Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election with the support of a large coalition of leftist groups from numerous movements, and this included the significantly large pro-cannabis legalization voting bloc. As a black man who openly came out as a previous marijuana user, many suspected he would take charge in ending the racist drug war that disproportionately incarcerated impoverished blacks and other minorities over white consumers. Yet, cannabis consumers ignored what many voters did as well at that time – Obama’s funding from big corporations, including one of his most largest contributors, Big Pharma. In the 2008 election cycle, Obama received $20,175,303 from the healthcare industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Thus it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Obama announced in January 2016 that marijuana reform was not on his agenda for his last remaining year in office. Obama’a refusal to even reschedule marijuana was a devastating blow to the cannabis community, but cannabis consumers in the year 2016 are no longer bowing down to those in power. On February 12, 2016, Bill Maher lit up a joint on his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” to the applause of millions of Americans.
Inspired by Maher’s action and by Obama’s words, DCMJ, the D.C. cannabis organization responsible for the passage of D.C.’s 2015 legalization bill, announced a call to action for a large Smoke-Out in front of the White House on April 2, 2016. The “Reschedule 4/20” rally garnered huge publicity from the press, due to the fact that smoking in public was not allowed and that the smoke-out was to take place outside the White House on federal property, which still remains illegal because of the federal appointment of marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug with “no medical” availability. Cannabis organizations across the nation, but specifically along the East Coast, responded to the call of action by pledging to perform civil disobedience. The national unity spawned from this call to action was significant in itself, since the cannabis movement is largely a state-by-state fight, with 23 states having medical marijuana reform, and four states and D.C. having full legalization at the time of the protest.
So on Saturday, April 2, 2016, around 500 demonstrators attended the rally outside the White House. Numerous organizations along the East Coast attended in support, particularly direct action-oriented groups. This included dozens of members of the East Coast Cannabis Coalition (ECCC), an organization that connects hundreds of leading cannabis activists along the East Coast and proudly endorses direct action and civil disobedience. Kevin Cranford Jr., Deputy Director of Maryland-NORML and a top ECCC member, spoke at the rally about the ECCC’s upcoming “Unity Cypher” march from Maine to Florida, where a large, fake joint will be carried along the East Coast.
Prior to the rally there was a lot of press coverage over the fact that the organizers announced their intention to carry a 51-foot inflatable joint with the rally message written on the side:”Obama, Deschedule Cannabis Now!” The organizers were told by D.C. security, however, that the joint was not allowed to be carried because it would block foot-traffic and would cause a disturbance. Therefore dozens of reporters were disappointed when the inflatable joint was not present at the beginning of the rally. But around 4:00 P.M., 20 minutes before the smoke-out was to begin, a group of demonstrators rushed through the crowd and began unfolding the non-inflated joint, telling everyone in the crowd to grab an end to help unfold it. Only a few minutes later nearly 50 people held onto the joint as it filled with air and was raised above our heads. I personally grabbed an end and helped carry the joint through the park away from the White House, so as to get away from the police who didn’t want to the joint directly in front of the White House. Once we walked through the park the police set up barricades behind us to prevent us from walking back toward the White House with the joint, but the police allowed us to individually walk back to the White House.
A few minutes before 4:20 I put down the joint along with most people and returned to the rally outside the White House, only to discover the smoke-out took place a few minutes early around 4:17 P.M. Regardless, the media snapped away as 500 demonstrators fearlessly engaged in civil disobedience. Around the nation, which is now in more support of cannabis legalization than ever before, people witnessed and sympathized with the smoke-out, believing prohibition to be morally wrong. The smoke-out appeared on CNN, U.S. News, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Daily Caller, Daily News, International Business Times, Herb, High Times, UPI, Christian Science Monitor, Fox News, CBS News, Inquisitr.com, Washington Examiner, The Fix, New York Post, Yahoo, WUSA 9 News, Universal Free Press, and many more newspaper outlets. I am personally seen smoking in videos posted by Fox News Insider, Reason Magazine, and ABC News; and I am seen carrying the 51-foot joint in Now This and WWMT West Michigan News.
Not a single person was arrested for smoking at the rally. However, two people were given $25 citations for “public consumption.” Obama was not at the White House during the rally, but was instead golfing. Nevertheless, many activists looked forward to the 2016 presidential election to finally deschedule cannabis federally. As one activist noted, out of the five candidates for the Demo-Repubs, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who has called for marijuana to be descheduled. The Huffington Post wrote: “Sanders was clearly the preferred candidate of rally attendees, many of whom sported ‘Bernie’ pins and shirts.” This is accurate, but it should be mentioned the marijuana movement is unique in that it is filled with people of all political alignments, including Progressives, Conservatives, Libertarians and Green Party members.
