ASPEN — When there’s a meeting of the marijuana minds in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, expect to be enlightened.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws brought together more than 100 registered attendees earlier this month for a three-day symposium led by legendary legalization activist and NORML founder Keith Stroup. Marking its tenth year in the resort town, the conference welcomed another always-impressive roster of thought leaders from across the country. But a gathering that was once strictly presented and attended by lawyers has changed in recent years.
The Aspen Legal Seminar has expanded into a multi-issue itinerary covering everything from “The Safety and Efficacy of Cannabis” and “Cannabis Business 101” to “How Pot Can Cure Racism” and “Special Estate Planning Techniques for Cannabis Business Owners.”
“Over the past three years, I am seeing more and more criminal defense attorneys representing clients that have come above ground and are now running legitimate businesses,” Stroup says of the recent shift in session topics. “So more and more of these attorneys are transitioning into marijuana business law, which we’re trying to zero in on.”
The 76-year-old Stroup serves as NORML’s legal counsel after stints as executive director from 1970-79 and 1995-2005. He personally programs the Aspen agenda, picking topics and assigning speakers.
One such topic and its presenter made history this year, when erstwhile U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom accepted a last-minute invitation to speak about the advantages of ending marijuana prohibition — the first time from a federal perspective. Grissom, who stepped down in April after six years on the job, says that “decriminalization has always interested me personally.”
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that was founded to fight prohibition is facing a significant shift in its work overall too, as more and more states adopt legalization and decriminalization.
“We’re putting all our attention on full legalization. Every time one state flips the switch, the adjacent states are forced to take it that much more seriously,” Stroup says. “If we can see a few states add recreational marijuana in the election, it will give an enormous boost to the issue.”
Aside from legal recreational marijuana in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia, 25 states have approved medical marijuana programs (Pennsylvania and Ohio joined the ranks earlier this year). And in the coming months more cannabis campaigns will be heating up. Maine and Nevada will be voting on full legalization come November, with Arizona, California and Massachusetts also likely to see the issue on the ballot. (Michigan advocates have filed a lawsuit to get their proposal on the ballot.)
But even after a state legalizes adult use and possession of cannabis, the legal battles are far from over. Oklahoma and Nebraska have taken legal action against Colorado, pursuing a shutdown of the recreational market in an ongoing court saga that started in December of 2014.
Grissom is optimistic about the national picture: “This battle will all be over sooner vs. later and our nation will have a regulatory scheme. So you can have access knowing you’re not buying from a cartel or from someone engaged in violence, but from a corner store where you can also pick up a bottle of wine or scotch. Once we have that, I’ll be OK.”
Things are more than OK in Aspen, though, with the conference’s special social atmosphere epitomized at three staple events each evening. The inspiring conversations continued at these pot-friendly festivities where the pioneers of legalization not only passed joints, but plenty of unparalleled knowledge to industry newcomers.
“I don’t smoke cannabis and I don’t eat anything infused. But just because that’s my choice, that doesn’t mean my choice should be imposed on anyone else,” Grissom says.
An opening reception atop The Gant’s Molly Campbell Conference Center roof deck kicked off the weekend against the glowing backdrop of Aspen Mountain. Guests were invited into the mountain getaway of attorney Gerry Goldstein — a stunning log cabin situated just off the bank of the Roaring Fork River — for a benefit dinner hosted with his wife, Christine, and prepared by chef Chris Lanter of Aspen’s Cache Cache restaurant. A cannabis enthusiast and advocate himself, Lanter took the helm of the Goldsteins’ cozy kitchen, serving up a beautiful buffet of highbrow barbecue, personally topping off guest’s plates with his own concoction of an infused olive oil.
Just a few days prior to the conference, Goldstein was presented with the inaugural Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award for his lifelong commitment to advocacy and support for ending marijuana prohibition as a criminal defense attorney. A senior partner with the firm of Goldstein, Goldstein and Hilley in San Antonio, Texas (and part-time Aspenite), it was Goldstein who Stroup turned to in 1970 to defend him after a drug bust. In 1972, Goldstein volunteered to represent NORML in Texas, which at the time was the state handing down some of the harshest marijuana sentences in the country, and he has been a staunch supporter ever since.
Among other prominent names in attendance was Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom, who championed medical marijuana in the state Legislature and now has a strain named in his honor at a Las Vegas dispensary.
The culmination of the Aspen Legal Seminar happened with a cookout at Owl Farm, the infamous Woody Creek compound of the late journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who NORML counts as the organization’s original public supporter.
The Aspen experience
Here are even more insights from the major players at this year’s cannabis conference — where the discussions were more imperative than ever, with plenty of inspiration for these leaders to continue the charge for change in the months ahead:
Keith Stroup, founder & legal counsel, NORML
His personal highlight: “I was most inspired by Barry Grissom’s session. First of all, until three weeks before the seminar, he was the sitting U.S. Attorney for Kansas — the one person appointed by the President to prosecute all federal cases in his state. But he came to see us a few months ago and indicated he would soon be retiring and was looking to learn about legalization and get involved. There was a moment when we as advocates and attorneys felt legitimized by having someone of his stature on the federal side join us in Aspen and respect the work we’re doing and recognizing we’ve been right all along and that he’s now one of us.”
On the state of legalization: “Most people have noticed that we’re focusing less on medical marijuana. I think attitudes are changing all across the country on medical use — a process that’s already set in motion and that’s going to work itself out. But full legalization remains a challenge.”
