Advocates for liberalizing the nation's drug laws met in Anaheim on Saturday and discussed marijuana arrests, an appeals court ruling allowing California doctors to recommend marijuana to sick patients and the defeat of marijuana legalization in Nevada.
The three-day meeting was aimed at regrouping and discussing new ideas, said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the conference.
The group teamed for the first time with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a 5,000-member organization with chapters in 200 high schools and colleges nationwide. Of the 400 people at the conference, most were students.
Sandwiched between seminars, movie producer Aaron Russo ("Trading Places" and "The Rose") gave a raucous talk that had most of the young luncheon audience on its feet hooting and clapping.
"Well, as you know, I'm here to talk about that terrible, terrible drug known as marijuana," said Russo.
He admitted getting high on marijuana with Hollywood celebrities, many of whom might lose their jobs if their marijuana use was common knowledge.
"Our laws were meant to protect us," Russo said.
"But I have friends who have been abused, jailed and exploited by our government and marginalized in our society by these laws."
He suggested that it is time for drug reform groups to make a political statement, and that they could start in California by recalling Gov. Gray Davis.
He accused the governor of failing to help sick people, despite the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
The initiative permits patients to use marijuana legally if they have a doctor's recommendation.
However, there has been confusion about the legality of the medical marijuana measure, because possession and use are illegal under federal law.
California marijuana reformers recently have become more active after federal agents raided a Santa Cruz medical marijuana collective Sept. 5, arresting three people and confiscating 130 plants.
In an act of defiance, elected city officials, including the Santa Cruz mayor, joined with the Women's Alliance for Medical Marijuana to dispense the drug to sick patients two weeks later.
Many in the audience were college students like Martin Baer, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maryland in College Park. He got involved with a local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in reaction to a drug provision of the Higher Education Act of 1998.
"Everybody says education is a route to a better life. But the act denies federal financial aid to any student with a drug conviction," Baer said.
"That's any drug conviction, even for a misdemeanor."
He and other students said they seek reform because of the war on drugs, and drug policy in the United States that "just doesn't work."
"We're just trying to come up with a better one," Baer said.
Advocates like Robert Kampia, the Marijuana Policy Project's executive director, have argued that the United States is marching backward. He said the rest of the world is moving away from marijuana prohibition.
Last month, the project cited FBI statistics on marijuana arrests for 2001 that dipped just slightly from an all-time high in 2000. According to the FBI report, 723,498 people were arrested on marijuana charges last year, down from 734,498 in 2000.
With help from wealthy benefactors, the reform group spent more than $2 million trying to get the Nevada legalization measure passed, but persuaded only 39% of the voters.
Project officials were hoping that Nevadans, especially after voting two years ago to approve the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, would endorse the measure.
Many other marijuana advocacy groups were represented at the conference. They included the Medical Marijuana Patients Union, Police Officers for Drug Law Reform, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.