Joint Effort: Nation's Leading Pro-Marijuana Group Is Too White to Succeed

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Apr. 20, 2011

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It’s a Thursday night in early April, and two dozen or so people are huddled around a table inside West Philly’s anarchist community center A-Space talking about weed. It’s the bi-monthly open meeting of the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—the leading brand in the legalization movement—and the only thing hanging in the air is the smell of serious business.

Medical marijuana dominates the first half of the conversation as bearded, ponytailed PhillyNORML Executive Director Rob Dougherty, shaggy haired Secretary Derek Rosenzweig, and neatly dressed Communications Director Chris Goldstein (who looks more like a lawyer, or maybe a detective, than your average weed activist) apprise attendees of the status and minutiae of medical marijuana bills on the table in Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country.

It’s not the most enthralling discussion, but it’s a necessary one. NORML has long considered the widespread acceptance of medical marijuana the clearest path to its ultimate goal—across-the-board legalization of marijuana—so getting a medical marijuana law passed in Pennsylvania is a priority for the PhillyNORML crew.

Finally, a bit of levity: “Smoke-out at the Liberty Bell,” Goldstein half-jokes, as the conversation switches over to 4/20—National Pot Smoking Day. “There are some local glass blowers who’ll give us [pipes] to raffle off [at 4/20 events]—you know, they’re for tobacco only,” Goldstein deadpans.

Not a single speck of weed has been lit over the course of the 90-minute meeting. Disappointing, maybe. But not as disappointing as the fact that there was nary a mention of one of the most persuasive arguments out there—one recently adopted by NORML—for the end of marijuana prohibition: That legalization can and should be looked at as a civil rights issue.

A spate of recent studies—including the 2010 report Targeting Blacks for Marijuana, prepared by New York-based Marijuana Arrest Research Project—confirm that around the country, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately arrested for pot possession compared with whites, even though whites use marijuana at a higher rate.

A recent PW story explored the 4-to-1 racial disparity in pot arrests in Philadelphia: Of the 4,904 adults picked up for marijuana possession in 2010, only 813 were white and nearly all the rest were black. The story also explored the potentially devastating consequences of just one minor weed charge on communities of color: No loans, no public assistance, no public housing, no jobs.

Legalization, some in the article argued, is the only way to eradicate this tool of racial discrimination. And much like the medical marijuana argument has gained ground by appealing to people’s sense of compassion toward the sick and terminally ill, a legalization strategy framed within the context of civil rights could possibly convert the anti-legalization crowd by appealing to their sense of social justice. That any perceived harm from marijuana use is far outweighed by the potential long-lasting harm that comes from possession arrests. Public opinion shifts, elected officials take notice, pro-legalization bills are more easily passed, and everyone is free to spark up in peace.

On paper, it actually seems feasible. But there’s a big problem: PhillyNORML is too white.

There are hardly any minority voices within the organization that can help make such a case. All of its leaders are white. Most of its members and regular volunteers are white. At tonight’s A-Space meeting, only two black people dropped by; for one, it was her first NORML meeting.

Unfortunately, that’s the norm for NORML. “We’ll have a few African-Americans come to our meetings and events from time to time, but then we never hear from them again,” says PhillyNORML secretary Derek Rosenzweig.

And it’s not just the Philadelphia chapter.

Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, estimates that only about 10 percent of NORML’s roughly 15,000 dues-paying members are nonwhite. “I’d be shocked if it was any more than that,” he says over the phone from the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. St. Pierre says that every one of NORML’s seven-person staff is white, and adds that the same goes for the leadership at most of NORML’s 150-plus chapters around the country. He recalls one NORML conference in the ’90s that drew about 500 people, “but I counted no more than five black people there.” Things haven’t gotten a whole lot better since then, he notes. “It’s a big problem.” 

Image is everything, and the absence of minorities within the organization has created the perception that PhillyNORML is primarily working to ensure that the white pot smokers of the world can get high without worry. Oftentimes, it appears that NORML isn’t keen on straying from its comfort zone, where its traditional base of young white college kids hang—local events and outreach usually go down in University City, Fishtown, Old City, Rittenhouse Square (at PW ’s annual Concerts in the Park, for example), and even Warminster, where they’re holding a bowling fundraiser on Saturday. But seldom do they happen in predominantly black locales like North Philly (except for at Temple) or Southwest Philly.

