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NORML's bad trip; in this case, pot led to harder drugs.

NORML's Bad Trip

Last December some 200 defense lawyers gathered at the Holiday Inn in Key West, Florida, to learn how to help the other side in the War on Drugs. They discussed the best legal strategies to defend cocaine smugglers and distributors: how to spot a juror with a soft spot for drug smugglers, how to combat the government's use of informants to crack dealer networks, and how to make narcotics agents look silly on the witness stand.

For $475, lawyers enrolled in workshops and hobnobbed with the conference's guest speakers, including several of the biggest drug lawyers in the country. There was Albert Kreiger, the Miami-based defense attorney for reputed mobster Joe Bonnano and Carlos Madrid Palacios, alleged security man for Jorge Ochoa, who once was the world's fourth largest cocaine dealer. (A state's witness in the Ochoa case was murdered last February). There was Howard Weitzman, who has since received a mansion as payment for his successful defense of John Z. DeLorean. Michael Stepanian, lawyer to many coke dealers and celebrity drug offenders including the Grateful Dead, also spoke, this time more subdued than he was the year before when he called U.S. Attorneys "young scumheads' and judges "disgusting pieces of shit.'

This conference on "The Cutting Edge of Criminal Defense' was sponsored by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Remember them? They gained attention in the early 1970s by nobly defending high school kids about to spend ten years in the penitentiary for lighting up a joint. They were the respectable pro-drug group, with supporters like Julian Bond, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, Senator Jacob Javits, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Bishop Walter Dennis of the Diocese of New York. They are also the group that scoffed when government authorities warned youngsters that marijuana would lead to "harder stuff.'

In their own case, it did lead to harder stuff. One-third of NORML's budget now comes from these conferences that are geared toward helping lawyers defend mid-level mobsters. Drug defense is a high-stakes subspecialty of the law these days, and drug lawyers profit hugely from the illegality of cocaine. The lawyers attending NORML conferences discuss defenses for users of small amounts of marijuana, too, but the big money and interest is not in the ex-hippie who grows pot in his backyard, but the automatic-weapon-carrying hoodlums of Bolivia and Colombia who dust our urban ghettos and discotheques with cocaine.

Why do NORML lawyers go to bat for large-scale drug traffickers? "Oh, the excitement of being in the big leagues is the interest,' says Peter Meyers, who ran NORML's legal program in the 1970s. "And the money. And the power of being able to fuck with the government. If you're an achiever, those are the things you're after.'

In the realm of the senses

Back in the early 1970s, when teenagers were getting several-year sentences for possessing a marijuana cigarette, a young lawyer from southern Illinois named Keith Stroup decided to act upon his belief that grass wasn't so bad. Stroup founded NORML, and started telling people how dumb it was to send young pot smokers to jail. One of the people he told was Hugh Hefner at Playboy, who believed that marijuana had put him in touch with "the realm of the senses.' Hef had discovered a whole new dimension to sex through pot. So he helped launch the group with a $5,000 donation in 1971 and continued giving from $40,000 to $100,000 annually for nearly ten years. Stroup hired a small staff, leased a Washington office, set up a legal committee with the help of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and three other prominent attorneys and started getting publicity for right-to-privacy cases. NORML was also paving new ground by promoting studies that said marijuana didn't cause all the problems of the 1960s.

In 1975, NORML lawyers got a model ruling from the Supreme Court of Alaska which gave adults the right to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use in the privacy of their homes. In 1977 they helped defend, unsuccessfully, Brian Kincaid, 21, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was arrested for possession at the University of Idaho and spent several months in jail. NORML's most publicized case campe up in 1976, when 19-year-old Jerry Mitchell of West Plains, Missouri, was sentenced to 12 years for selling an agent one-third of an ounce of marijuana for five dollars, and assisting in the sale of a pound of pot. Keith Stroup and Michael Stepanian got the sentence reduced to seven years, not much of a victory for Mitchell, but a great publicity boon for NORML. "In the early days, our suits were successful even when we lost because by using the media, we were able to bring in expert witnesses, and educate judges on how marijuana was really not that dangerous,' says Peter Meyers.

