Marijuana Lobby Grows in Sophistication

Pot. Cannabis. Hemp. Weed. Grass.

The herb takes many names. But in the nation’s capital, where the marijuana lobby (search) was once the recreational diversion of Playboy Magazine's Hugh Hefner, pro-pot special interest groups have crystallized the divergent issues behind the plant and gained a seemingly unified voice.

Part of the newfound credibility comes from the tack pro-marijuana groups have taken. Medical marijuana has become a signpost for groups seeking to decriminalize or legalize pot, and they have a growing pool of scientific studies to back them up. Some studies show the drug is useful in easing chronic pain and glaucoma, reducing nausea from chemotherapy treatments and helping AIDS patients gain weight.

"It’s a no-brainer. It makes no sense putting old and sick folks in jail for an herb that makes them feel better," said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project (search), which was established in 1995 by Rob Kampia, a former mainstay at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the first pro-pot lobby in Washington, D.C.

The Project has received big support from billionaire Peter Lewis (search). With the cashflow, the group's message has gained traction. A December 2003 Gallup Poll showed nearly 75 percent of older Americans polled said they believed doctors should be able to prescribe pot to patients. Eleven states have passed medical marijuana laws since 1996, and last fall the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether state medical marijuana laws increases illegal use by others.

MPP isn't the only group out there pushing for reforms. The Drug Policy Alliance — also funded by a billionaire, liberal philanthropist George Soros (search) — pursues a wider public health-based approach to drugs, including supporting treatment over incarceration for all drug offenses.

The three groups don't always agree on how best to pursue their agendas, but seem willing to put aside their differences, for the most part, for the greater good.

"I think it's a healthy sign that in drug policy forum that there are different groups coming in with different backgrounds and point of view," said Mirken.

Of course, the groups aren't beloved by some in Washington, who call the efforts by these groups to pass medical marijuana laws a "Trojan horse" designed to exploit Americans' compassion in order to pursue relaxed laws for all drugs, not just pot.

"The fact they’ve been touting medical marijuana initiatives shows what a failure they have had in the legalization movement," said Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of Drug Control Policy (search).

Riley said the pro-marijuana forces fail because Americans just don't agree with their agenda. The failure of decriminalization referenda in Arizona, Nevada and, most recently, Alaska, prove that most Americans don’t support relaxing the rules on pot.

"The reason why they are still in business is they have these eccentric billionaires funding them," he said. "Or else they would dry up and float away."

The Drug Policy Alliance counters that 46 states passed drug policy reform legislation between 1996 and 2002. MPP adds to that the argument that 17 of 20 marijuana initiatives passed on the ballots in November, including Montana's measure to permit patients to use, possess and grow their own medical marijuana without fear of arrest or jail. MPP spent $2.5 million to support the initiatives in the eight states where local and statewide votes were held.

Long History of Pot as Pet Cause

None of the successes of these two groups would likely have occurred without the seeds being planted by Keith Stroup (search), the virtual Sisyphus of the pot world. Running NORML for the last 34 years, Stroup pushed the pot issue up the fickle hill of political success, sometimes losing more ground than he gained.

Stroup, who retired at the end of 2004, helped co-found NORML in 1970 with seed money from Hefner. He said his goal was to infuse "new ideas, new energy, new perspective" into Washington's no-budge politicians and break down the cultural bias that prevents public sympathy from becoming public mandate.

"The challenge we face, and I would have to say is the most frustrating failure, is we were never able to take that public support we know we enjoy and turn it into public policy," Stroup, 61, said, referring to the effort to legalize pot for adult consumption.

"This issue carries with it so much baggage and it would be foolish for us not to recognize that," he said.

Without the billionaire backing and hefty private grants, NORML (search) survives on a $750,000 annual budget and a staff of five. It has not been able to bankroll or sponsor state campaigns for medical marijuana laws and decriminalization efforts, and survives primarily on charitable donations. To keep the dream alive, Stroup said he recognized the need for fresh blood.

"I think we need a younger person running this organization," said Stroup, who handed the reins to Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s chief policy director. Stroup will continue to work part-time and sit on the board of directors.

Despite the grassroots approach, observers say NORML is a staple in the orbit of drug policy reformers and not likely to go anywhere soon. Furthermore, it's message has remained the same over the last three decades — NORML wants to make pot legal and available, much the same way alcohol is currently regulated.

Sympathizers also note that as the only consumer-based group, NORML is the go-to organization for marijuana smokers, making it clear the issue is a citizens' rights one.

"They continue to play an important role in this struggle. NORML remains relevant — and if they are able to raise additional funds they will be even more relevant," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director and founder of the Drug Policy Alliance

St. Pierre said that despite its limited budget, NORML has a full plate and plans to keep very busy. It is focused on a decriminalization movement in Texas and fights brewing against mandatory random drug testing for middle school students and roadside pot tests for motorists.

Admittedly, though, St. Pierre, who like Stroup describes himself as more libertarian conservative than liberal Democrat, says the fight on the national level will be tough. An aggressive anti-drug stance has come from Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration, which has often stepped in to criticize state efforts.

"The last four years have been decidedly harder than the previous four years — we haven’t even been able to get a hearing (in Congress)," said St. Pierre.

"This is now a civil rights movement in the United States. And the only way we can change it is through those who are aggrieved by the law."