PhillyNORML events often feature musical acts, but typically they’re jam bands or psychedelic rock bands. Less often do they feature hip-hop, R&B or other genres that draw people of color. Reps from the local chapter insist they’ve tried to set up hip-hop shows, but have often run into unforeseen logistical problems—shows “fall through,” or they find that venues around town charge double or triple for insurance premiums if a hip-hop act is on the bill.

Whatever the reason, PhillyNORML hasn’t been able to capture the people most affected by the war on weed.

At its inception in 1970, NORML’s membership was predominantly white because at the time it was much easier for whites to publicly advocate marijuana legalization without repercussions than minorities. Since then, St. Pierre admits, outreach has taken a backseat to NORML’s consuming lobbying efforts, such as the medical marijuana fight, which has swallowed up most of the group’s limited resources (including their annual budget of less than $1 million) over the past 20 years.

St. Pierre says the organization focused on medical marijuana because “that’s what we had to do.” His analogy is “Churchill in World War II saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll go fight Rommel in the desert,’ and they said, ‘Why? You don’t have to.’ And Churchill said, ‘Because we need to win somewhere. We’re losing everywhere.’ Medical marijuana has been the means to establish a toehold to turn prohibition around.”

PhillyNORML likewise cites a lack of money and manpower. “There’s a lot of ground to cover out here,” says Goldstein. “It’s a big city. We do the best we can. As a nonprofit volunteer organization with less than $10,000 a year, we can only do as much as our resources allow.”

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Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 10:50AM

“I want to thank you for this article. I have been part of NORML for two years, and this is something that concerns me, the lack of minorities. The marijuana prohibitionists seem to have a wealth of minorities, and their movement seems quite diverse.
From what I can tell over the past two years, minorities definitely are far more likely to take the rap for the drug war than whites. It is amazing it is a 4 to 1 ratio, and I think this shows that marijuana prohibition was produced in the first place to affect minorities the most. One statistic is that there are more young black males in prisons in the US than all the slaves during any time when slavery was part of this country.
I do not know what to make of this. Do we try to reach out to people in North Philly?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 12:02PM

“When it comes to reaching out to people of color, specifically black people. NORML has two problems. First, they don't understand urban culture. But secondly and most importantly. When it comes to Cannabis, black people in general are ignorant. Urban culture glorifies gang/crime/baller lifestyles, weed is an integral part of that and as such is generally portrayed negatively in the black community. This negativity, along with ignorance about Cannabis in general keeps people that don't know and feel as if they are unaffected by prohibition from caring. All they know is it's illegal, thus it's bad. It it that type of ignorance you must deal with to reach the black community. And it's sad. Because the people that should care the most, are the ones allowing gangs to run the streets and cause chaos. Until you get the black community to educate themselves, you're fucked on the legalization front. At least if you expect support from the community as a whole. And yes, I'm black.”

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3. H. Scarborough said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 02:52PM

“I'm African American and I don't like the idea of catering to any specific community or race. I think this issue should be used to attract people in the business world. It was easier to legalize alcohol because their was a plan in place to sell it. Right now all weed is sold on street corners and alleys regardless of what nationality is buying it. If we sell weed in CVS whose is paying for security, distribution and taxes? People are begging to legalize weed, with no plan as to how and where it is to be sold.”

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4. defected.saint said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 03:47PM

“That's incorrect. In Washington state, there is a very smart and sensible plan being trying to be placed in action. They are trying to legalize marijuana and sell it through ABC stores. This has I think this should be done nationally. But at the same time you should still be allowed to grow your own. People do have plans and ideas though.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 05:47PM

“Oh ok,
So once again its a race issue. Why are more blacks arrested for pot? Why are more blacks in prison? Oh whoa is me, it must be a rascist thing. Why aren't more blacks in NORML? Maybe they just don't care and are too busy getting high and gang banging. But the title of your article stating that NORML is too white is offensive to me!!”