NORML's income grew from $87,000 in 1972 to $450,000 in 1978. Members paid $70,000 in dues annually. Ads in High Times magazine also brought in money. A few liberal philanthropists came into the fold; Stewart Mott donated $12,000 or so over the decade, for example. Stroup knocked himself out to collect a respectable board of advisors--all believers in decriminalization, and all still listed on the letterhead. Never-theless, NORML was habitually broke, for Stroup was in the habit of spending 10 percent more than he collected. When desperate, he accepted donations from drug dealers. In 1976, for example, he took $10,000 from "The Confederation,' an alliance of marijuana growers and distributors.

Diamond Joel's $500 shoes

Around this time, the group did what political organizations do best--it split into factions. It was, as Stroup biographer Patrick Anderson wrote in High in America, the "classic conflict between middle-class reformers and the people who thought they were fighting the revolution,' that is, the professional pre-yuppie lawyers against the tie-dyed peace'n love hippie activists. The hippies were mostly interested in legalized grass and wanted NORML to back initiatives permitting backyard pot cultivation. They were far less impressed with the entrepreneurial schemes of the professionals who wanted to sell marijuana-related paraphernalia, like match boxes and T-shirts and to distribute marijuana through liquor stores. These hippies didn't like the idea of NORML accepting Playboy's corporate money, either.

In the meantime, NORML's maverick lawyers were developing expertise in drug defense procedures that promised to pay off in a way the activists preferred not to acknowledge. Those who'd cut their teeth on simple pot-possession cases were building lucrative practices based on increasingly complicated drug-smuggling cases. When the two groups came together for the national conventions in the mid-1970s they split into separate sessions, the activists rapping about grass-roots movements and pot legalization and the lawyers trading legal stratagems.

Although some of the activists may have been bummed out by the lawyers' direction, they knew that their legal fees were paying for them to hold their conferences in posh Hyatt hotels, building credibility for both groups. So as long as the organization was doing well and they had similar goals, the two factions could stay together. "The drug defense seminars have been a source of frustration, and they've caused some problems within our own ranks,' says longtime NORML activist Arlene Dusel, "but it all boils down to economics: where else do you go for money?'

Soon, though, a minor Carter administration scandal jolted NORML. At the fateful NORML Christmas party of 1977, Dr. Peter Bourne, President Carter's adviser on drug policy, made the politically questionable decision to snort cocaine in the presence of several witnesses. Bourne left his White House post in disgrace and Stroup was discredited because he indirectly confirmed the story for one of Jack Anderson's reporters. "From the point of liberalizing drug law, it all went down the tubes at that party,' says Mark Kleiman, a former official in the Carter Justice Department and now with Harvard's Program in Criminal Justice.

Under pressure from NORML activists who felt he had squealed on Bourne, Stroup left in 1978 to develop his own drug defense practice. In parting, he declared he wouldn't negotiate with PCP or heroin dealers, nor would he represent the drug informants who were turning in their fellow dealers to win leniency. He then launched into defending marijuana and cocaine dealers with all the enthusiasm he'd invested previously in keeping pot smokers out of the pokey.

"Convicted drug dealers,' he said, "are actually political prisoners.' He counted drug dealers "among his friends,' writes Patrick Anderson, "and he felt that in defending them he was in effect defending himself and everyone else in the drug culture. As he saw it, everyone who used drugs was indebted to the people who took risks to supply them.'

Without Stroup's leadership, NORML activists weren't getting many personal-use and pot-cultivation initiatives on local ballots. "Our opponents said no one was interested in the issue anymore,' said NORML's Deputy Director Jon Gattman. It seemed most of the changes NORML originally sought had been made; few middle-class smokers were getting arrested for possessing small amounts of pot. Eleven states, accounting for one third of the U.S. population, had totally decriminalized the use of marijuana, making an infraction the legal equivalent of getting a parking ticket. Thirty other states enacted "additional discharges,' under which first offenders get slapped with six to twelve months of probation and no record at all if the probation is successful. Only Nevada still treats marijuana possession as a felony.

As the marijuana laws changed, large donations to NORML slowed down. Hippies weren't leaving quite as many dimes and quarters at the head shops either. And in 1982, Playboy pulled out. "NORML was going through some leadership changes and they didn't have their act together enough to be real concerned about putting more money into it at a time that was tight for us too,' says Playboy Foundation director Cleo Wilson.

