California NORML and the fight to legalize cannabis

In the second installment of a two-part conversation, we spoke to Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of the pro-legalization organization California NORML about the non-profit’s work to reform cannabis laws and its place in the story of Dennis: The Man Who Legalized Cannabis, the documentary on the life and times of LGBTQ+ and cannabis advocate Dennis Peron.

NORML was founded in 1970 to provide a voice in the public policy debate for Americans who were opposed to cannabis prohibition and wanted to see an end to the arrest of cannabis users. During the ’70s, NORML led successful efforts to decriminalize minor cannabis offenses in California and 10 other states and significantly lower cannabis penalties in all others. Today, the organization continues to lead the fight to reform state and federal cannabis laws, whether by voter initiative or through the elected legislatures, and serves as a source of information for both the national media and the public on cannabis-related stories.  
With a PhD from Stanford in economics and public policy and a special interest in FDA drug regulation, Gieringer became director of California NORML in 1987, during what he calls some of its most difficult years. “Shortly after I got my PhD was also the time that the war on drugs was coming down hot and heavy in California,” he says, on the phone from his home in Northern California. “It was in the 80s when they brought the helicopters into the Emerald Triangle. I'd always loved that part of California—the redwood country—and I was outraged by the assault of the helicopters. At the time, the marijuana movement and the drug reform movement had virtually collapsed—it was a total retreat.”

This indignation mobilized Gieringer’s career in a new direction, and he began fervently focusing his research on cannabis. It was an interesting turn of events for a man who, as an undergrad at Harvard in the 1960s, “was not one of the ’60s radicals,” he told Harvard Magazine in 2011. “I didn’t even know what marijuana was as a freshman. It was dangerous, something that disreputable people used. There was no discussion of drugs at Harvard back then.” After serving as a congressional intern in Washington in the ’70s, where he staffed pioneering hearings on climate change, his Libertarian leanings led him to focus on issues of personal freedom. He was quick to get behind forward-thinking initiatives, including cannabis and drug reform. 

“My feeling was that this was a good time to get involved because nobody else would,” he says of taking on the role at California NORML, where he now serves as state coordinator. “Pot smokers never declared war on America—America declared war on marijuana. It was completely falling apart, and it got worse up until about 1990…but then it started getting better.” A huge catalyst for things getting better was Dennis Peron, who became an important collaborator, as well as an educator on the medical argument for cannabis—something Gieringer hadn’t seriously considered. “When I took the role at NORML we had a ‘Potline’, so people would call with questions about marijuana use. And I found that there's many users who need marijuana for some medical reason,” he says. “And it wasn't for AIDS and it wasn't for cancer, which I'd heard of—it was often for these rare conditions, which I hadn't heard of, like fibromyalgia. One person would call in about fibromyalgia and then someone else would call in and say, ‘Hey, I've got fibromyalgia too’.” With Gieringer’s help, Peron and his cohorts passed Proposition 215 (aka The Compassionate Use Act) in 1996, which legalized cannabis for medical reasons in the state of California.

An academic before he became an activist, Gieringer is also a fundamental figure in the research on vaporizers. “I'm proud to say I was one of the original sponsors of research on cannabis vaporization,” he says. I did a study in conjunction with Rick Doblin and MAPS [the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies], years ago. I sponsored the original studies on the Volcano vaporizer, which later became used as the standard for the medical and scientific study of vaporization. The Volcano was manufactured in Germany and certified by the EU as officially approved for herbal vaporization, based off what we did. So, I feel very good about that.”
With Gieringer’s guidance, California NORML has become the flagship group for medical cannabis advocacy and cannabis legalization. “I'm still working at it,” he says. “Because even though marijuana is technically legal in California it's illegal as ever under federal law. Obviously, the federal law has to change. That will be the light at the end of the tunnel, and everything will be different after that.” 

-- Written by Natalie Shukur 

Natalie Shukur is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative consultant. She writes about lifestyle, fashion, design, art, and culture for publications including VogueCondé Nast Traveller, and Cabana

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