Rarely have the words “responsible” and “pot smoker” been strung together in 80 years of cannabis prohibition. According to the largest nationwide group for marijuana reform, NORML, this lexical pairing is instrumental in improving drug policy. We met with representatives Keith Stroup and Kevin Oliver to learn more about what it means to treat "abuse" and "responsible use" as separate entities.
By Bailey Rahn and Adrienne Hurst
If you had caught a glimpse of the lounge at Seattle’s Edgewater Hotel, you’d have thought a corporate meeting was underway. Well-dressed women and men conversed passionately over legal pads and plates of mussels. Aside from the pot leaf pin on Kevin Oliver’s lapel, few indicators clued passersby into the true purpose of this gathering: to make marijuana as normal a commodity as a glass of wine.
“Our goal is to advocate for the reform of marijuana laws in a responsible, adult fashion,” said Oliver, who serves as Executive Director at Washington NORML — a state branch for one of the leading forces in marijuana law reform.
Fittingly, the room full of NORML affiliates looked like the big kids’ table of a heavily stereotyped demographic: no slack-jawed teenagers or tye-dyed shirts to be seen. They were professional activists and volunteers preparing for August's Hempfest, among them “retired accountants, retired counselors with Master’s degrees,” and “some very responsible adults,” Oliver said.
And that is precisely the image they strive to promote. With one side of the debate vilifying the stereotype of the dead-end pot smoker and another celebrating it, NORML draws attention to a quieter, more principled middle ground.
“An awful lot of Americans think they don’t know any marijuana smokers, but we are average people,” said Keith Stroup, a public-interest attorney and longtime cannabis user who founded NORML in 1970. “When I go home in the evening, I roll a joint, pour a glass of wine, and watch the news. My goal is not to be out of it — I’ve got work to do. I’ve got a real life.”
“There’s a difference between a casual marijuana smoker and a guy who gets stoned all day, every day,” Stroup said. “That’s why we have our principles of responsible adult cannabis use.”
“We’re not, most of us, Cheech and Chong. We have real lives and families." -Keith Stroup
Recent reform campaigns have compared marijuana to alcohol, pointing to the ways in which alcohol is a more harmful substance. Adult citizens are trusted to partake responsibly while cannabis remains in league with heroin and methamphetamine, according to the federal government. The juvenile image of a pot smoker remains iconic in our society, but NORML seeks to unravel this stereotype and expose the many well-established, real people underneath.
“We’re not, most of us, Cheech and Chong,” Stroup said. “We have real lives and families. We are responsible people, and yes, we smoke — but we don’t smoke in front of the kids, and we don’t get stoned and drive.”
NORML sets themselves apart from other reform groups through a specifically defined code of conduct they call Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use. These guidelines are meant to demonstrate that there is a responsible way to enjoy marijuana, and that not all use equates to abuse. The chapters of the statement include:
Through this practical approach to prohibition, NORML has successfully spearheaded reforms across the country. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the federal government, cannabis remains a dangerous substance with no medical value.
A staggering number of people cycle through rehabilitation programs each year for cannabis abuse, even as terms like “gateway drug” slowly dissociate from medical conversation. Whether a patient’s treatment is voluntary or court mandated, America has a pot problem — but NORML suggests that the problem may lie in our society’s inability to recognize abuse in its true form.
“The government has done this for 75 years with pot: they equate all use with abuse,” Stroup said. “We all know that just because you go home and have a glass of wine in the evening doesn’t mean you are an alcohol abuser. There’s a difference. There is with marijuana, too.”
NORML doesn’t deny the fact that, like all substances, marijuana carries the potential for abuse. There’s little doubt that cannabis is misplaced as a Schedule I substance, and there is also little doubt that some people's use of the drug interferes with their personal and professional lives.
“Marijuana can cause harm, but it’s causing harm to people who are failing and refusing to exercise that sort of minimum level of discipline that I think is required in a free society,” Stroup said. “You can’t have freedom unless you exercise some control.”
“Marijuana can cause harm, but it’s causing harm to people who are failing and refusing to exercise that sort of minimum level of discipline." -Keith Stroup
Younger generations, with their seemingly instinctive tendencies toward excess, are perhaps the greatest red flags associated with marijuana use today. Terms like “control,” “responsibility,” and “adult use” are seldom heard in an educational setting; instead, young people are taught to avoid the drug indefinitely. This hard-handed approach can lead to irresponsible use.
“Young people in this culture, their goal is to be as stoned as possible, as much as possible,” Stroup said. “In the real world, you can’t ‘wake and bake.’ At least not in my world — and I work at NORML!”
Stroup and Oliver challenge us to consider: what message does a restrictive marijuana policy send to our youth, particularly in light of America's drinking culture? Can cannabis be enjoyed safely, and if so, how should we define and encourage those practices?
Attempting to propagate a culture of responsibility may help bring about effective law reform, but more importantly, it could set a more positive example for younger generations. Mandatory treatment and jail sentences may pull the tops off weeds, but approaching weed responsibly will require digging to its roots.
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