NORML balances federal, local action after Cole memo reversal

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The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known better as NORML, has 164 local chapters around the country that are lobbying for change in marijuana laws from city councils to the federal government.

Pro-marijuana groups have seen years of steady wins as state after state has legalized some uses of the drug and it subsequently brought in millions of dollars in tax revenue.

However, that momentum began to slow as the Trump administration took office, dealing blows to several federal decriminalization and legalization guidelines that allowed states more freedom on the issue. Those changes at the federal level culminated last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the "Cole memo," a policy that prevented the federal government from enforcing marijuana laws in states where it has been legalized.

One group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known better as NORML, a nonprofit that works to decriminalize and legalize marijuana in the U.S., stepped up to fight the reversal through social media, lobbying, and awareness efforts.

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"Marijuana is an issue that when discussed, we win," said Justin Strekal, political director at NORML. "Now is the time we're having this national discussion, the time for lawmakers who want to build support for their political platforms or for their personal brands to recognize the will of public, with a majority supporting outright legalization. It's time for them to make that known because with so many issues percolating in the national dialogue, marijuana reform is a freedom issue, a states rights issue, a social justice issue, and it's a fun issue."

The organization, founded in 1970, has 164 local chapters around the country that are lobbying for change in marijuana laws from city councils to the federal government. Because the marijuana legalization movement has become a state-by-state issue, these local chapters largely work close to home with city and state governments. NORML has also planned "lobby days," a coordinated effort across the organization that focuses on issues like public education or state and federal lobbying.

The challenge of pushing for marijuana reform is that each state—or in NORML's case, each individual chapter—is facing a different legislative environment. While the national NORML organization is focused on Sessions' decision, local chapters are fighting their own battles. In New Hampshire and Vermont, for example, state legislatures voted to legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana shortly after Sessions's announcement.

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Simultaneously fighting the Department of Justice's reversal and celebrating the wins in Vermont and New Hampshire means that NORML is working in a very noisy space.

"Right now, America sits in almost a bipolar policy state when it comes to marijuana,"  Strekal said. "We have more than 10,000 pages [on our website] chronicling marijuana policies jurisdiction to jurisdiction."

Strekal said NORML's Colorado chapter had reached out to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) to discuss the reversal of the Cole Memo. Gardner tweeted that he met with Senators to discuss the path forward on legal marijuana, pledging to "respect the will of the people [and] defend states' rights."

On social media, NORML has stressed the same will of the people, focusing on the 64% of Americans who support legalization, according to Gallup, to make its case for reform.

The group is also providing an avenue for people who support marijuana reform to reach out to their representatives through action alerts that send a prewritten letter in support of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. Tens of thousands of people have sent letters using the platform in the past week, Strekal said.

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"Never in American history has support for marijuana legalization been as high as it is today," Strekal said. "That's a result of the decades of work by individuals who have tried to raise awareness through public education and citizen-led lobbying efforts to change lawmakers' minds."

This story first appeared in PRWeek.

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