Anyone who has ever tried to convince someone to change their mind over something they feel strongly about knows that it can be an impossible battle, and the only way to succeed is by taking the long view and embracing gradual change. The same can be said for changing public attitudes towards cannabis.
In this week’s episode, we speak with JM Pedini, Development Director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. NORML has been representing responsible consumers since 1970, and through their efforts and activism have seen public opinion change drastically in the past fifty years. By sufficiently moving the needle on public opinion, NORML aims to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and subsequently ensure access to products that are safe, convenient, and affordable. In our conversation with JM, we discuss their work as Development Director for NORML, how their experiences with cancer led them to NORML, and how NORML supports its affiliate chapters that are doing grassroots work to affect public policy changes both locally and internationally.
We discuss the changes that have taken place since NORML was founded, and why advancing public policy is reliant on understanding where your state legislature currently stands and what they’re emotionally comfortable with. To hear more of JM’s thoughts on the importance of small victories, how to build momentum, and patient rights, tune in today!
The Cannabis Enigma is a co-production of The Cannigma and Americans for Safe Access. Music by Desca.
“JM Pendi: There’s this idealism out there where people will, and maybe, rightfully so say, “No, I don’t like that bill. It’s not perfect and doesn’t do everything.” So, it’s almost like I’m going to take my ball and go home. Right? Okay, what a hefty pillow of privilege one might possess that they rest their head upon at night when they can make such sweeping generalizations and say it’s not perfect, so I’m out. That’s not really a policy approach that’s going to work in most situations.”
Codi Peterson: Hello, I’m Dr. Codi Peterson.
Elana Goldberg: And I’m Elana Goldberg.
CP: Well, we have a good one here for you from MJBizCon. We’re here on the sidelines hanging out in the convention center in Las Vegas and Elana had the wonderful chance to interview the director of NORML. Can you tell me a little bit more?
EG: Yeah, so is the development director actually, of NORML. And I just realized their name is JM and it was at MJ Beers. I can’t believe I didn’t catch that before. It’s like just the letters flipped. Anyway, that’s not the interesting part of the interview.
CP: Thank goodness.
EG: No, that’s not the interesting part. So, if anyone who knows NORML, probably not surprising that the main topic of this conversation was normalization of cannabis also legalization and something that I found really interesting about the interview with JM was digging into patient rights, and all of the work that NORML does around patient rights in the United States.
Again, for anyone who doesn’t know the organization, it’s split up into local chapters. And then there’s also kind of federal umbrella body. And JM is involved both in their local chapter, and then also at the federal level. So, we kind of jumped around there a bit. There are some nice explanations, and I won’t do any spoilers there. If you had anything to do with NORML in the States, Codi?
CP: Not yet. But it’s definitely an organization I’m looking at getting involved with. I think they’re doing some really incredible work. And I can’t wait to hear what JM Pedini had to say.
EG: Yeah, so let’s jump straight to the interview. And remember after the interview, stick around, because we’ll have our usual segment with our partners at ASA, Americans for Safe Access. Let’s have a listen.
CP: Can’t wait.
EG: So, I’m here today, with JM Pedini, on the sidelines of MJBizCon here in Las Vegas. JM, thanks for joining me today.
JMP: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
EG: So, let’s get straight into it. You’re the Development Director for NORML. Tell us what that means.
JMP: NORML is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. I do a lot and we started this fight way back in 1970, when public support for legalization was only about 12%, and here we are today at this huge trade show for a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s come a long, long way.
EG: And what’s that number at now? You said 12% support back in the 70s? What’s that number at today?
JMP: 7 out of 10 Americans.
EG: So, from 12% to 70% in a few decades.
JMP: Just of just nearly 70%.
EG: And that’s Americans who support legalization across the board?
EG: Okay. And is that the main aim of NORML at this point to get us to that point of full legalization in the United States?
