Richard Evans is an attorney and long time marijuana activist and defender. He’s been part of the marijuana laws reform movement for more than 35 years. His experience and knowledge spans from the first serious reform efforts in the 70s, through the dark days of the movement in the 80s, to the rapidly evolving legalization progress today.
Few people remember back in the 70’s when the Carter administration had a drug czar that was actually in favor of decriminalization and reform.
Then came the “dark days” of the Reagan administration and “Just Say No” demagoguing of marijuana use.
But since the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California, the trend toward reform and legalization has been steadily growing, and is only going to expand.
Evans predicts that 6 or more new states could enact legalization by 2016, which will force Congress to settle the issue at the Federal level with “states rights” legislation that will allow each state to regulate marijuana as it sees fit.
I conducted the following interview with Evans recently in his Northampton office.
Rusell Matson: How long have you been involved in marijuana law reform?
Richard Evans: since the mid-70s.
RM: That is quite a while.
RE: Yes, I think 1977 was the year I went to my first NORML conference. That it turns out was a significant year.
I do not know if you anything about the history of NORML or the whole movement, but that is the year that it is commonly said the entire movement “went up Keith Stroup’s nose.”
There was a party on Saturday night after the NORML conference in Washington DC at A Georgetown venue. It was it townhouse being renovated by the owner who had gutted it. There was one big open space. It was a great place for a party.
There was only one room that was contained. And that one room is where the insiders went – I was not an insider, I hardly knew anybody there.
But I remember seeing people come in, and I recognized President Carter’s drug czar [Peter Bourne] . That is when I said “wow, I’m in the right place”.
Several months later it came out that there were things going on in that room that cost Peter Bourne his job. It was a big scandal.
Of course it just destroyed NORML and that was about the same time, well it was a few years later – that the “Parents Movement” heated up. Those were the dark years of marijuana law reform.
RM: The parents movement?
RE: The parents movement is when all of these soccer moms were just freaking out about the fact that their 15-year-olds have been turned on to weed by their older brothers and sisters.
They discovered it in college in the 60s, and they just freaked out about the kids using marijuana. It was basically that their urging that Nancy Reagan discovered that they were a fabulous constituency.
She needed a cause and she found that drug abuse was her cause. The parents, these soccer moms were her allies and provided platoons of support for her.
By that time, pot had been decriminalize in about 11 or 12 states. And then the reform came to a screeching halt and nothing happened for many, many years. Those were the dark years. Those were the dark, dark years.
The enforcers, the prohibitionists discovered there was a lot of money to be made. The were elections to be won by exploiting marijuana.
RM: When would you say that the dark years ended?
RE: I would say 1996 with the passage of proposition 215 in California for medical marijuana. That is when things started to turn around.
For me it was in 2008 when Massachusetts passed decrim by 68%. I realized something that I had not known. After all those years, those decades, we spent pamphleting, speaking and all of this outreach – trying to educate people about the truth about marijuana….
What we didn’t realize is that people did not need educating. That is what the election of 2008 taught me. We had the voters. Obviously. 68% of them for decriminalization.
We did not educate 68% of Massachusetts voters. The lesson here is that people did not need education. They needed an opportunity to go into the privacy of the voting booth and speak the truth. Because until George Soros, who funded the decriminalization movement – until he gave voters the opportunity to go into the privacy of a voting booth and vote for decriminalization – then voters had no opportunity to safely say what they thought about pot or about pot laws without fear of reprisal.
Because you can not expect everybody to sign a letter to the editor, or show up in a meeting, be counted, or otherwise be public on the subject of marijuana. Because of fear.
It’s a reasonable and justifiable fear. Fear that your name is going to show up on a list. Fear that you will catch a lot of shit from the other parents in school. Fear that you you lose your next promotion or you get fired from your job or your evicted from your apartment.
There is solid reason to be fearful about being identified with the word marijuana. The only reason that I have not been a victim of those kinds of things is that I am self-employed. It’s a great privilege to being self-employed. I do not have to answer to anybody.
RM: So what about medical marijuana now – how does the landscape look now for medical marijuana shops? What about the backlash we are seeing in many Massachusetts towns looking to restrict local dispensaries?
RE: The idea of a dispensary in their community is offensive to people who have been listening to the government propaganda for 50 years. But that’s not the subject of zoning laws. Zoning laws are for public health and public safety, that sort of thing. Not to protect sensibilities of the public. But that is my opinion about why most of these ordinance [restrictions] are being enacted.
And remember, the ordinances are being enacted in public forums, not in privacy of voting booths. To my knowledge not a single city or town has taking a secret ballot on whether or not [to allow dispensaries].
RM: Do you think it is going to be any movement nationally or federally to soften [marijuana] laws?
RE: The question is whether Congress would do anything. It seems to me that Congress is incapable of doing anything these days. You know what I mean the administration has gone about this as far as they can with that second Cole memo.