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6. JC said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 09:26AM

“Why don't they start a prison outreach system and work on getting blacks that are already in jail for minor marijuana offences to spread the word to their families and community? I mean, they're already in jail, so it's not like they fear having marijuana permanently attached to their record like other who have not been arrested and jailed. Plus prisoners can sometimes have more focus and drive as a result of the sheer boredom of being locked up.”

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7. decendantofaslave said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 04:33PM

“they stay away from normal meeting because everyone knows the feds are n the room, already sterotyped, dont need more s---- from the feds, look at it this way, danny castro just got off, would u trust this guy in your group no, hes a real cop , hell set u up, we must prepare for the fight, anyone that has been perfect , never done any wrong in life, i cant trust that type of person”

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8. Anonymous said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 07:11PM

“See I never knew of NORML, and that what's up that people are trying to legalize pot, which is definitely good. But the whole stoner/pothead/weed enthusiast is in fact almost white. And that's because white people do share more liberties when it comes to public demos. Blacks, or in my world hispanics, see weed strictly as money and good bud. No spiritual attachment. Organizations like NORML won't get people form the hood w/o some kind of gimmick. But I would love to join. And btw where's the latino voice in this? Weed still has to come form south of the border if it ain't in a grow room”

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9. Jim Russo said... on Apr 22, 2011 at 07:10AM

“Wow, is this the logical extension of our obsession with "diversity" and multiculturism"? Does one's race, class, gender, sexual orientation necessarily preclude one to have certain views on an issue? Perhaps social and political issues are shaped by things more complex.
Perhaps minority communities are dealing with far more pressing matters than toking with impunity...
Perhaps ALL people in these times are far more concerned with jobs, crime, taxes, education, etc...
Perhaps demographically challenged NORML could do better to make inroads with ALL manner of people...I'm "white" and I sure as hell don't see a lot of people "like me" blowing smoke over legalization...”

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10. said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 02:18AM

“I've heard it over n over again. I'd prob have a degree by now. Jury nullivication. Let ppl no their rights. Luv.”

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11. Zardoz said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 08:26AM

“I wasn't aware of the racial disparity in NORML and it should be corrected. We need to make a lot of headway in both the African American and Latino communities, because polls show that a majority of both groups still favors the anti-cannabis laws. Of course, this will take some time to correct, but we should start doing this now.

My hat is off to Mr. Forchion.”

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12. NJWeedman said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 04:34PM

I want to make this clear. I had nothing bad to say about phillynorml, i did say norml national was clueless and uninterested in issues in the "minority community".

I been aware of norml's unflattering thoughts about me since the 90's but Allan St. Peirre has changed his tune to i see.

Here is a quote of his from 2002 about me -- "NORML's St. Pierre implicitly acknowledged that Forchion's tactics left him largely isolated from more mainstream drug reformers and that Forchion didn't have much nice to say about such groups, but then added that Forchion was a true fighter for the cause. "If we had a thousand Ed Forchions, the law would have been changed long ago," said St. Pierre. " -- google it,

( )


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13. Anonymous said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 07:42AM

“So, now the focus is on "racism", rather than the true issue at hand. This should not turn into a black/white/brown issue but a GREEN issue. I do think its a cultural thing rather than a "white" thing when it comes to NORML. Anonymous #8 post said it best, so read that also. Unfortunately, I think NJWeedman draws alot of negative attention because of how is doing and saying what he is trying to convey. I do feel that people have the right to say n think the way the want, no matter how ridiculous or ignorant we may think it may seem. Anyway, enough time wasted!! We need Strong Minded, Intelligent, Highly Motivated men and women in order for us to get the laws changed. We need to be taken seriously and treated with respect and not like lazy, unmotivated "potheads" just trying to get high legally. I am a collage graduate with 2 very successful sons, afflicted with an illness not a "pothead" asking can u pass me the blunt.”

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14. njweedman said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:02PM

“ANONYMOUS SAID ---->“So, now the focus is on "racism"

No the focus isnt on racism (it should), this is just one article of many on marijuana this week but as usual this individual doesnt want to talk about the RACISM ASPECT of the drug war. This is the exact reason the all white norml national bunch has never looked favorably towards me.

