Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My First Marijuana Conference -- Working Toward Change

This past week, I stepped just about as far out of my comfort zone as I could imagine when I resolved to go to a Marijuana Conference. As if anybody who has been around me for fifteen minutes doesn’t know how I feel about the War on Drugs. 

I had always figured that when I got older, to the age nobody cared maybe, self-sufficient or working for myself so I could write what I felt and still have a job, one of the issues I was going to tackle was going to be the War on Drugs. Events of the past year really brought it home to me though, that I might not have the luxury of waiting for my dotage to speak out on this or anything else for that matter. If we live to see it, old age is a gift, not a guarantee. Somehow, I didn’t feel like I was as old or as stable as I wanted to be before I started on this mission. Sometimes that’s all you got though and as I checked the map one more time, I wondered whom I would call to bail me out if I was arrested. What was I doing? What was I walking into?

My excuses were gone and sometimes in life, you have to suck it up and do what you knew all along you had to do. It has definitely been a topic of long interest and an area of increasing activism. And when I found out there was an actual group who was going to be nearby, and they were putting on a conference, and I could afford the admission, I didn’t have an excuse not to go. And sometimes in life, it is just plain time. Could be way past time.

The North Alabama Marijuana Conference congregation.
The North Alabama Marijuana Conference and Fundraiser was presented by the Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition. Truth be known, there was a lot of tie-dye and little green leaf motifs and a few suits as well. But there was none of that funny smoke. It didn’t escape my notice that we sat on the pews of a church whose name I never knew. The purpose of the conference was to raise awareness, education, support and funds to help in the battle to legalize the medical use of marijuana in the state of Alabama. As you might guess, the place wasn’t packed, but it was a good crowd and they were all there for the same reason.

For all the smoke jokes and toke giggles, the issue is dead serious. The discussion went from the real impact of the manic obsessions of the most disgraced president our country has ever known, to the war he started, the War on Drugs, to the fact that we have more people behind bars than any country on this planet and what they are in there for. There was also discussion as to whether a doctor can even talk to terminally ill patients about certain options to relieve their suffering, or even cure an illness considered incurable, about affordable treatments, without the side effects associated with so much of modern medicine.

Despite its reputation as a recreational drug, until 1942, marijuana was part of the pharmacopeia in the US and used primarily for medicinal purposes. There was no significant recreational use of marijuana until after it was made illegal. In the scheme of history, all this is relatively new. Until the conference, I did not realize the degree of that change nor was I close to realizing the degree of its impact and implications. 

In the following, I have summarized some of the highlights and major points of the various speakers at the North Alabama Marijuana Conference and Fundraiser, in Huntsville, Alabama on May 18, 2013. At the end, I have included links to the various organizations and resources.

Chris Butts, President and Executive Director of AAM JC
Chris Butts on Legislation

The North Alabama Marijuana conference and Fundraiser was presented by the Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition (AAM JC). The purpose of the group is to build support for legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes in the state of Alabama. Chris Butts, of Cullman, is President and Executive Director. He came to this cause through a pain pill addiction that he was determined to kick. Personally, he doesn’t care if marijuana is ever made legal, but he does want to see a bill that will protect the doctors who talk about marijuana with their patients. He wants to see marijuana decriminalized for medical purposes. Until 1942, marijuana was part of the US pharmacopeia. At the time, it was a medication of choice and preferred because opium based drugs were literally killing people. He pointed out that some supporters of this bill have never actually used marijuana. The focus of Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition and his efforts are on medical marijuana legislative reform. The purpose of the group is to protect the patients in the state of Alabama.

As far as the War on Drugs, although the messages and purposes are different between groups, Butts calls for unity and an end to in-fighting. His intent is to keep the conversation on the legalization of marijuana going. He says that the biggest thing we can do as individuals is talk to the people in our groups and circles about the issue. We also need to sign those petitions that go to the legislators. When they go around, sign them, and when another one comes around worded a little different, sign it, too. The same goes with the letters and the phone calls. They all help. A display of unity and numbers will help to get the message out there.

We would not have the problem we have today if marijuana had been left alone as a medicine. It has never been what we were told it was. Obviously, our drug policies in this country need to be changed.