JMP: Yeah, it really is. NORML’s mission is to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana, by adults, and ensure that they have access to products that are safe, convenient, and affordable. So, it’s NORML that provides that voice in the public policy debate for responsible consumers, for those who oppose prohibition, which is really different space to be in, not only at an event like this, where it’s all about industry and getting involved and making money. We’re often that lone voice over on the corner, looking out for consumers, looking out for their rights and for their safety.
EG: And then for recreational and medical consumers alike, right?
JMP: Yeah, it’s for adult consumers, for medical consumers, and for those who, you know, honestly aren’t consumers at all, but just don’t support continuing this failed experiment with prohibition.
EG: Right. So, tell me about your job specifically. How do you fit into this whole mission?
JMP: Well, we are a lean, lean organization at NORML, despite having been around for 51 years now, very small staff. We all wear as many hats as we can. I’m the development director. So, my work helps ensure that NORML has the resources to continue our work, reforming marijuana laws at the local, state and federal levels. Also, empowering our global chapter affiliate network, NORML has chapters all around the world now and they’re doing that real on the ground, grassroots organizing work, to affect public policy change, wherever they might be. So, at their city council level, or within their state legislature, even I do work at the state level. I live in Virginia, and I do work there. You might have heard, we just became the first state in the south just to legalize adult use. That, in a nutshell, is the work that that we do at NORML.
EG: Right. So, your work specifically is working on, I mean, I’m guessing here, tell me if I’m right, like partnerships and fundraising, to get the resources you need to do this work?
JMP: Absolutely, not only to do the fundraising, the traditional development for our organization for NORML to have those resources. I also oversee our chapter network and teach them how to do this work for the support of their own organizations to make their work more successful. We have the NORML legal committee as well. I help administer that program. We do NORML legal seminars twice a year where attorneys from around the country can come and get the required continuing legal education credits, with a focus on cannabis, of course, our seminars. There’s a lot going on at NORML.
EG: One of the things I’ve always kind of been trying to understand about NORML and we’re based in Israel, yet the majority of our focus is on the United States. And sometimes it’s a little hard to understand exactly what’s going on, on the ground, which is why we need to come out here and just talk to people, like yourself. I’m interested to understand, what happens at the national level within the organization, and then what happens in those chapter levels?
JMP: So, our policy work at the national level is is largely concentrated, of course, on Congress. It’s really incumbent upon Congress to take action to end prohibition. It’s really the only way that this is going to be accomplished. It’s not something the President can unilaterally do. It really has to be Congress, that does the work of advancing a bill to the President’s desk that ends prohibition. So, there’s a lot of work there.
There are tons of other bills moving through Congress as well, bills that relate to veteran’s access to cannabis, bills that deal with safe banking for the cannabis industry, and the safe banking app. That’s the one that surely getting traction right now, and very likely may be the first bill that legitimizes the cannabis industry that succeeds at the federal level.
EG: I’m jumping questions here a little bit, we can get back into the chapters in a moment. In your opinion, should we be supportive of this piecemeal approach to changing the policy? Or should we be like focusing on the holy grail and running to that? It just in case, I’m here, for our listeners, JM is laughing at me as I’m ask the question.
JMP: Okay, so I’m laughing because it really is a perfect segue back to chapter. Okay, so the answer is yes. And I say this, based on the success that we’ve had, at the state level in Virginia, with this policy approach. It’s an approach that I personally teach to our chapters, right? There’s this idealism out there where people will, you know, and maybe rightfully so say, “No, I don’t like that bill. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t do everything.” So, it’s almost like I’m going to take my ball and go home. Okay, what hefty pillow of privilege, one might possess that they rest their head upon at night when they can make such sweeping generalizations and say, it’s not perfect. So, I’m out. It’s not really a policy approach that’s going to work in most situations.
And so, for example, in Virginia, right, this is an example of chapters doing chapter work. We were taking wins on these really small bills, bills that were it seemed insignificant, that people got really angry about because they weren’t far reaching enough. It didn’t do exactly what they wanted or needed it to do. We were the first to admit this isn’t perfect, but this is something. So, if you can take that little win, celebrate it, we can come back next year. You can just go a little bit a little bit further, a little bit further. It’s all about understanding where your state legislature is at. What are they emotionally comfortable with? Because this is how we advance public policy. It’s not with volumes of data, and facts and figures. It’s changing hearts and minds. People believe what they’re saying to themselves inside their own head. And if you come at them with something that’s different than that internal narrative, it’s really hard for them to accept it.
