The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Unifies American Activists in 150+ Local Chapters

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The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Unifies American Activists in 150+ Local Chapters

Hayley Matthews Hayley Matthews • 6/20/17

The Short Version: In 1937, US federal law made the possession and transfer of marijuana illegal throughout the US, effectively creating an underground and unregulated market where pot smokers are vulnerable to price gouging and criminal charges. NORML takes issue with the government’s decision to outlaw marijuana and advocates for the controlled substance’s decriminalization in jurisdictions across the nation. Since 1970, the nonprofit has established a growing network of supporters, volunteers, and policymakers working to effect change on a local, state, and federal level. By raising awareness about the benefits of marijuana, NORML seeks to influence American public opinion on the issue, create political pressure toward legalization, and make recreational and medical marijuana accessible to all. If you feel passionate about this issue and want to meet people who share your interests, you can go to the website’s Action Center to find out how you can get involved in the campaign and start making change in your community.

Stereotypes would have us believe that smoking pot is the habit of a small subset of underachievers. Actually, marijuana has been used by almost 100 million Americans, making it the third most popular recreational drug in the US, behind alcohol and tobacco. Some would say marijuana isn’t as harmful as these other two controlled substances because you can’t overdose from it (like alcohol) and it isn’t physically addictive (like tobacco). Yet, the government has deemed marijuana illegal while alcohol and tobacco are available in any corner drugstore.

Soon that may change. From coast to coast, a growing majority of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana. In 2016, a Gallup poll found support had grown to a record high at 60% — and local and state laws are starting to reflect this new trend in public opinion.

Graphic of a Gallup public opinion poll results for legalizing marijuana

Gallup polls show a dramatic increase in support for the legalization of marijuana since 1969.

Since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, many states have introduced voter initiatives to decriminalize medical or recreational marijuana. Today, some form of weed legalization has been adopted in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Washington DC, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.

If you feel strongly about the legalization of marijuana, you can join NORML, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to reform unfair marijuana laws — starting with legalization. According to Paul Armentano, NORML’s Deputy Director, “Our mission is to move public opinion, and eventually public policy, so the responsible use of marijuana by an adult is no longer a criminal or civil offense.”

During meetings, events, and campaigns, hundreds of neighborhood leaders and volunteers come together to uphold fairer and healthier drug policies in the US. You can meet local advocates and build strong relationships with like-minded people in more than 150 NORML chapters across the country. Those who work with NORML share a vision of a future where marijuana is legal, safe, and accessible to responsible adults.

Screenshot of NORML's homepage

NORML organizes grassroots efforts to reform marijuana laws throughout the US.

“Ultimately, we would like to see a regulated commercial market with regard to the production and retail distribution of marijuana,” Paul told us. “We believe an above-ground regulated market is preferable to an underground black market.”

“For far too long marijuana consumers have been forced to live a life of secrecy to avoid discrimination and harassment from their neighbors, potential employers, and law enforcement,” said Kevin Mahmalji, Outreach Director for NORML. “Every year billions of dollars are spent on the unjust arrest and incarceration of thousands of Americans. That’s why I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with NORML to advance the rights of marijuana consumers.”

Founded in 1970 to Reform Arbitrary Criminalization Laws

In 1970, Keith Stroup, a public interest lawyer who’d worked for Ralph Nader, saw a need for change in the legal system and decided to work toward the decriminalization of marijuana from the ground up. He founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to engage in public advocacy for the legalization of marijuana. His intent to effect change took hold and grew into a network of enthusiastic advocates in all 50 states. Today, Keith serves on the board of directors, offering legal counsel while new leaders direct the course of the political and legal battle.

Photo of Paul Armantano, Deputy Director for NORML

Deputy Director Paul Armentano has been with NORML for over 20 years.

From a background in political science, Paul became an expert in marijuana laws, health, and pharmacology. He has shared his insights on the subject at numerous speaking events and in more than 1,000 publications.

“I came to this issue out of the belief that adults in a free society ought to have autonomy with regard to the substances they put in their body,” he explained. “I don’t think it is appropriate for the government to draw an arbitrary line on consuming certain substances.” Paul argued that with responsible usage and regulation, marijuana poses no more of a threat than alcohol. Both alcohol and marijuana can alter a person’s moods and enhance their consciousness, and yet only one of these controlled substances is legal throughout the US.

“I think nowhere is that arbitrary distinction more egregious than in the case of marijuana,” Paul said, “which is a substance that’s objectively safer than alcohol or tobacco and arguably could replace a number of conventional prescription medicines as well.”

NORML’s hard-working advocates raise awareness about these issues by educating legislators, voters, and the media about marijuana legalization. Many team members, like Paul, joined the cause out of a passion for social justice and individual liberty. They tend to be politically active individuals with a background in public policy or advocacy work.

“That’s generally the world that attracts a lot of the employees we have,” Paul told us. “People who work at NORML tend to come out of the culture of political activism more so than the stereotypical marijuana or cannabis culture.”

Meet Advocates & Volunteers at Conferences, Seminars & Benefits

NORML organizes frequent events to raise awareness about the legalization of marijuana. The organization’s official conferences are known as hotspots for policymakers and neighborhood leaders. Since 1972, these conferences have brought together like-minded friends, family, and colleagues intent on ending the marijuana prohibition in the US.

