean, and I put on our “politics uniforms” (suit and tie) and made our way to the gold-domed state capitol building in Atlanta. Dean’s more at home in a biker’s cut, t-shirt, and blue jeans, but with his long hair tied back and a “Registered Lobbyist” tag pinned to his sport coat lapel, he’s greeted by name by the various guards and receptionists we pass. Silver-haired Kelley engages in polite conversation with some capitol guests who wouldn’t know this marijuana legalizer from an AARP lobbyist. We were there to meet up with Sharon and her guest, Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, a cannabis therapeutics expert who was teaming up with Sharon to meet with a state senator.
The meeting with the senator that was scheduled for five minutes turned into forty-five as Dean, Kelley, and I waited patiently. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come and everything,” says Dean, “when three years ago they were laughing at us on the steps and now they’re passing bills and everything.” Dean says “and everything” like some rappers say “y’know w’m’sayin’?” He’s one of those guys with enough energy for two people and he fills me in on the various senators who are passing through the office, and teases me about missing a chance at photographing the governor, Nathan Deal, as he passed by us outside.
Sharon and Dr. Uma finally return from their meeting with nothing but positive reviews. Georgia’s legislature passed a CBD-only bill for medical marijuana, she tells me, but almost everyone in the legislature, including this senator, knows it just isn’t going to work. “They’re expecting these parents to fly to Colorado,” Sharon complains, “set up a residence, get a medical marijuana card, get some CBD oil, break Colorado law leaving the state with it, break federal law trafficking it, and then Georgia won’t bust them? These people could break all those laws now if they all wanted to be lawbreakers! What’s breaking one more little Georgia law?”
But it’s not just CBD-only or medical marijuana being bandied about the halls of the statehouse. “Privately these guys will tell you they’re on board for decriminalization,” Sharon confides, “but they worry about their constituents, being the buckle of the Bible Belt and all. I keep telling them they have no idea what their constituents really think because it being illegal means you can’t really talk about it. The parents I know don’t want their kids’ lives ruined over some little pot bust.”
Sharon’s passionate about the cause. She was living simply as a small business owner, a Republican mom who enjoyed the occasional toke, but was by no means a pot-leaf brandishing legalizer. Then her home was raided eight years ago by sheriff’s deputies in SWAT-style gear who pulled her teen daughter out of bed with an automatic rifle to her head. Their efforts turned up less than a gram of weed and a dusty old indoor tomato grow light that hadn’t been used in years, but was enough to trigger a felony cultivation charge. After blowing through their daughter’s college fund hiring lawyers to keep her out of prison, Sharon then went after the sheriff who approved that raid. Through face-to-face politicking with other local business owners, she helped get the sheriff’s opponent elected by a two-to-one margin. “Now that man can’t even get a job at the Wal-Mart in this county,” Sharon offers with a note of satisfaction.
We’re back in the car driving through the Atlanta traffic and halfway to Sharon’s home when she gets word of a meet and greet being held in the city with Peach Pundit, a leading conservative politics blog. She turns us around and we head back to Atlanta. We end up in conversation with some leading conservatives, who seem to be in agreement about the need for not just decriminalization, but taxation and regulation of marijuana. When one mentioned he’d heard Colorado hadn’t raised as much tax revenue as predicted, I explained how retailers were limiting purchases to just an eighth of an ounce and had they not been so limited, Colorado would have easily doubled the tax projections. The take-away from our meeting with these conservatives was that emphasizing the economic benefits of legalization was the winning argument in their districts.
We slip away from the event and drive back again toward Sharon’s northern Georgia home an hour’s drive away. This day, she will have been up since 8am and she will be getting home around 11pm. This is one of the days she actually drives home, rather than crashing in the guest bedroom of Dean and Kelley’s Atlanta-area home so she can lobby a legislator the next morning. Georgia’s short legislative session is over today and now she’s turned her attention to the Southern Cannabis Reform Conference this Saturday in Atlanta. I’ll be presenting there as will be Major Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML.
Did I mention she does this as a volunteer? There is no salary, there is no grant from some billionaire, there are no political science gurus steering the course. This is just one Southern Republican mom who saw her daughter’s life threatened by the state over weed and she’s not going to stop until no mom ever has to go through that trauma. That honesty and perseverance has inspired a whole team of volunteers and now, just three years into activism, the Georgia Legislature is about ready to seriously discuss decriminalization in the next session. And if some deep pockets felt like shaking up the South, they couldn't put their money in better hands.