On Nov. 15, Erik Altieri became the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law Reform’s ninth Executive Director since its founding in 1970, following my departure after 11 years in that position. An executive director’s experience at a non-profit public advocacy organization like NORML can be both intellectual heaven and emotional hell. Today, tremendous opportunities exist to help enact good public policy for cannabis consumers and businesses—amid painful reminders of the wretched failures of nearly 80 years of pot prohibition, still fueled by the nearly 2,000 cannabis-re-lated arrests made daily by law enforcement in the United States. At the cross-roads between ongoing cannabis prohibition by the federal government and the vast majority of states, and legal states that have recently abandoned failed prohibition policies, the need for a public advocacy group like NORML has never been greater. Freedom Leaf conducted this interview with Altieri shortly after he took over the helm of NORML.
Where are you from, and where did you go to college?
I was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, and spent the later part of my childhood in South Jersey. I became deeply involved with politics at a young age, mostly based on anti-war activism as our nation entered Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Once bitten by the activism bug, I moved to the nation’s capital and attended American University, where I studied philosophy and theology.
How did you become a marijuana activist?
I came to marijuana activism, as I believe many of us have, through first being a consumer. Marijuana became a part of my everyday life during my college years; I found it a great way to unwind at the end of a long, stressful day without compromising myself for the next day’s work and classes. I also, naturally, found it to be a great boon to my creativity when writing philosophical essays for my major. So I think my initial activism was spurred by my irritation at the hypocrisy of our drug laws; it never seemed right that the rest of society could legally and in the open consume as much alcohol as they deemed appropriate, but if I chose to spend an evening at home smoking a joint and playing video games while disturbing no one, I could risk having my door kicked in by an overly militarized police force.
As I began to look into the history and current dynamics surrounding our nation’s marijuana laws, I came to realize that the problem was far more pervasive and pernicious than I initially comprehended. From fueling our schools-to-prison pipeline, to being used as a tool to oppress already vulnerable communities, to denying suffering patients access to an effective treatment, to blocking the cultivation of a plant with as many uses as industrial hemp, to the racially disparate arrests being made in the name of the war on marijuana consumers—the tentacles of prohibition reach into nearly every facet of our society with devastating results. The fact that we were still pursuing these policies, despite their failure over the better part of seven decades, was to me a form of madness. The anger this spurred drove me to become a marijuana activist—something that would come to define my life for the next decade.
When did you start working at NORML and how did that come about?
While I was personally interested and passionate about drug policy reform, I didn’t become formally involved with the movement in any official capacity until 2007, when I was hired to be an intern at NORML. The year before, a friend of mine, Joe Forte, attended a marijuana march in Philadelphia [hosted by Philly NORML], and returned incredibly excited and motivated about what he saw. He told me about this organization that was working to legalize marijuana nationwide, and the large number of members and activists that were working alongside them and taking the fight to the streets in all 50 states. I previously had been relatively unfamiliar with NORML, and was inspired to read more about the organization and learn about its past and cur-rent efforts. When it came time to find a place to work in Washington, D.C., I quickly realized that an organization such as NORML would surely have an office in the nation’s capital, so I looked them up and applied for an internship. That began my often wild, weird and incredible journey through the marijuana legalization movement. The devastating consequences facing our nation due to marijuana prohibition, mass incarceration, racial justice issues and the overall War on Drugs motivated me to get involved and dig deeper into these areas.
At that point, what were your responsibilities with NORML?
After starting as an intern, I quickly assumed the position of Communications Director. I ran NORML’s federal and state lobbying efforts and legislative out-reach, administered NORML’s social media networks and served as a spokes-man to the press. I also became the manager of NORML PAC, and worked to elect marijuana reform-friendly candidates at all levels of government, and helped our candidates properly message and advocate for our cause. My initial tenure at NORML ran from 2007 through early 2015.
From the anti-drug policies of the G.W. Bush administration to the more liberal approach to drug policy of Barack Obama, the country went through major changes during your first stint at NORML.
It’s fascinating to look back now, given how much progress has been accomplished in even just the past four years. When I first started working at NORML, George W. Bush was still president, and the thought that we’d have eight states with fully legalized marijuana in less than a decade seemed like a far-off dream. The best we could really do at that point was fight for incremental state law changes, namely decriminalization and some restrictive medical marijuana programs, while doing our best to help the victims of prohibition with support and legal advice, and keeping as many people out of jail as possible.
What hastened the move toward state legalization policies?
I recall a lot of it beginning with Michael Phelps. When the Olympic swimmer was photographed consuming marijuana at a party in 2008, it became front-page news across the country and, as odd as it seems, really started the conversation about marijuana and legalization for a lot of folks who weren’t paying attention to the issue. With Barack Obama running for the presidency in 2008, and winning while declaring the War on Drugs a failure, the future started to look brighter. Empowered by the changing winds, activists placed Proposition 19 on the ballot in California during the 2010 election cycle. While Prop 19 was ultimately defeated by a few percentage points, it let the genie out of the bottle and showed the country how close we were to actually passing legalization at the state level. We learned our lessons from that campaign, and came back in 2012 to win our first legalization victories in Colorado and Washington. There was no turning back from there.