James Bell of Georgia CARE
James Bell, The Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform & Education (Georgia CARE)

In 1982, James Bell was arrested for drugs. He lost his job, he lost his truck, he did some time and he did some thinking. Since he got out of prison, he has worked for a number of causes. He knows the real cost of these laws. It costs people their jobs and limits their opportunities, takes away their license to drive, and marks them as dysfunctional members of society. He admits this is an unpopular movement, and it is difficult to stand up for it. There is no doubt, for all kinds of reasons, people are afraid to stand up and speak out on this issue. 

There are different levels of activism though and different things that need to be done to make changes in these laws. We need the neck-ties and the tie-dyes both. There are street activists and there are Internet activists. Staffing a booth at a flea market can help get the message out. But stopping by that booth and donating a few dollars, whatever you can afford can also help. Getting on social media, such as Facebook, and posting to build awareness of what is going on is another way to help stimulate action on the issue. 

There are medical marijuana issues, and there are decriminalization issues, we want it all, but realistically, we have to read the signs carefully and work together toward legalization. The states tend to look to the other states nearby to see what people are doing. Will it be Georgia or will it be Alabama that goes first on this one?

Dean Sines of Peachtree NORML
Dean Sines -- Peachtree NORML

Dean Sines looks exactly as you would expect a marijuana activist to look. With long hair and hippie garb sporting tie-dye and green leaf marijuana motifs, he is a walking conversation piece, and he deliberately dresses that way to educate and inform the public on cannabis. As he puts it, My job is to stand up for all the people who can’t because of work, family or whatever reason. Sines is a long time gay rights activist, but he became involved in the cannabis issue after cancer made him a medical cannabis patient. He is now on the Board of Directors for Peachtree NORML. He saw the need for securing safe cannabis access for other patients. As he puts it, his job is to get out there and be a voice for people who can’t. 

Because of their jobs, many people can’t speak up about the marijuana issue. Even in places where it is legal, people can be terminated for failing a piss test. Now you have to take a blood test to be eligible for a Pell grant. Sines pointed out that even if you are not in a position where you can speak out at all or in any way, you can make a donation to help further the cause. Many of the donations are understandably anonymous but every little bit helps to get the job done. 

Right now, as taxpayers, we spend approximately $40,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated. We spend approximately $6,800 per student on education. This is wrong on many levels.
Once a person is convicted of a drug offense, they can’t get grants or student loans. These kids are condemned before they have a chance. Prohibition hasn’t worked. The War on Drugs is a war on humanity and families. People lose their children for using drugs, but problem drinkers do not. 

As are many people in this country, Sines said that he is tired of seeing friends and loved ones incarcerated. These politicians are public servants, as citizens, we are their boss and we want an answer on this. 

Ten people who lift their voice on an issue can make more noise than 10,000 who are silent. At least you can make people think. The numbers keep rising, at this point, 58.1% of the American people feel that marijuana should be legalized.

Polly Elliott with her son Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott -- The Little Black Book of Marijuana

Steve Elliott is author of The Little Black Book of Marijuana. He too has been personally affected by the drug laws and is now a long-standing activist for education and legalization of marijuana. Originally from Franklin County, Alabama, he now lives and works on the West Coast. Specializing in drug policy reform, medical marijuana and marijuana legislation, his related experience is too long to begin to cover in this post. He spoke from personal experience about the impact of the laws on individual lives and on what needs to be done. 

The Alabama state motto is, We dare defend our rights. This law is wrong, sometimes things are so bad, you can’t be silent anymore. He predicts medical marijuana will pass in 2014 in Florida and that will be the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the South. When one takes the lead, other states will soon follow. When enough people come together, change will be inevitable. Today, many people who are supporting the legalization of medical marijuana are actually fighting for their lives. It’s hard to beat someone who has nothing to lose. 

Hemp has been cultivated for at least 12,000 years. It has been used to make rope, sails and paper. As a food product, its oil is one of the most nutritious found in nature. It is also one of the 50 fundamental herbs found in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Hemp was brought over on the Mayflower and cultivated from the very beginning of the founding colonies. It was so important to their survival that in 1629, the colonists were required, by law, to cultivate it. As in, you were arrested if you did not grow hemp. There were obviously some profound changes along the way. 