If you can find that emotional hook, the reason that they care about this policy, maybe it’s financial opportunity. Usually, it’s about how an impact could be impacting them personally, that works the most, or maybe someone they love. So again, in Virginia, we’re starting off with this really small, limited access, limited allowance, medical cannabis bill back in 2015. But it passes. And then it’s taken the next one the next year, then a couple more than next year. Eventually, we’re at the point where we’ve done all the little baby step. We’ve checked all the boxes on the studies and the work groups, and then you just kind of wait for that political opportunity, or hopefully, work toward building that political opportunity. So that when it does present itself, you’ve done all the work and you’re ready to make that next big policy step.
EG: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to me what you’re saying in terms of like the cannabis story in general. A lot of the work that we do at Enigma, is also about changing hearts and minds. Like you said, it’s about kind of destigmatizing the plan. And often what I see, is like, you can’t get someone from cannabis is evil, and has no therapeutic use to, “Oh, yeah, sure. It should be available for adults.” You can’t get from that point to the next point in one go. You need to get the first to, “Okay. Yeah, there are some therapeutic applications there. It’s okay for people with terminal diseases, or the elderly or something like that. Great.” So, we got them to that point.
And then they’re at least saying that there is therapeutic protection, or there is some sort of therapeutic use. Then from there, you can get them to, “Okay, it can help with a variety of medical conditions.” Great. If you’ve got someone to be able to say that this has many applications, then straightaway, you pass the schedule, for example, at that point. Then maybe you can get them to the point of, “Okay, it’s fine for medical. It can be medicine, but no one’s allowed to have any fun or enjoy themselves.” Fine, get them to that point. And then maybe it’s like, “Okay, it’s the same as a glass of wine, on the weekend.” You might not get that one person all the way from that kind of like point A to point whatever I got to them in or something like that. But I think the more people, we can just start pushing along that process, the better. And then, you don’t know which one of these people has a wife that works in policy or a sister who’s on this committee, and I guess it kind of like all fits in together. But I really feel like it’s that going through the process on every different level that we just need to keep doing over and over again.
JMP: Yeah, you really do. You have to understand what structures and systems and procedures are out there and be willing to play the game to – your own policy benefit.
EG: Right. Yeah. So how did you get into this?
JMP: This is always an interesting question. Okay. I would like to think that by this point, I had mastered the artful technique of condensing it into some delicious little nugget. I have not.
EG: Give us what you’ve got.
MP: Right. So, I’ve had cancer twice. And the second time it wasn’t cute, it was you can try to prolong your life with some chemo and radiation, or your only cure to possibility. Possibility, is a stem cell transplant. So, there were just not a lot of good options. And they’re like, “Well, you might die from that, but you’re going to die either way.”
EG: What type of cancer?
JMP: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So, spoiler alert, I tried the stem cell transplant. But my oncologists were, I think, honest, is probably a good way to describe this and I became very concerned about facing cancer a third time. The chemotherapy that I had for my stem cell transplant actually causes more cancer. And so, I just became, once, twice, okay, I got to get ready in case it comes back or another one. I live in Virginia and despite having passed one of the nation’s very, very, very first medical marijuana laws, way back in the 70s, we didn’t have medical cannabis access, or even allowance. We had a law that used the word prescription so it was never really applicable.
EG: One of those ones.
JMP: So, I went to a normal legal seminar and I met the founder of NORML, Keith Stroup who also happens to live in Virginia. And he was like, “Hey, you should get involved with NORML vocally when you get home.” I was like, “Great, I’ll do that.” So, I did. And I just very selfishly wanted to change the laws so that if I was facing cancer a third time, my oncology team would have access to even more possible options to help keep me alive.
