A Gentle Voice of Dissent

(This article was adapted from the August 1995 issue of "Marijuana Policy Report," a publication of the Marijuana Policy Project, P.O. Box 77492, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20013, (202) 462-5747 (voice), 232-0442 (fax), e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.mpp.org/~mpp/, membership dues $25/year. You can see the MPP's web version of their article at http://www.mpp.org/~mpp/NIDAconf.html.)

On July 19 and 20, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) held the National Conference on Marijuana Use near Washington, D.C. The two-day event consisted primarily of the presentation of research findings regarding marijuana health effects, prevention and treatment.

Though many scientists presented some interesting and worthwhile findings, a good deal of the information was of dubious accuracy and value. Moreover, the context in which it was reported greatly distorted the relative harm of marijuana in society and ignored the failure and added harm of prohibition. Few comparisons were made to the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine or pharmaceuticals, and there was no discussion of the harmful effects of prison.

The opening session featured keynote addresses by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Lee Brown. They left little doubt that the intent of the conference was to convince the attendees and the public that marijuana is a serious menace. Their solution? More of the same.

"Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy and wrong," asserted Shalala. "We also are committed to domestic law-enforcement efforts," said Lee Brown, stressing that "we have to make it clear that marijuana is included in this prohibition."

Fortunately, their message did not go unchallenged. Among the approximately 500 conference attendees were more than 35 marijuana law-reform advocates representing at least 10 organizations, under the umbrella of the Coalition for Responsible Marijuana Research. The coalition's message focused on the government's refusal to permit even medicinal marijuana research to be performed.

The cooperation, focus and respectability of the demonstrators was generally regarded as unprecedented. This observation was frequently expressed, not only by reformers, but by many attendees from the research, prevention and law enforcement communities.

The reform advocates started the day with a well-orchestrated, polite-but-firm demonstration inside the auditorium during the opening session. Precisely as Shalala remarked that policy should be "rooted in science and research," more than 20 reformers, seated around the perimeter of the room, displayed professionally made signs protesting NIDA's blocking of medicinal marijuana research. The Coalition also produced an 84 page booklet, What NIDA Won't Tell You About Marijuana, and flew in eight medical marijuana patients from various parts of the country to attend the conference. (DRCNet co-sponsored the travel expenses for some patients from Iowa.)

The demonstrators -- including several marijuana-needing patients -- remained silent, letting the posterboards do the talking:

These and other slogans, and some signs depicting medicinal marijuana users, captured the attention of everyone in the room, including the speakers. Throughout the conference, attendees could be spotted skimming their booklets and discussing more responsible policy alternatives. The party line had been broken -- by a gentle presentation of the truth.

The reformers' efforts had other positive effects. When planning for the event, MPP Director of Government Relations Robert Kampia sent a letter to NIDA Director Alan Leshner to request a meeting. Knowing in advance about the demonstration -- and probably fearing that things would get ugly if he would not even meet with patients -- Leshner agreed to meet. Having seen that the reformers don't bite, Leshner made himself even more available throughout the rest of the conference. On July 20, for example, he posed for a photo shoot with the Cannabis Action Network's collection of 50,000 postcards from across the nation supporting medical marijuana.

Media coverage for the most part was disappointing. The print and televised news coverage overwhelmingly stuck with the spoon-fed format from NIDA's news releases and Shalala's and Brown's opening remarks. The most notable exception was the Journal of the American Medical Association, which devoted almost half of its article on the conference to medical marijuana, even going so far as to list some of the Coalition's posterboard slogans.

Another nugget that came out of the event was the first positive proof that DRCNet internet postings, or at least some of them, are being watched at the highest levels of government. A pre-written version of Lee Brown's speech, distributed in NIDA's press packet, made reference to the "protesters outside." In fact, there was no outside protest, and Brown edited this out of his speech. But preliminary plans had included an outdoor protest, which was subsequently canceled -- but not before DRCNet's e-mail bulletin had been distributed online. The internet bulletin was the only way the outside protest had been publicized.

The NIDA protest was spearheaded by Robert Kampia and Chuck Thomas of the MPP, and Rick Doblin, President of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), also a member of DRCNet's advisory board. Copies of What NIDA Won't Tell You About Marijuana can be ordered from MPP for $10.

From The Activist Guide, Issue #7, October '95, DRCNet Publications section, A Guided Tour of the War on Drugs home page.

The next article is: The Cannabis Patient Registry.