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NORML's Bad Trip
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
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
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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