EG: It’s an all right type of, you know, selfish work.
JMP: Right. So, I came for the health care and I stayed for the criminal justice.
EG: Right. I think you’ve got that story wrapped up pretty well.
JMP: Thank you. At the end, I get in there good. But it’s kind of rambling and wild in the beginning, much like battling cancer.
EG: How long ago was this?
JMP: It started in 2008. I was pretty much done with it, 2011. I met Keith in 2012. And by 2014, I was a leader within Virginia NORML, and by 2015, I was executive director and I started working at NORML and –
EG: The rest is history.
JMP: Here we are.
EG: So, tell me, today in 2021 now, in Virginia, if someone presented with the same cancer, as you had that first time, how would things be different for them?
JMP: Yeah. Now, they would be able to get registered for the state’s medical cannabis program. They would be able to shop at a medical cannabis dispensary. They’d have access to not only products that are legal, but that are safe, convenient, and we’re working on affordable in Virginia.
EG: Yeah, right. That’s the third piece of the puzzle, right?
EG: So, at that time, through your treatment, were you using cannabis? Or did you wish you were able to use it?
JMP: No, I just I just knew that I didn’t – no, I wasn’t. And I think it’s an interesting question that I get it a lot and I’ve heard it asked of other patients as well, and I think it’s kind of a question that we all take for granted is like the one to ask. But particularly for patients that are immune compromised as the majority of cancer patients who are undergoing treatment or radiology treatment, if you’re immune compromised, particularly if you don’t have access to a product that’s regulated, imagine how many risks are taking to set something on fire and inhale it in that state, or eat something that someone made that someone grew. This is what, of course, patients around the country that are in states without legal access are doing.
But I think it must be an incredibly difficult choice for patients in that situation to make knowing that, there’s a potential health risk not knowing what’s in the product and I’m really glad that we’ve been able to do the work that we have in Virginia to make sure that that’s not the case there anymore. Still so much work to be done and so much work to be done around the country as well.
EG: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s about what you said before that, it’s just that the option is in front of these patients as well. And obviously, as you said, there are many patients that do go ahead and purchase on the illicit market, they don’t know what they’re taking, because it’s like a last resort treatment and it shouldn’t have to be like that.
JMP: It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be the choice for anyone in the United States. You shouldn’t be choosing based on your zip code or being forced to choose if, between dangerous pharmaceuticals that you might be able to have a safer alternative for, had you had access to cannabis or to purchase products that put you in potential legal jeopardy. It’s just so many mind-boggling consequences out there that come along with cannabis criminalization, and we’re definitely – it’s definitely easier to make progress on the medical side. And that’s what we’ve seen happen around the country, and most states now do have a medical cannabis program.
But then the same, we’re thinking about it from the medical perspective of like, “Well, does someone deserve based on their zip code to have the choice between potentially dying or going to jail, or losing their children, or losing their employment or education funding?” That’s something we can all kind of – that’s an emotional connection most people can hook into pretty quickly. But then from the adult use side, same question. So, based on your zip code, do you deserve to go to jail for something that’s a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States? And that’s legal for a large percentage of the country?
EG: Yep. So, when do you think we’re going to get there? What’s your prediction?
JMP: Oh, well, I don’t think, maybe I’m just a bit of a pragmatist because I’m living in Virginia now. I think the bill that we see the most potential for passage in this Congress, is the Safe Banking Act. It would be great if it were this Congress that also passes a bill to end federal prohibition on cannabis, but it might be more likely that that’s in the next Congress. I don’t know. Some people are more optimistic than I am. But I think the general idea is that the safe banking has got to pass first.
EG: I hope you’re wrong. But you’re probably not. It’d be good to be wrong about this one. So, I know, you’re probably keen to get back to the thousands of booths to get around now and keep pounding the floor of the expo. But before we finish up, I want to ask you for any of our listeners who are interested in getting involved in NORML, what can they do?