Featuring top performers, like Bob Marley and Willie Nelson, NORML Benefit Concerts provide a fun atmosphere to take a date and help raise money for a good cause. Or, if you’re looking for a more serious-minded event, NORML’s legal seminars attract a friendly group of lawyers and advocates who find solidarity in their shared values.

Photo of a NORML Conference in Richmond, Virginia

In 2015, passionate advocates networked at the Virginia Cannabis Conference organized by NORML.

NORML’s work goes beyond annual or seasonal events. It’s everyday people on the ground, collecting petitions and circulating information, who have the power to truly change people’s minds and impact legislation. On a local level, NORML-affiliated groups hold meetings, host events, lobby local and state leaders, and engage in media outreach to push for marijuana decriminalization through grassroots efforts.

“As we continue to make progress on this issue, and the subject of marijuana becomes more popular, it’s imperative that we have a solid framework in place,” said Kevin. “From developing helpful talking points and strategic messaging, to working with NORML chapters to organize state-level lobby days and voter registration drives, my primary focus is to empower grassroots activists.”

You can sign up as a volunteer here or find a local NORML chapter to get involved in the cause in your area. Frequent meetings unite people who share similar beliefs and want to work together toward a common goal.

“We are largely reliant on the good work of volunteers,” Paul told us. “In many ways those are the grassroots lifeblood of the organization.”

“I’m no longer in it just for me but also for all of the grateful people crying out for relief and thanking me just for speaking up on their behalf.” — Bennett Sondeno, Treasurer, Wyoming NORML

Recently, NORML’s chapter in Kansas City, Missouri, took action to lessen the penalties for people arrested for possession of marijuana. Instead of $500 or 180 days in jail, these activists put forth an initiative lowering the fine to $25 and eliminating jail time altogether. The City Council rejected the measure, so the activists gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot and let the voters decide.

The Kansas City Question 5 called for reducing the maximum fine for marijuana possession to $25 (from $500) and eliminating jail time as a sentence (instead of a maximum of 180 days). The Vote Yes on 5 campaign gained traction as NORML advocates made their case to voters and rebuffed opponents.

In April 2017, Missouri’s special election results showed an overwhelming desire among voters to change the way law enforcement handles marijuana. Over 70% of voters voted in favor of reducing fines and eliminating jail time in marijuana possession cases tried by the Kansas City Municipal Court.

“That’s an example of the grassroots efforts our chapters engage in,” Paul said. “Their efforts not only bring the group together and foster community, but ultimately result in changing public policy and changing the culture within that local area”

Unrelenting Nonprofit Work on the Local, State & Federal Levels

NORML’s work doesn’t end after legalization. After a jurisdiction legalizes marijuana, the organization’s experts endeavor to explain the new laws, ease the transitional period, and ensure fair taxation rates keep the price of marijuana down. The site expertly breaks down information by state, so you can find out what the laws are, what legislators think about the issue, and contact your representatives to voice your opinion.

“We advocate in states or jurisdictions where marijuana remains criminalized but equally important is our work in jurisdictions where the legal status of marijuana has recently changed,” Paul noted. “Our advocates make sure those new laws and regulations are implemented in a manner that closely reflects the intent of the voters.”

Photo of the NORML logo

In jurisdictions where marijuana has been legalized, NORML helps iron out any ensuing conflicts.

Once marijuana is legalized, some questions may arise like: Is it fair to fire an employee for smoking marijuana off-the-job? Or should a parent lose custody of a child because legally purchased marijuana is found in the home? NORML answers both those questions with a solid “No” and speaks out on behalf of responsible adults who lawfully choose to use marijuana.

Currently, NORML has turned its attention to policy shifts at the federal level to crack down on the criminal use of marijuana, which could have damaging ramifications on the lives of millions of Americans. Paul explained, “Our efforts are focused on making sure the federal government doesn’t roll back any of the progress we’ve made at the state level.”

NORML: Raising Awareness About Responsible Cannabis Use

In recent years, American opinion has evolved on the issue of marijuana, which has put pressure on lawmakers to enact new policies. Change may be slow, but it’s happening in conferences, neighborhoods, and one-on-one interactions taking place across the nation. Since 1970, NORML has been on the front lines of this fight, pushing to remove the stigma surrounding marijuana by providing facts about its medical properties and other benefits.

“We advocate for a change in state and federal marijuana laws,” Paul explained, “by engaging in public education and outreach efforts. Where marijuana remains criminalized, we engage in legislative advocacy to change those laws.”

From lobbying on the hill to collecting signatures door-to-door, NORML’s nonprofit work influences political and legal figures to promote fairer policies with regard to marijuana. By joining the cause, you can make a difference while in the company of a positive, industrious, and passionate group of volunteers and advocates.

“I have the pleasure of working with some of the most remarkable people in North Carolina,” said Sonja Sutton, the Secretary of NORML’s North Carolina chapter. “I have lobbied at the state capitol, held fundraisers, and, just this past April, I spoke with the Speaker of the House, Tim Moore. My life depends on this; I will forever be an activist.”