NORML's advisory board--a hodge-podge of statesmen, lawyers, activists, a clergyman and one fellow listed as a sheriff who hadn't been a sheriff in five years--went dormant. Julian Bond, Ramsey Clark and Benjamin Spock limited their involvement to consenting to be on the stationery. The only philanthropist still sending checks is Max Palevsky, who still thinks kids commonly get thrown in jail for holding a joint of marijuana. "They call and ask for help on specific projects, and I send some money,' he says. "I guess I'm the last, old tired soul doing that. But there's big difference between cocaine and marijuana and I let them know how I feel about that.' Nevertheless, he has sent $10,000 to NORML so far in 1986.

By 1980, the only people with any energy left were the drug defense lawyers who showed up at the conferences in ever nicer suits and bigger cars. Indeed, the legal committee was becoming an impenetrable old-boys network. Mega-drug lawyers like "Diamond' Joel Hirshhorn, who earned about $750,000 in 1984 and refused to take cases involving less than two tons of marijuana or four kilograms of cocaine, came up from Miami to speak at the seminars, bringing with them a whole new kind of big-time cocaine defense contingent.

Activists heard less and less talk about reforming the drug laws. "There was never any talk about how the attorney could continue to be a reformer,' says former activist Jeanne Lange. "Nobody ever said to the drug lawyers, "Hey, we know you're wearing $500 shoes now, and we know you're busy, but could you take the time to meet with the activists in your state? Maybe just for an hour? Maybe it would inspire you.''

The tension grew until 1983, when both contingents spoke of disbanding the organization. Some of the angriest activists believe that NORML's lawyers were no longer in a position to change the drug laws since their livelihood depended upon them. Kevin Zeese, then the legal committee's chair and now national director, supported the motion to split up. Advisory board members prevailed and both factions were encouraged to forgive and forget.

NORML's pro Bonnano work

Today, NORML's debt has dropped from $125,000 with a budget of $190,000 in 1981, to $20,000 with a budget approaching $300,000 this year. "If I were to name one thing that really pulled NORML out of debt, it would be these drug defense seminars,' says Zeese. Going to the drug lawyers for money made sense "because their pockets ran deepest.' NORML also makes about $10,000 a year with its newsletter "Drug Law Report' that has 1,500 subscribers, and they have just recently gained 501(c)(3) tax status making contributions to them tax deductible, a cause of considerable inner-office excitement. Zeese is working on a book entitled The Drug Defense Manual for Practitioners which is designed "for the attorney defending all ranges of drug cases.'

The new NORML is not made up of Jerry Garcias or Abby Hoffmans. It is made up of the likes of Gerry Goldstein of San Antonio, currently defending Danny Vilarchao of Miami who is charged with selling agents four kilos of cocaine with the promise of 160 more. And Jeffrey Weiner, a Miami lawyer who is a member of the illustrious "boat bar,' which means he shows up the morning after a dozen or more shoeless, penniless Colombians are busted on a boat load of cocaine or marijuana, and elects to represent them all. "Generally, he'll be on retainer for whoever's load it was,' says U.S. Attorney Richard Gregory. And it is made up of men like John Zwerling, one of three big NORML lawyers in Virginia who regularly defend coke smugglers. One distributor he recently defended, Gardner Crisp, is appealing his conviction for participating in a two-year drug ring which allegedly smuggled one kilo of cocaine a week into Newport News, Virginia.

With the $90,000 NORML annually earns teaching legal tricks to Weiner and company, the organization does try to address some legitimate issues. It publishes material on marijuana and health, convinces the Drug Enforcement Administration to file environmental impact statements on the spraying of paraquat, and pushes home-grown pot initiatives. Most recently, it has been pressing the Justice Department not to allow employee urinalysis testing. Moreover, they have raised important constitutional questions about the government's efforts to get some drug lawyers to testify against their own clients. But it is questionable whether an organization surviving on the profits of the drug trade can be a credible voice in these debates.

Yet NORML is not about to give up its druglawyer education project. Sitting in NORML's Washington office, Zeese reflects on this new formula for success. "The only was to stop drug traffickers is to legalize drugs,' Zeese says. "NORML wants to put the traffickers out of business.' NORML's principal way of putting traffickers out of business, however, is not lobbying against cocaine laws but teaching dealers' lawyers now to beat drug raps.

