Allen St. Pierre has been with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws since 1991, when he was hired on as the communications director.
In January he was named as the organization's new executive director, taking the reigns from NORML's founder Keith Stroup and guiding a movement that after three decades has its most momentum to date.
"NORML is essentially an institution at this point," St. Pierre said. "It's a brand, people know what it is, they know what we do and yet they don't see it on TV, they don't hear it on the radio and they don't pick it up and see it in the newspaper."
How NORML has maintained its long-term successes is rare for Washington lobbying groups.
"It really has no advertising budget what so ever, it enjoys no institutional funding," St. Pierre said. "It gets all of its resources from marijuana consumers and those who are very sympathetic toward civil liberties."
St. Pierre said that most of the opposition hasn't just been on the federal government level.
"It can be found in other institutions like medical societies, the alcohol and tobacco lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby," St. Pierre said.
The choice to hold this year's conference in San Francisco is symbolic because of the city's association with the movement through the years. As one conference panelist said, the rest of the nation's marijuana law reform advocates need to thank San Francisco and Californians for being at the forefront of the legalization efforts since the 1960s.
St. Pierre said there were six to eight people at this year's conference who were at the first "People's Pot Conference" in Washington, D.C. in 1970.
"We're now into third generation of marijuana activists," St. Pierre said. "If you look closely you will see people walking around with their daughters. These are the daughters of the activists."
Though the reform movement is probably the strongest it's ever been, there are problems that concern St. Pierre. He said recent headway has been marred by compromises made with legislatures.
"It doesn't establish a core constituency value," St. Pierre said.
He used a hypothetical situation from the 1960s civil rights movement to illustrate his point.
"It'd be hard to imagine in the 1960s, a political deal cut by Martin Luther King and the NAACP, to allow blacks to have votes if, for example, they signed contracts never to date white women."
Some of the recent victories throughout the country have been almost ornamental and are a concern for St. Pierre and NORML.
"We don't just run somewhere and declare that we changed the law when that really hasn't happened," St. Pierre said.
Lawmakers aren't listening to their constituents, he said.
"Why is it that you can put 200,000 people in the Seattle park system for a day for a marijuana legalization festival and still not have politicians follow," St. Pierre said. "Those that are really effected by the laws and want the laws to reflect their own consumer values should want to push it forward."
The laws in some states are deceptive and backwards. St. Pierre used the laws in Ohio as an example, a state he said has arguably the best marijuana law in the country. People there will get a $200 to $400 fine if they're caught with up to three and a half ounces of pot.
"However, if you get caught with a rolling paper on you, or even an unused piece of paraphernalia, you're going to get arrested, you're going to through a fine and you're going to lose your license to drive for six months," St. Pierre said. "You get punished more for a piece of metal (paraphernalia) than you do for the actual drug."
He tied the Ohio example into what he was talking about the compromise problem for the movement.
"You got to stop thinking about punishment as just being put in a jail cell," St. Pierre said.
He said penalties like losing driver's licenses are tools of the government.
During his tenure he wants to stop making the compromises like in Ohio.
"We might have to bite the bullet for a year or two to pass federal legislation," St. Pierre said.
When he started at NORML, someone pulled St. Pierre aside and said that he was working like he was running a sprint.
"He said I should seriously consider developing a marathon philosophy," St. Pierre said. "Start thinking in the long haul. Let's not just pass a law and declared that we prevailed. If very few people are affected by it than did we really have the overall scope of effect we wanted to?"
Another current setback for NORML is the lack of diversity in the marijuana law reform movement.
"It's a huge problem," St. Pierre said. "Here we are in a pretty diverse town and we find, disappointingly, that the vast amount of the crowd is white, middle class and male."
It's a problem around the country, he said.
"We fail," St. Pierre said. "The whole drug policy movement. Every single organization fails to reach out to the black, Latino and women."
St. Pierre has made it one of his goals to change that.
"We will not change marijuana laws because a very rich person hands over a bunch of money," St. Pierre said.
People of all kinds taking the issue to the streets, through protests and grass roots efforts, is the future if the movement, St. Pierre believes.
One suggestion he had was a marijuana dating service.
"It's not as absurd as it sounds," St. Pierre said. "It happens in Christian communities, it happens is ethnic communities. Why not pair these two people up with the common denominator and have two people working for it?"
California is a launching pad for the movement.
"It makes up a fifth of the U.S.," St. Pierre said. "So if you're going to do something, do it where you can hit it out of the park."
During the conference, nearly every speaker was given a standing ovation and the shouts from the crowd reflected the spirit of the marijuana activists.
About 500 people from across the United States attended the 2005 NORML conference and were motivated, informed and armed with the information and connections they needed to keep the movement fueled for years.
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