Harry J. Anslinger deserves a lot of the credit for the push to make the use of marijuana a criminal act in the US. Anslinger spent much of his career working in various capacities in the Bureau of Prohibition and the US Treasury Departments Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). When alcohol prohibition ended, he turned his attention to marijuana and launched a very successful campaign against it.

Although that was a big step in the wrong direction for marijuana, it was Richard Nixon who officially launched the War on Drugs. During his presidency, Nixon was extremely unhappy with the very vocal hippie types who were protesting the war in Viet Nam. He formed and tasked the Shafer Commission with doing a study on marijuana, which he intended to use as validation on the evils of marijuana and thus prosecute, arrest, and variously get those left wing hippies, who were still loudly protesting his policies and who he was pretty sure were smoking marijuana, out of the way. The Shafer Commission took their task seriously, and this study was and is still the most comprehensive study on marijuana to date. Their findings were basically that any potential laws against marijuana would be more criminal and do more harm than marijuana ever would. This was not what Nixon wanted to hear, so he ignored their findings and declared the War on Drugs. Nixon was tired of the protests and he seriously wanted those longhaired hippies out of his own hair. Since the use of marijuana was and is still so prevalent, it was pretty much a pick and choose your target, which is exactly what he wanted. (Note: Mission accomplished for Richard Nixon.)

Despite the fact that the latest polls show that only 6% of the US population feels that marijuana should be criminalized, every year since Nixon declared the War on Drugs, the US has progressively locked up more and more people and spent more and more money on that war. These expenditures continue to rise, and they include the corrections industry as well as law enforcement. 

Big Pharma also has a vested interest in the War on Drugs, since they stand to lose major amounts of money if marijuana is legalized. Many of the drugs currently on the market are not as effective or as safe as marijuana is for their prescribed uses. 

Much of Elliott’s efforts are to educate the public on marijuana. Although prohibitionists say that marijuana causes brain damage, it not only does not cause brain damage, it protects brain cells. Among other, recent studies have found it to be effective in various cancer treatments, MS, PTSD, bladder cancer, lung cancer, Crohn’s disease, insulin dependent diabetes and many others. 

As to the War on Drugs, we can’t sit around and wait for legalization to happen. It is like a dance, Elliott concluded, when one person finally gets up to break the ice, it is a lot easier for others to get out there too, Let’s dance, Alabama.

I do believe he’s right. It’s just about time to dance.

The folks who made this conference happen.
Several local businesses contributed to making the North Alabama Marijuana Conference and Fundraiser a success. Those walls are coming down as more people come forward and support for this legislation grows. They include Still Smokin’ in Huntsville, Tye-Dyes by Jim in Huntsville, Alabama Dancing Bear in Huntsville, The Baskin Robbins store on Whitesburg Drive in Huntsville, Execuplex mini storage, and Sixth Sense in Athens, Alabama.

After the sessions were over, the crowd was treated to music by Acoustify, a folky Americana group from Cullman and Laura Lynn Hardy, a singer/songwriter from Birmingham, Alabama.

Acoustify and Laura Lynn Hardy
For more information see:

Photos courtesy of Christie Lynn Clark of the Alabama Medical Marijuana Coalition and Kelley Hammock of Peachtree NORML.


  1. Thank you for coming out Saturday. It was great meeting you! I had no idea that you would be writing a blog about it... but THANK YOU! I hope you continue to come out to our events :)

  2. Thank you so very much. I enjoyed reading your blog.I am one of those that can not get out and go to these events- I have been living with MS for 34 years. My husband has COPD and PTSD so we have a "good" time some days. We both are ardant supporters supporters of Marijuana be it medical or otherwise because we know and have experienced the benefits. We are worried about trying to obtain any because of the risk involved. We donate as we can afford, but we are both disabled and I am pretty much housebound. We both would love nothing more than to ser this ridiculous law tossed out nationwide and then maybe we could hope to be able to partake of a medicine that WILL NOT destroy our livers or any other vital organ. Thank you again.

  3. Thank you both for the nice words. This is an issue I have believed in and been actively researching the various related for a while actually. Even though I tend to share a lot on Facebook and such, and I have written about many other issues, I have seldom said a word of my own about this topic. I always figured I would do it when I got older. Older is suddenly very relative. I will do more on related when I can.