The National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)— which was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup and that now has 135 chapters nation-wide and 550 lawyers ready to serve — is still going strong as the bulwark of the marijuana cause. There’s much more to do, though a great deal has been accomplished this year. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation expanding the state medical cannabis access program, and in New Mexico, personal possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer classified as a criminal offense. NORML hailed the new law and pointed out that for years “a disproportionate number of black and brown New Mexicans faced arbitrary discrimination and stigmatization.” In 2016, for example, New Mexico police made over 3,600 arrests for possession of marijuana.
Paul Armentano, 47, NORML’s Deputy Director lives in Vallejo, California where he keeps an eye on the local scene and on the big national picture, which varies state-by-state and often county-by-county. Every week, Armentano writes articles that are posted on the Website, norml.com, and keep readers up-to-date on the latest legal changes in the world of weed. His stories tell the truth and nothing but the truth, though they do not tell all the truths all at once.
His books, including Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?, which are packed with valuable facts and information, speak truth to power. Still, there’s nothing like a sit-down, leisurely face-to-face conversation with Armentano, especially when he means to clear the smoke from the room, and doesn’t aim to rally the faithful or let anyone off the cannabis hook.
By turns sad, funny, frustrated and impassioned, he says that after 25 years of political work on the national and the state level, he still “finds the issue fascinating,” though he can feel frustrated by the lack of accurate information about cannabis, and the inability of many citizens and politicians to carry on sophisticated conversations. “We make marijuana far more interesting than is warranted,” he says. “My goal is to make it boring.” If so, he has a long way to go.
Armentano cares intensely about consumers, many of whom, he says, are tricked into buying cannabis products that don’t have the beneficial ingredients they claim to have, and don’t deliver the healing that's promoted. He’s especially critical about many CBD products, especially those that are marketed online, and in stores like Safeway, though he admits that some CBDs can reduce anxiety levels and act as anti-inflammatory agents. “The advertising is brilliant,” he says. “Salesmen tell you, 'you won’t feel anything when you use CBD,’ and sure enough much of the time you don't feel a thing.” It’s the old snake oil in a new bottle.
While Armentano looks out for the consumer, he’s often frustrated by California cannabis farmers, who have wanted, he insists, to continue their “mom and pop operations,” as though laws haven’t changed, and who refuse to buy into state licensing and regulation. “I have never looked at cannabis other than a commodity,” he says. “Marijuana players are no more ethical than players in other industries.” Still, he frets about the growing power of large-scale cannabis corporations that are taking hold of the market, and setting prices and he worries that growers add labels to their products that have little if any correspondence to actual strains.
“NORML has always recommended home cultivation, “ he adds and urges citizens—this is the kicker—”to have faith that the people who are making the rules are not the enemy.” On the subject of cannabis and driving, he has a vast array of information that might make heads spin. Driving under the influence of THC can increase the likelihood of automobile accidents, he argues, though he also points out that statistics show that two or more people in a car also make driving riskier and that eating and driving at the same time can be a recipe for disaster.
Smoke weed and drink alcohol and the chances of an accident will jump 400% to 600%, depending on body weight, dosage and the degree to which individuals have grown accustomed to smoking and driving. “Habitual marijuana users are more careful when they drive stoned,” he says. “They adopt compensatory behaviors.”
Armentano is proud of the fact that Prop 64 brought with it automatic expungement of the legal records of cannabis arrests. But he’s especially vexed by the fact that many citizens ignore the vast body of information about cannabis and insist: “We don’t know.” He replies, “Maybe you don’t know, but at NORML and elsewhere we do know.”
Armentano and his colleagues also know that in California today the black market is as big as ever, that much of the cannabis cultivated here is exported to other states, that prices at dispensaries are too high for most consumers and that in many towns and cities there is a lack of access to pot. “Passing Prop 64 was just the beginning,” he says. “We will go on tinkering with the cannabis rules and regulations for a long time and we’ll also have to address life style issues. In many parts of the country, marijuana is still associated by and large with hippies. The culture wars will go on.”
(Jonah Raskin is the author of Dark Day, Dark Night: A Marijuana Murder Mystery.)