The rationable becomes more curious as Zeese tries to explain it. He makes a distinction between NORML's drug lawyers and "sleazy' drug lawyers. "There are drug lawyers out there making big profits off defending big dealers, and they don't really care what the issues are. But our lawyers are ethical guys who believe that the laws should be changed even though they are profiting from the law.' A lawyer is "sleazy,' then, when he defends wicked mobsters for the money but "ethical' when he does the same thing not just for money, but the principle too.

At this point NORML lawyers usually turn pragmatic and claim that they need the cocaine dealers' money to subsidize their good work. "The people that need NORML and use NORML are the lawyers who are interested in law reform issues,' says NORML lawyer Jim Jenkins of Savannah, Georgia. "Sure, they take some high-profile drug cases, and they charge big fees on occasion. But every one of those guys is also doing some pro bono work for some kid who's getting gobbled up for selling an ounce of marijuana in a rural area.'

He therefore can defend Emanuel Lewis Fleming, son of a major cocaine kingpin (both of whom pleaded guilty in a cocaine conspiracy case and are now doing time in the penitentiary) because it enables him to take on the much more palatable case of a "man [who] owns a restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, has a three-year-old child, and has never been convicted of a felony before.' The defendant in the more noble case was recently sentenced to 25 years for smuggling 17,000 tons of marijuana.

Some NORML lawyers take the argument a step further, suggesting that lawyers make a killing defending the drug dealers as a backhanded way of sticking it to the bad guys and helping the cause of pot legalization at the same time. "We gouge the drug dealer in order to do good pro bono,' asserts NORML lawyer Larry Turner, "because our roots are really in pro bono, and in the anti-war movement, and in civil rights issues.'

NORML's past is indeed rooted in the 60s counterculture; even the inside of its Washington office reflects this. The decor is Early College: there's catnip in a grow-light booth by the window, a complete set of back issues of High Times on a shelf, hashish ads from India on the walls near a few cartoons mocking Attorney General Edwin Meese's trips to California to confiscate domestically grown marijuana (which NORML claims is this country's largest cash crop). But peel back the hippie decor and the NORML lawyers' rationalizations seem quite at home in 80s Washington. They're hardly different from the claims of "liberal' law partners in Washington that say the pro bono work they do for charities in their spare time somehow justifies their collecting huge fees for such things as helping corporations avoid paying taxes. But abandoning your professed ideals for sleazy work 90 percent of the time so you can afford to champion them 10 percent of the time, only makes you about 10 percent less sleazy than your competitor who possesses no ideals at all.

Some NORML defenders say that their support for the drug dealers arises out of a principled opposition to drug laws that has always been part of the group's creed. One wonders why, if this overarching belief was such an important part of their tradition, they rarely mentioned it in the early 70s when they were gaining respectability. Would Jacob Javits and Benjamin Spock really have given their names to a group they knew wanted to help Jorge Ochoa or Joe Bonnano?

When all else fails, NORML lawyers reach for the even-bad-guys-deserve-good-lawyers argument. "My stand on coke dealers,' says Larry Turner, "is okay, convict 'em, send 'em to jail, but let's be sure they have their day in court, and let's make sure that wiretap was legal.' There's merit, of course, to this argument. We're right to admire the public defender who makes sure the poor get legal representation and the American Civil Liberties Union when it's making sure constitutional rights are not violated. The same should hold true when NORML lawyers take cases when they, too, fear someone's civil rights have been trampled on.

But there is a difference between saying every thug should have a lawyer and saying that one should be the lawyer for every thug. Just because the accused in this country are entitled to legal representation doesn't mean lawyers can't make judgments about whom they should defend. Ultimately, one can't help feeling that a belief in the "adversarial system' isn't really the reason the NORML lawyers got into this profitable practice. "My life would be easier without these damn cases,' explains Larry Turner, "but it's definitely easier to be liberal when you're rich, you know.'
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Title Annotation:National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
Author:Cunningham, Amy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1986
Words:3294
Previous Article:Manhunt.
Next Article:Watching the watchdogs; are they barking up the wrong tree?
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