JMP: I can’t wait for this. So yes, please listen, if every Thursday, you would love to get a concise email delivered fresh to your inbox that tells you the latest in cannabis policy, and science news, we’ve got you. You can head straight to norml.org/subscribe. Sign up for our newsletter. We won’t ever spam you, sell it, or share it. But yeah, not only can you get access to all of this information, from science to policy, to what’s legal and not legal in this, that, or the other state. At the NORML website, you can become a member of NORML at norml.org/join. Get an awesome membership card in the mail, letter, and it really gives supporters a way to show their commitment to this movement, to the work that we’re doing, to legalize it, and to legalize America.
EG: Super important work. Thank you for all the work and for joining me here today. We’ll put all those links that you mentioned in the show notes so that the listeners can click on them easily and go and join and subscribe, and do all those things you mentioned. And enjoy the rest of the conference.
JMP: Thanks so much for talking with me.
CP: Hi, I’m Codi with Cannabis Pharmacist. We’re here today with Debbie Churgai, the Executive Director of the Americans for Safe Access, one of the longest standing advocacy organizations around medical cannabis in the United States. Thanks for joining us today, Debbie. Nice to see you.
DC: Thank you, Codi. You too.
CP: It’s not everyone in cannabis have had the luxury meet. But fortunately, I have had the pleasure of meeting Debbie in person. So, it’s kind of nice to have both sides of that coin. But today, I really wanted to dig in and talk about something that’s that’s important to me, especially as a medical professional is patient access. And guess in some ways, really what I’m talking about is the opposite of access and talking about barriers. So, I know for a fact that this can be challenging across the US. But why don’t you just give me a lay of the land as far as how maybe the traditional patient journey might be hindered by the current medical cannabis landscape?
DC: Yeah, so a lot of people think of access as just changing a law. But as we know, that is just the first step. There are so many barriers that still exist for patients, even in states with medical cannabis and adult use programs. Because it’s not federally legal. For instance, federal employees, veterans who utilize the VA system, any employee that is drug tested, which is all federal employees and millions of others. Patients in hospice centers, school age, minors who don’t have access in schools, people that can’t afford access, because it’s not covered by insurance, and the list goes on and on. Some states allow people on organ transplant lists to be medical cannabis patients and some states don’t, which mean patients are moving from state to state just to have access to a medicine that should be legal and available to everyone in the country.
CP: Yeah, and really an herb, is if we’re getting that to, is what we’re talking about. It can grow in your garden. I think one thing that really comes to mind for me, this qualified condition. This would be the only medication in which we’ve created a whole different system where there must specifically meet these criteria, rather than meeting criteria as assessed by a physician. Cannabis has specific criteria you must meet and each state has made different decisions. Does this impact patients at all?
DC: Yes. That is a huge impact. And one of the things that we advocate for is that every state dropped the qualifying condition list and just leave it up to physicians.
CP: Let doctors prescribe medicine.
DC: Yeah, exactly. Doctors should decide what is best for their patients. And it’s crazy to think that you can have something in one state and not be allowed to utilize cannabis and then cross a state and suddenly be able to use it, just because of those conditions specific list. And as you mentioned, every single state has a different list. So, sometimes patients don’t even know what is allowed in their own state.
CP: Absolutely. I think it’s confusing even for those who are sort of deeply entrenched in this medical cannabis world, which is someone like me, and I would be quick to point out that there is no condition list for the prescribing of opioids and no requirement of good evidence based for doctors to prescribe them, and they may cause a little bit more harm than cannabis. So, I’m all for it, Debbie. I want to see this plant normalized, legalized, destigmatized, so we have the same mission.
DC: Awesome. Agree.
CP: Okay. Well, thanks so much. I can’t wait to hear what you and a lot of have cooking up for us next week.
DC: All right. Thanks so much.
CP: Have a good one, Debbie.
[00:26:30] EG: I’m Elana Goldberg. This episode of The Cannabis Enigma podcast was executive produced by myself with production assistance from Dr. Codi Peterson and Ed Weissman and edited by our friends at WeEditPodcasts.
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