About three hundred activists — the people who likely will operate and staff the next legalization effort in California in 2016 — will gather with their allies at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center this weekend for a pivotal meeting on the future of freeing the herb. "Cannabis in California: Ending the 100-Year War," sponsored by the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, will pack eleven strategy sessions over two days with the rock stars of the reform community, including Colorado Amendment 64 campaign co-director Mason Tvert; Washington Initiative 502 director Alison Holcomb; the leaders of Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, and NORML — as well as major dispensary operators, union organizers, and pioneers in the movement. These are "people who are seriously active in legalization efforts taking place in the state," said California NORML director Dale Gieringer.
"Ending the 100-Year War" is the third gathering of its kind. The first two events occurred in Berkeley and Los Angeles after Prop 19 failed to pass in 2010. Ideas discussed at those events became part of five different 2012 initiative efforts, all of which failed to make the state ballot. A successful run in 2016 is going to take more coordination, Gieringer said.
This weekend, major reform groups will likely discuss plans to coordinate efforts on a 2016 legalization initiative. "I think the big players realize that 2016 is the realistic option," Gieringer said. Some hardline activists will press for a 2014 initiative, but they are not well positioned, Gieringer said. "It's not realistic to do in the 2014 timeframe," he said, noting that in 1996, the last time state voters approved a major cannabis initiative, activists were much further along in their planning than they are now. "At this point in the Prop 215 campaign, we had our language in hand," Gieringer explained. "We had a bill that had passed the legislature only to be vetoed by the governor."
But while a serious referendum campaign will likely skip the next election cycle, the federal medical marijuana crackdown rolls on. "Ending the 100-Year War" also will feature key figures in the ongoing crackdown in a session called "Responses to Federal Interference." Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen will speak on the "Federal Sabotage of Mendocino's Ordinance," and dispensary operator Stephen DeAngelo will provide an update on the tax and forfeiture cases proceeding against Harborside Health Center in Oakland.
US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske stated on January 8 that the country "is in the midst of a serious conversation about marijuana." And in late December, leading drug czar staffer Tommy Lanier began walking back the charge that drug cartels are growing in national forests. "It sounds sort of like they are backing off more," Gieringer said. "They've been less than aggressive."
"Ending the 100-Year War" also coincides with the beginning of the California legislative session, which will almost certainly include the reintroduction of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's medical marijuana regulation bill. "That's a big mess there that needs to be cleaned up," Gieringer said of the conflicting efforts at the state Capitol. "Everybody would like to see the situation fixed in Sacramento."
For those patients and medical cannabis supporters who are angry and frustrated about the ongoing crackdown, the NORML conference also will include a panel on reform strategies that can be implemented immediately. Southern California registered nurse and organizer Lanny Swerdlow will call for tactical civic engagement in a talk titled "Starting Brownie Mary Democratic Clubs."
It only takes twenty registered voters and about twenty hours of work to set up a weed-oriented Democratic Club, and the results can be impressive, Swerdlow said. He organized persecuted patients of the Inland Empire into the country's first-ever Brownie Mary Democratic Club, named after San Francisco weed activist Brownie Mary Rathbun — a senior citizen and hospital volunteer who delivered pot brownies to AIDS patients in the Nineties. Rathbun was arrested three times, and became a global cause célèbre for medical marijuana. In 2012, the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of Riverside got the Democratic Central Committee in that city to call on President Obama to stop the dispensary raids and respect the will of Colorado and Washington voters. The resolution spread to other central committees and moved up the Democratic Party hierarchy, he said.
Swerdlow hopes to help create more than seventy Brownie Mary Democratic Clubs — one for each Democratic Central Committee in California. "Right now most elected officials have no contact with marijuana people," he said. "When an official sees you there working, that changes their perception of just who we are. They're going to see that we are showing up to these meetings and we're active — that we are phone banking for Democrats during elections." If activists start a Democratic club, "they would be right in the grassroots where it's all being done," he added. "We don't have the money, but we have a lot of people and we have the time — that's just as important as the money."
Democratic club reps also can lay the foundation for a 2016 victory in California. "You have this insider position," Swerdlow explained. "I think ignoring the political process is something we do at our own peril. We are essentially a political joke, and we are facing some entrenched, powerful interests: alcohol companies, the pharmaceutical industry, prison corporations, cops."
With the legalization of pot now being implemented in Washington and Colorado, pot users in California must get involved this year, Swerdlow said. "We can't just sit back. We're on a roll now."
Correction: The original version of this column misspelled Mary Rathbun's last name.