Spotlight: Pushing Decriminalization


The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 43 million Americans have tried marijuana. Seventy percent of the United States' drug arrests involve the weed—nearly 3 million since 1970, with enforcement costs of over $600 million annually. Doing away with the laws restricting its use would affect the lives of many Americans. One individual fighting to remove all criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana is Gordon Brownell.

Though bearded, Brownell, 35 years old, has the demeanor and dress of a business executive. Brought up in a conservative Republican family, a former Nixon aide, and a former Reaganite, he seems an unlikely leader of the decriminalization movement. Yet since 1974 he has served as the West Coast chairman of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a member of its national board.

Brownell, however, sees no philosophical inconsistency in these different stands, although he admits to a change in emphasis.

It was Barry Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative that served as his political primer and interested him in conservative Republican principles. He was attracted by Goldwater's "emphasis on individual freedom and small government." And, he says, "that basic libertarian strain within me…is as consistent as when I was active with Goldwater and Nixon and Reagan and now what I am doing with NORML and the marijuana issue."

What led him to fight for the repeal of drug laws? "No single event," he says. "I got personally involved with it because I am a drug user myself.…I don't like being criminalized by virtue of what drugs or substances I choose to use, and I don't like to see the same thing happen to other people. I have had a number of friends who have been tremendously mistreated by our legal and justice systems because of their misfortune of having been arrested and jailed for marijuana possession."

Brownell, a 1969 graduate of Fordham Law School, first became active in the anti-drug-law movement during a brief stay in Washington, D.C., in 1971. At that time he became acquainted with Pete Stoff, the founder of NORML, "and through Pete got to know people in California." He started out as the statewide political organizer for Amorphia's 1972 marijuana initiative in California, which received 34 percent of the vote. By 1973 he was elected president of Amorphia—a countercultural version of NORML—and became NORML's West Coast chairman when the two groups merged in 1974.

Brownell thinks that a historical perspective is important in gaining people's support for decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. He emphasizes marijuana's medical uses, its relative harmlessness, and legalization's effect on usage. He leaves aside the issue of individual rights because he believes "it is a lot easier to deal with questions as to why the laws should be repealed if you have an understanding of where they came from and realize that they were a tremendous mistake to begin with."

What about "harder drugs," then, which do not possess the redeeming qualities he attributes to marijuana? His answer brings rights into the picture: "Whether our choice of recreational drugs is alcohol or marijuana or cocaine or heroin or LSD, the fundamental principle is the same. Which is as long as we are not doing anything which is endangering someone else, then what drugs we choose to use and the effects they have on us is really a decision that each of us should make for ourselves."

Brownell recognizes the danger of arguing from marijuana's innocuousness. "If we premised everything on the fact that it is harmless, and if it turned out not to be as harmless as people believe, then that would undermine the reasons and the rationale for changing the laws."

In 1980 Brownell will lead the second attempt to pass an initiative in California. The partial decriminalization would remove all criminal penalties for possession, cultivation, and nonprofit sale of pot for personal use. He predicts that it has "a very good chance of getting on the ballot, and I would like to think that we have a good chance of winning passage here in California." It will take $75,000 to get on the ballot, he estimates, and another $500,000 to $1 million for the campaign. Unlike 1972, when polls showed 25 percent supporting the initiative at the beginning of the campaign, recent polls show some 40 percent in favor. "Quite a few voters are undecided," he says, "and the task of the campaign and marijuana reform activism generally is to make people aware that removing the laws prohibiting marijuana use is not going to have any great effect at all on marijuana usage patterns or the effects of marijuana smoking."

Total decriminalization would mean that governments would have no say over what people do with marijuana. The initiative backed by NORML excludes commercial sales because, says Brownell, "there is not popular support to totally legalize the sale in California, and even if there was, it is prohibited by both federal and international law."

Brownell feels restrained optimism about the future. He says, "This year is the first nonelection year since 1971 where we have not had a decriminalization bill passed anywhere in the country, and it is clear that the decriminalization effort has been slowed nationally over the course of the last couple of years. We are going to concentrate a lot of effort in other states to try to reverse that and start building momentum once again. We are also going to try to focus on marijuana medical legislation and we're hoping to have at least 20, maybe 25, states by the end of next year where people can legally use it for medical purposes." Next year's marijuana initiative in California, if successful, will get government out of one area of people's lives and could get the ball rolling for nationwide decriminalization efforts.