Im know the drug war is racist, as do the thousands of brown faces in prison. Norml national doesnt know our plight, dont share our concerns and just isnt on ourside. ive been speaking out against the racist war on drugs for years, norml national has called me negative and a bunch of other things over the years because they cant walk in our shoes, wear or afros or dreads and they dont see what im talking about. So i called negative.

“Smoke-out at the Liberty Bell,” Goldstein half-jokes,
THAT SOUNDS LIKE CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TO ME!!! I been doing that since 1998 and I was called negative for it.

FOR TOBACCO USE ONLY <---- Why LIE, stop being a panzy”

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15. Anonymous said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:14PM

“ANONYMOUS SAID -->We need Strong Minded, Intelligent, Highly Motivated men and women in order for us to get the laws changed. We need to be taken seriously and treated with respect and not like lazy, unmotivated "potheads" just trying to get high legally. I am a collage graduate with 2 very successful sons, afflicted with an illness not a "pothead" asking can u pass me the blunt.”

Im strong minded ( thats why i do what i want regardless),Intelligent ( my i.q is 115-118),highly motivated ( always been motivated 2 do something about shit that bothered me) and while I consider it a compliment to be called a POTHEAD (dont call me a christian) and i dont smoke (tobacco) blunts. BUT IM BLACK so that rules me out with you and the norml national bunch.

Through out my ordeals and trials ive been self employeed, owning serveral businesss. I own 3 now! I even have 10 employees now. If i wasnt black and didnt talk about the racist aspect of the war on drugs i could be a poster child for norml.”

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16. ReedinPA said... on Apr 29, 2011 at 01:22AM

“Oh there's a big problem alright! The author is apparently not colorblind like we NORML people are. We welcome anyone, and we come from diverse micro-cultures, regardless of our so-called skin color. I'm even offended to be called "White"; a racial slur of sorts, in this context for sure.
Appreciative of our diverse heritage, each of us at the meetings has had specific experiences in our lives, even with law enforcement, that have led us to be here fighting for the cause to end Marijuana Prohibition. We are veterans of this effort, some of us for many years. To say that we're "too white" is really a failure on the author's part to recognize what each of us, individually, brings to the table. There is no ethnic filter at the door with slots for a certain number of this kind or that kind; that would be absurd. we are colorblind; it's about the green kind. It's about the reality of each of us being persecuted and maligned for our association with the herb we know to be good. (see next)”

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17. ReedinPA said... on Apr 29, 2011 at 01:24AM

“And now we are doing something about it, professionally, with some success. Shame on you for taking a dump on our efforts with your divisive high-contrast spectacles. Your citation of Chris Goldstein's efforts facilitating the SAM program should make it perfectly clear that we are advocates for everyone, including those *group-labeled* statistically most affected by prohibition.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Apr 30, 2011 at 09:38PM

“Look, the truth is, all PhillyNORML members are volunteers. None get paid for what they do. They only have a certain amount of personal time to put towards this effort, and most of that time goes towards education, fundraising, event planning, and working towards getting legislation passed. They don't have an office, so their bi-monthly meetings provide a place for interested parties to attend, get to know the group, and get more involved. Maybe this will spur them to hold meetings in North Philly, or reach out somehow to minority groups, but as Anonymous #2 and #8 said, it's really not that simple.”

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19. Neal Smith said... on May 9, 2011 at 06:16PM

“I am Chairman of Indiana NORML. We would love for more Black and Latinos to stand with us, and we have done everything we can think of to increase minority membership. We have worked minority neighborhoods, We have had a presence at Black Expo, and hope to be there this year. No one from the minority community is coming forward.

We stand for freedom for all people. If minorities want their own organization, we're happy to help them in any way we can. These laws are obviously racist, and have to be changed. We will continue to work and welcome any serious efforts by any minority anywhere at any time to join with us, affiliate with us or ally with us. I know of no member or director of any NORML chapter in the nation who would not extend the hand of friendship and brotherhood. We're all in this together.”


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