Philly420: Marijuana Legalization Lobby Day at the U.S. Capitol
Marijuana will not legalize itself. That’s why senior citizens, military veterans, college students and some of the most seasoned cannabis reform activists in the country gathered to speak with members of Congress on Monday, June 17th.
Buses were run for free to participants (almost union-style) from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey-- so I rode along.
Helping shepherd a group of locals, some of them registered medical marijuana patients, through the literal Halls of Congress turned into a day of sharp contrasts in various shades of green.
Jim Miller and Ken Wolski RN, the co-founders of The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ), traveled with the group and quickly ran into NJ Congressman Rush Holt in a hallway (see photo gallery).
“We saw him on our way out of the office,” Miller said, “and after a brief chat about medical cannabis Congressman Holt said he was looking into how to minimize the role of the NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) when it comes to medical research of marijuana.”
Now THAT is what citizen lobbying is all about. You head down to DC and try to run into these women and men…and essentially pester them in the hallways between their committee meetings. The strange thing is; it actually works.
“I was impressed to learn that most of the New Jersey congressional delegation has already voted on [medical marijuana] reform legislation,” said Wolski, “So now we are looking to build on our success in Washington, DC.”
Wolski would also bear witness to Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings’ staff getting a firsthand look at some real-life medical cannabis. Irvin Rosenfeld, one of four surviving federally approved cannabis patients (and a constituent of Hastings), opened his tin of legal marijuana during his visit.
“Suddenly three hundred joints in the office: Kind of a priceless little moment there,” said Wolski.
Rosenfeld is part of an Investigational New Drug (IND) program created in the 1980’s and he is permanently supplied with medicine grown at the infamous University of Mississippi NIDA cannabis laboratory. All of the pot is pre-rolled into cigarettes by federal government agencies and we pay for it all with our tax dollars; no kidding.
Just an hour later, Rosenfeld got a real shock: He was wrongfully arrested by Capitol Police at a security checkpoint. Although he is supposed to be granted immunity from any police action or prosecution related to his medicine, Rosenfeld was handcuffed, held for several hours and then threatened with felony charges.
Irv is a mature and well-known advocate. He has testified before numerous state legislatures and visited the US Capitol on many occasions with his tins of legal marijuana.
The police eventually released Rosenfeld around 6 p.m., past the time for his scheduled talk at the main event for the day: A reception in the Rayburn House Office Building that featured Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, a progressive Democrat, and Republican political strategist Grover Norquist.
Senate and House staffers from across Capitol Hill along with the Washington DC contingent of policy groups had gathered around a light buffet at 4 p.m. to trade stories about their visits and hear talks from the politicos.
Robert Platshorn, the founder of The Silver Tour, opened the reception. Platshorn (a Philly native and former Atlantic City Boardwalk pitchman) served thirty years in prison for smuggling pot in 1970s. It remains the longest prison sentence for a non-violent marijuana offense in US history.
“We need to get a job done. We need friends, allies, people willing to make compromises who are willing to join us …and we will get this done,” Platshorn said in his introduction.
The first speaker was Neill Franklin a former undercover narcotics officer from the streets of Baltimore and now the head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
The irony of the former prohibition inmate introducing the former cop to talk about legalizing marijuana wasn’t lost on anyone.
Platshorn remarked, ”Do know what a dream that was and how impossible I thought that would be for thirty years? That there would be law enforcement officers, prosecutors, DEA agents, police captains who would go to bat for us…”
Jack Cole, the founder of LEAP, was a former New Jersey State Police narcotics officer. Cole helped launch marijuana reform efforts in the Garden State in 2011 and testified in favor of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Taking over the helm at LEAP from Cole in 2010, Neill Franklin has emerged as one of the most prominent African-American voices favoring marijuana reform.
“Look at Colorado and Washington: We’re moving forward with legalization,“ said Franklin, ”and we shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t slow down. We need to push harder than we’ve ever pushed before.”
Aaron Houston, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy was up next with brief remarks before introducing the headliners.
“Leaders and implementers are in short supply. This is where everybody in this room comes in.”
Houston talked about the expansion of reform efforts within the US Capitol. In a country of polarized politics that borders on party extremism the subject of cannabis seems to be the one nonpartisan topic.
Houston segued into well-known tax refrom advocate and Republican political strategist Grover Norquist.
“This issue is one of Federalism,” Norquist said in his remarks. This is true at the core of the argument and something Norquist’s fellow conservatives are feeling as having more weight.
Medical marijuana; respecting existing state marijuana laws; farming industrial hemp and even fully legalizing cannabis for adults – yes indeed, there are active bills for them all. Most are sponsored by Democrats and Republicans who almost never come together on any issue.
Polis said that his federal legislation H.R. 499 “would bring the Colorado model to the rest of the country.”
“The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013” (HR499) would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, completely.
The simple bill would undo everything related to the criminalization of cannabis. Of all the bills before Congress, HR 499 is the true language of concrete marijuana reform.
I first met Congressman Polis when he spoke at the 2011 NORML Conference in Denver. He is an impressive tour-de-force of modern progressive politics. Casual but forceful, intelligent but not overbearing, he walks everything of his talk.
Polis and his Congressional colleagues aren’t just introducing bills; they are taking on the federal agencies responsible for keeping cannabis prohibition at such a high priority.
Progressives and conservatives; felons and cops; students and senior citizens, if you listen to them all talk to each other about marijuana there really is no contrast -- only common ground.
There were several more twists and turns to our visit to DC: A Colorado marijuana activist known as “Wayward Bill” was arrested in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria with cannabis infused candies (since he wasn’t a federal patient he was charged then granted bail-bond) and our brand new chartered bus broke down at a rest stop for two hours (we fixed it ourselves; not kidding)…but that’s for another 420.
Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade.
Contact Goldstein at email@example.com or on Twitter @freedomisgreen