National NORML Behind the Times
As the Millennial Generation increasingly takes part in direct action and civil disobedience tactics, even more so than the Baby Boomers in the 1960’s and 1970’s, some groups denounced the protest. Keith Stroup, a founder of NORML in the early 1970’s, embarrassed himself by denouncing the action and calling for organizations to “move beyond street theater.” He wrote: “I question not only their tactics, but also their political focus.” NORML was founded as a legal lobbying group, and since then has acted as the conservative sector of the movement by refusing to take part in grass roots organizing. This comes as no surprise because the lily-white organization has historically condemned non-medical marijuana consumers, and therefore ignores the majority of the victims in the racist drug war – impoverished blacks, Latinos, and other minorities who don’t fit the NORML standard of white medical marijuana patients.
National NORML denouncing the protest is no different than other powerhouse organizations that at one point dominated a particular movement. The best comparison of NORML can be with that of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading civil rights organization founded in 1909. NAACP demanded respectability by recruiting “respectable” whites and blacks only, or what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “talented tenth” – referring to the one-in-ten black persons who could become leaders. Under this regime of superiority the NAACP disengaged in radical tactics by focusing on lobbying and funding. But by the 1950’s, when blacks still held next to no rights, a man by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. tossed off the superiority cape and began a movement for the remaining nine-in-ten black persons by getting them politically engaged with the outlet of direct action and civil disobedience. This grassroots organizing allowed people to “put their bodies on the line,” a tactic that led to nearly all the civil rights victories in the following decade. So what did the NAACP do when King founded the Southern Christian League Conference (SCLC) in 1957? That’s right, the NAACP denounced him just like NORML denounced the smoke-out. NAACP feared losing the leading role in the civil rights movement, and NAACP leaders berated King for his “agitating” tactics until the day of his assassination in 1968. But luckily King witnessed his tactics surpass those of NAACP, such as when the sit-ins broke out in 1960 that led to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the radical sector of the movement that worked with poor sharecroppers, which disgusted NAACP members sitting in the ivory tower with their respectable suits (National NORML members also can’t get enough of their fancy suits). The radical tactics applied by SNCC, SCLC, and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1960’s directly led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (after King’s May 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, AL, galvanized the nation and led to 250,000 demonstrators storming D.C. in August 1963, where King gave his “I have a dream” speech) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (after King again gained national appeal from his March 1965 Selma March).
The civil rights movement clearly showed the application of direct action is best applied toward the end of a movement when it is capable of attracting more sympathy from the public than the very laws the movement is fighting against. The labor union movement won more victories in a short period in the 1930’s than it did from the 1870’s-1920’s, after the creation of the sit-down in 1936, when workers shut down factories by taking them over; or how the women voting rights movement had more victories in the 1910’s than from the 1850’s-1900’s, after radical activist Alice Paul organized the civil disobedience campaign “Silent Sentinels,” a protest outside the White House from 1917-1919, which included civil disobedience acts that embarrassed the Wilson Administration enough to pass the 19th Amendment (the Silent Sentinels protests were denounced by leading women rights organizations for applying civil disobedience). So NORML’s fears about direct action when legalization seems so close are extremely unfair and unfounded. These white men in suits should take some college classes on the history of American radicalism and its usage of direct action and civil disobedience. Perhaps then Keith Stroup of NORML can truly understand our “political focus” – to organize the masses in the streets until the political leaders can no longer ignore our united voices.
Epilogue (written May 20, 2016)
NORML’s criticism was made mute when the Obama Administration set up a meeting with DCMJ leaders shortly after the rally. The meeting gained national publicity and was announced in the press on April 20, 2016. “Marijuana Advocates Get A Meeting With The White House” read headlines like the Huffington Post. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDPC) set up the meeting for April 25. This was the first time DCMJ gained a meeting with the White House, after two previous failed attempts. The meeting was only granted because of direct action and civil disobedience. The meeting turned sour after DCMJ organizers met with two junior-level staffers, rather than with high-level administration members. After the two staffers bobbled their heads for half-an-hour while listening to complaints about marijuana laws, the organizers of DCMJ stood outside the White House, reported the Washington Post, with a banner that read: “President Obama, We Need A Higher Level Meeting.” The rally itself set the stage for meetings with the Obama Administration to de-schedule cannabis federally. Despite not leading to direct results, the pressure is felt within the system on a national level, leaving government officials with limited time before they must answer the demands of the people.