Why did you leave NORML in 2015?
Aside from working a bit in web development prior to joining the organization, NORML had been most of my professional life. I suppose that after nearly eight years working for one organization on one issue, I got a bit of wanderlust and wanted to try my hand in some other political arenas. I went to help revitalize and run a few non-profits like the Mayday PAC, which are mostly focused on combating the corroding influence of big money on our political process. As they say, there’s no place like home, and given the opportunity to return to NORML as Executive Director, after a two-year sabbatical, was something I couldn’t pass up.
Now that you’re back, what are your priorities?
My initial priorities for NORML are modernization and mobilization. Better systems can improve not just our ability to engage in grassroots fundraising—the lifeblood of the organization—but also our ability to more effectively mobilize our supporters and turn their activism into true political power. Many of NORML’s internal systems need to be brought up to date to ensure that our chapters and volunteers are being supported in their work in the best way possible. We also need to redouble our efforts and organization around grass-roots mobilization. If there’s one thing this election cycle reaffirmed, whether you supported Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, it’s that there is true political power in the grassroots. When tapped into and deployed effectively, it’s a real force to be reckoned with.
What does NORML do best?
NORML’s competitive advantage in the universe of drug reform groups is our massive grassroots base. NORML has never been, and never will be, about me sitting at my desk in Washington. It’s about the people in small towns and cities across America—the mothers who dedicate their weekends to staffing organizing tables for their NORML chapter at local farmers’ markets; the veterans who take time out of their trying lives to persistently testify before their state legislatures and lobby their elected officials for access to marijuana to treat PTSD; the dozens of college groups organically forming on campuses from the East Coast to the West. At NORML’s core are the people who support us and volunteer their time to engage in local political advocacy. NORML is at its best when we’re helping everyday Americans take power into their own hands and change the laws in their communities. We’ll redouble our efforts in that regard in 2017, and work even harder to provide our local groups with the support and resources they need to be successful.
What should NORML be doing better?
We need to capitalize on our unique position and nationwide support base to work with our many chapters to pursue law changes at the local and state levels, while continuing a robust advocacy program at the federal level. We will likely never be funded by a single billionaire donor, and I don’t think I’d want us to be. By being funded mostly by small contributions from Americans of all stripes, we have the ability to not be beholden to the interests of any individual or corporation. Our only commitment is to marijuana consumers. Since I started at the organization, we’ve been able to increase the overall volume of our grassroots fundraising, without changing the spirit. The average contribution in the last months of 2016 was $35.
What does the future hold for NORML?
NORML is all about resources and potential. My goal is a grassroots political revolution for marijuana policy in this country. NORML is at its best when we’re supporting and amplifying the voices of average Americans who are sick and tired of the devastating impact prohibition has had on their communities, and encouraging them to stand up, fight back and do something about it. We need to support these individuals and groups with better resources and guidance when it comes to effective advocacy and lobbying. With tens of thousands of grassroots activists nationwide fighting under the NORML brand, it’s just a matter of smartly deploying resources and giving our supporters the tools and information they need to succeed. NORML also has to balance a two-front war: one taking place under prohibition, and one in post-legalization America. With 42 states yet to legalize the adult use of marijuana, we have a lot of work to do to roll back our draconian marijuana laws at the state level. We also have to ensure, in states that have already moved forward with legalization, that consumer-friendly regulations are put in place, and consumers can get high-quality products at affordable prices. That’s on top of the federal fights regarding de-scheduling, taxes and banking. Lastly, we need to continue the fight for social-use clubs. I don’t think any of us thought we’d legalize marijuana just to continue consuming it in our basements in solitude.
What is likely to happen to marijuana law reform during the Donald Trump presidency?
Trump’s election and his nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General was certainly a wake-up call for legalization supporters. If anyone was naive enough to think it would be smooth sailing from when we passed legalization in Colorado in 2012 through us legalizing all 50 states, they are surely beginning to see the folly of that assumption. Simply put, marijuana reformers need to be active and engaged, ready and organized. They need to be vocal, and fight back against any attempts to take away our hard-fought gains. In the best-case scenario, President Trump will stick to his campaign trail promises and let states set their own marijuana policies. In the worst-case scenario, his Attorney General can send a chill across the current legal marijuana industry, and work to shut down commercial enterprises in states that have approved medical marijuana or full legalization. That’s not to say that I encourage worry and panic; I do not. I encourage vigilance. When we stand together, we can weather any potential storm coming and continue to push for legalization in every state across the nation.
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