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Erik Altieri: Leading NORML to Cannabis Legalization Victories

Erik Altieri is the Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He has seen great changes in cannabis legalization since he started.

“When I started on this, we had zero adult-use states, about a dozen medical marijuana states. Public opinion changes and its trajectory gives me hope. Everything has moved the way we wanted to move,” Altieri said.

Altieri was born in Philadelphia and then moved to Washington Township in Gloucester County as a child. He first looked into marijuana prohibition in college at American University in Washington, DC. Altieri consumed himself to enhance his creativity and relaxation. He began to see how damaging cannabis prohibition was and the impact it was having that led to mass incarceration.

“Peeling back the layers of an onion, there was a lot to be righteously indignant about,” he recalled.

While he was in college, “I got a call from a friend in Philly who just went to a NORML rally and realized they were down in D.C. Registered with them as a member, interned with them, and the rest is history,” he said. Altieri was subsequently made Communications, Director, and PAC manager and came back as Executive Director in 2016.

When Altieri started working on legalization during the George W. Bush administration, he said the best NORML could do was provide legal advice and keep our heads down.

Growing Cannabis Legalization Support

In 2000 there was 35 percent support for cannabis legalization. Currently, 67 percent of Americans support legalization.  Some might see the long arc of prohibition and lament how it is taking to end. Erik Altieri said it was encouraging that cannabis policy has changed so much in the last 15 years.

“We are won the policy battle and public opinion,” Altieri said. He added that medical marijuana (or medical cannabis) polls at 92 percent approval. “That makes it as popular as grandma’s apple pie.”

Erik Altieri said medical marijuana helps people exposed folks who would not have been exposed to it otherwise. They saw the relief it gave people from cancer treatments, among other conditions.

Two things he credits are the shift to technology and demographic changes. Social media makes information easier to obtain for the general public. It also allows NORML to bypass editorial boards and corporate media, which often did not question prohibition. It is a lot easier now for people to do research, which allows them to make up their minds.

Altieri also attributes the shift in attitude to demographic change. The Greatest Generation (who lived through the Depression and WWII) had limited exposure to cannabis. They were more exposed to reefer madness propaganda. Baby boomers in the 1960s and 70s experienced cannabis themselves or knew someone who did. So they knew it was not so bad. Now Millennials and Generation Z are said to support it by 85 percent plus support. Thus NORML has benefited.

Altieri said it has been incredibly satisfying to work, and real progress has been made. There are now 33 clinical cannabis states and 11 recreational states.

New Jersey Cannabis Politics

While New Jersey has a history of cannabis prohibition, legal cannabis in NJ has made great strides since the election of Governor Murphy. Altieri said it was very heartening to hear from Murphy he wanted to make legalization a priority issue. Even if it did hit legislative roadblocks, it was good.

It has been frustrating as New Jersey seems stuck in a pattern of arrest and incarceration as arrests increase.

Garden State NORML has its nose to the grindstone as they seek to pass decriminalization as soon as possible. Altieri was fairly optimistic it would get done. Then they could focus on passing the referendum in November and then lobby legislators for implementation.

Passing Legalization

Based on polling, Altieri predicted the referendum would pass in a landslide because people are tired of prohibition.

The catch is that New Jersey legislators still have to pass implementation legislation. Altieri said securing implementation will not be easy, even if the referendum passes by a majority.

In terms of implementation, they are concerned with securing access to the market for small businesses, especially for black and brown entrepreneurs from the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs, and keeping tax rates low.

Altieri said legalization is always a learning process. In the early states, tax rates were set high, with a low supply of cannabis made available. Because of this, “folks will still go to where they went all these years,” Altieri said, alluding to underground market vendors who are getting more customers than the legal businesses. High taxes and low sales are serious issues in the California market.

If the legislators fail to pass adequate implementation legislation, “In 2021, New Jersey has state elections for the Governor, Assembly, and State Senate. So, if we don’t see serious movement, do research and see if legislators are on the right side of history. If not, look into their opponents,” Altieri said.

While legalization has been greatly delayed in New Jersey, the state could still beat Pennsylvania and New York to the finish line.

Nuances of Legalization

Altieri said it was an important thing to note that just because retail sales are established, there is still a larger fight over the cannabis implementation.

In many states, legalization led to nepotism and cronyism from big corporations that never cared about it before trying to make money off it.

“We need to make sure licensing is fair and favorable, that it includes boutique shops, growers,” Erik Altieri said. “Workers can’t be second-class citizens.”

He added that cannabis advocates need to end drug testing at work, people getting fired for off-the-clock use, and child protection services taking children from medical marijuana patients. Altieri explained that as states have made progress, other states looking to legalize cannabis can use them as a model.

“We see across the board, the nitty-gritty of organizing year after year, all building on itself. We really are on that tipping point,” Altieri said.

Erik Altieri on Cannabis and Congress

Altieri lamented that the Senate blocked progressive cannabis bills that the House has passed. Especially because it is a presidential election year, combined with coronavirus, progress has ground to a halt.

Nonetheless, there were victories in this session of Congress. It was the first time in history a committee passed to end marijuana prohibition, the MORE Act, which is likely to move to the House floor and go to the Senate. In addition, the SAFE Banking Act, which would make it easier for cannabis-related firms to do business, passed the House by a wide, bipartisan majority.

“Ten years ago, we could not get a single bill introduced into Congress, much less a hearing,” Altieri said.

As states legalize, politicians are changing their positions. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) was initially wholly against legalization. As the market has developed in Colorado since legalization, he has been vocal about letting states set their own policy in favor of cannabis. Thus, legalization is getting more and more buy-in from Members of Congress where legalization has passed.

Leading NORML

“The wave is cresting here where politicians can’t ignore the issue,” Altieri said regarding cannabis legalization’s popularity.

However, Erik Altieri lamented Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a bad stance on cannabis and a problematic history as the architect of mandatory minimum sentences. Nonetheless, it is important to vote for pro-legalization Members of Congress and local legislators. Even a unified Democratic government is no guarantee. We still need grassroots pressure, no matter who controls Congress.

“Politicians are always lagging behind public opinion. They always wait for a parade and then run to get in front of it,” Erik Altieri said.

Altieri said to obtain federal legalization a need a true, multi-racial, class, and generation coalition is needed. NORML has built strong alliances with the ACLU and NAACP, among others. They also have some unexpected allies like AARP, which advocates for seniors since clinical cannabis benefits them greatly.

“We have the American people at our back, and we’ll finally see prohibition crumble and be a relic of history,” Erik Altieri predicted.

Full disclosure: the author joined NORML last year.

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