On the direction NORML is heading: “What we’re really dealing with now are the issues of how we ensure responsible marijuana smokers are treated fairly once it’s legalized. There’s a lot of work that lies ahead in the categories of child custody, social use, employment rights and impaired driving. It’s terribly unfair to fire someone who smokes a joint on the weekend, but is never impaired on the job. But the reality is that every state in the country currently has that power. But our number one priority remains to help establish a legal market.”
Barry Grissom, partner with the Polsinelli law firm & former U.S. Attorney for Kansas
Conference speech: The Advantages of Ending Marijuana Prohibition from the Perspective of a U.S. Attorney
On getting involved with NORML: “I was a U.S. Attorney since 2010, and during that time I of course had a lot of interaction with law enforcement. I had my own personal beliefs about the use of cannabis and if it could work legally, but when you’re in my position, you don’t share those beliefs. Opposed to just going back into private practice, I figured I have this unique skill set and thought, ‘How can I use that for something more, what can I do to help the cause?’ So I looked into NORML online, reached out and went to D.C. to meet with Keith. We hit it off immediately and I told him that when my tenure is over to keep me in mind. Once he heard the news I had resigned, he called right away and invited me to Aspen.”
On the experience: “I really didn’t know what to expect and it’s very rare you turn down a trip to Aspen. But the number of business people who were there showed me that there is a real cannabis economy and as you are showing us in Colorado, it’s here to stay. And the energy, drive and sheer guts of the folks like Keith and Gerry who have been involved in NORML from the beginning and are still fighting is so affirming. It was really an amazing experience.”
On progress: “From a federal legislation perspective, it seems as if ‘the people’ are way ahead of the politicians as exemplified by Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and D.C. … and I’d assume California very soon. The continuing major player here is education. Sadly, and I say this in jest, but there’s plenty of people out there that still believe in ‘reefer madness’ who simply don’t understand the science. During my tenure, I filed an affidavit to have it removed as a Schedule I substance — which is why I’m involved now. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with Keith and NORML in any way I can.”
On injustice: “It’s obscene that we as a nation arrest and put people in prison, putting a blight on people’s employment records for the rest of their lives just because they want to exercise a freedom of choice that doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Jordan Person, executive director for the Denver NORML chapter
On the power of a local advocacy group: “When we first started our chapter, it grew very fast and kind of made me realize there really is a strength in numbers. So, we thought, ‘Let’s tackle something major as a group.’ We sat around and talked about the biggest issues our city faces, which is the restriction of cannabis clubs and social use. We contacted Keith and proposed a plan of what we’d like to do, and he was immediately supportive.”
On Responsible Use Denver: “We launched a grassroots movement in January that caught on quickly and brought a huge turnout to our next monthly meeting. In Denver, we’re the leaders of marijuana policy for our country and we have around 200 dispensaries without a single place to consume. It’s such a problem in our city and it’s going to become a problem everywhere marijuana gets legalized too. If there were no bars, where would people be drinking?”
On the proposed law: “In meetings over the past six months with members, stakeholders and legal counsel, we’ve been hard at work defining and actually writing the law. A lot of it is hashing out all of the issues that might come up and how to best implement it in a safe way. Our first hearing for public comment was so incredibly eye-opening, and they encouraged us to create an even more refined regulatory framework.”
On the ballot measure: “We’re working on collecting the 4,726 signatures against the deadline of August 15 to take it to a vote in November. We have a real opportunity to change history to provide a solution to an ongoing problem. And the more legislators that we can educate during conferences like this, the faster marijuana policy can progress in our country.”
Emily Gant, Cannabis Industry Practice Group co-chair and attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer law firm
Conference speech: Cannabis Business 101
On attending for the first time: “I got connected to Keith through my growing cannabis client network, who said, ‘Hey we’re seeing this big sea of change with legalization and so many of our members have a criminal defense background, but we’re looking to transition their practice to help clients with compliance’ and invited me to speak. I jumped at the chance.”
On the rise in cannabis business clients: “My firm got into this shortly after I-502 (Washington state’s voter-approved Initiative 502) in 2012 and made the strategic decision that it’s a great fit with our skill set. The sweet spot for our existing regulatory practice is with wineries, breweries and distilleries, so we’re now flexing all of those same muscles and using a lot of the same concepts to help cannabis businesses form relationships with those state agencies. And we’re seeing this become a very sturdy section of what we’re doing day-to-day — my practice changes daily, but cannabis is about a third of my practice, which is a huge change from what I was doing prior to January of 2014.”
On learning from Colorado: We’ve been a touch behind, but pesticides have become the hot topic now in Washington. Colorado was the first state that we saw more actively doing product recalls and looking at those issues of consumer safety, so we’re looking at everything that’s happening as the model and advising clients based on those successes of implementing regulation and making sure new businesses are set up properly from the beginning.”
Take action: NORML around the world
Outside of NORML’s daily work from its Washington D.C. headquarters, there are 155 active chapters in the United States and eight active international chapters, all of which hold meetings and events year-round. NORML also hosts a winter conference in Key West, Fla., which Stroup says “is way different than Aspen. Up until now there has been very little reform in Florida, and our attorneys who attend there prefer to keep it focused on traditional criminal defense skills. But that could soon change too.”
An effort to legalize medical marijuana in Florida in 2014 fell just short of the 60 percent supermajority required for a constitutional amendment; the state will have a similar measure on the ballot this November.
The Key West Legal Seminar is held at the Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa from December 8-10, 2016.
For information on how to get involved in your state’s local chapter or attend either conference, visit norml.org.