When Obama came into office he had made a number of statements to on the campaign about, about loosening the enforcement priorities of the Justice Department vis-a-vis marijuana. It took him him about a year, but finally a memorandum was issued by the Deputy Attorney General, the DOJ. Its called the Ogden memo, and it basically said the feds won’t go after those operations that are compliant with state law.
While a lot of people saw that as a license to do whatever they want, especially in the states like California where the laws are really loose, and still are today. So a year or so later after a lot of complaints, the Feds realize that there was a huge loophole in the first memo and people were violating it in a wholesale manner.
Along came the second memo this is called the Cole memo, now known as Cole one. The Cole memo said ‘yes’, but …No large operations no commercial operations. It was very vague language but it was a retreat by the DOJ back toward prohibition. It had a major effect of chilling the spread of medical marijuana.
However, in August of this year  a third memo came down from the Department of Justice after the [previous] big event last November, when Washington and Colorado enacted non-medical legalization.
So everybody sat around and waited for the DOJ to respond – well, what they going to do? – because the feds just lack the capacity of street-level enforcement and their options seem to be very limited.
We did not expect them to be sending armies of DEA agents to Colorado and Washington to bust kids at rock concerts. Nor did we expect them to roll over. You know we did know what they were going to do. They were in a jam.
So eventually in August of this year the DOJ issued a third memorandum, the second one signed by Mr. Cole, the assistant attorney general. What the Cole memorandum says is that, as in the Ogden memo, the feds will hold off on – “would not consider a priority” – you have to couch it in that language – and we’re talking about enforcement – were talking about executive branch actions here, not legislative.
The Department of Justice would forbear from enforcement of those operations that are compliant with state law, and which meet a number of other factors or so-called call federal interest. They listed eight factors – not going to kids, not exported to other states, secure operations, – the kind of stuff that the regulations all cover anyway. So that is the latest word from the Feds.
I think we are not likely to hear anymore from the executive branch doing this third year of the Obama administration. I think they have gone about as far as they can.
Certainly I agree there were not going to hear anything from the legislative, the Congress. Because Congress doesn’t do anything.
The question is: If there are legalization measures on the ballot in the year 2016 - as I expect that there will be, maybe as many as half a dozen – what is Congress going to do in January 2017 when they come back into session?
If there’s anything that any politician wants when it comes to marijuana is very clear to me: That is to change the subject. They just don’t want to deal with it.
The question is – can the Congress just duck the issue? Can they avoid dealing with it after 2017, assuming that half a dozen states enacted non-medical initiatives in 2016? I think it’s going be really hard. So I think the Congress is going to have to do something in 2017.
I predict in 2017 the Congress will yield to the states. And they will couch it not as surrendering on pot, but rather deferring to the states to regulate it, tax it, control it, as they see fit.
RM: It would seem to me that phraseology appeals to conservatives and tea party people that talk about states rights.
RM: Your left wing stoners are probably perfectly happy to go along with any argument that allows this. [Laugh]
RE: Exactly, left wing stoners or not. But, how many people smoke pot? 12%? 10%? 8%? Something like that, a minority. So who are those 65% who voted for reform last November, they are certainly not stoners.
RM: Are you familiar with the Gallup poll that came out?
RE: The 58% [approval of legalization], yes.
RM: Do you have any reaction to that?
RE: It continues the trend, yes I thought it was stunning, it’s the highest number ever in a national poll. I think it probably correct, if not modest. I think most people get it. I think most people understand.
As I said earlier, we did not need to educate people. I thought for all of those years. For all those dark years, I thought that we needed to educate people. I was wrong.
Everybody has an opinion about marijuana. Whether the smoke it or not. Everybody. Most of those opinions are pretty accurate I think. What people need is balls.
They need the courage to come out and say it in public what they think about marijuana and that is the big problem.
RM: I was looking at the breakdown in the Gallup poll, it basically says that the older you are the less likely that you are to want it legal.
RE: Yes, yes. The cut off point is that people were now about my age or a couple years younger. I would say people who are 66 came of age at the apotheosis of the cultural Revolution in the 60s. They are the generation who started using marijuana, who knew it and are familiar with it, whether they still do it or not.
So it is the people over that age who just never experienced it. Therefore have accepted what the government had been telling them.
I have a sister in law who is several years older than I am. I am 69. One of her great regrets in life is that she missed the cultural revolution. She came of age in the 50s.
She doesn’t have a clue what sex, drugs and rock roll is all about. She missed at all. She is greatly remorseful about that. Especially the sex part.
RM: That is an interesting perspective.
RE: When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and he returned to Spain, he announced that the world was round, most of the people rejected it. “I can see the world is flat. You are a fool, I do not believe you”. Do you know what happened to them?
RM: What is that?
RE: They died.
RE: [Laugh] That’s what is going to happen to my generation. Were going to die. Soon there won’t be anybody in that category.
RM: Yes that is interesting, I’m looking at the Gallup poll. They make an analogy to opposition to gay marriage. It’s a generational thing.
RE: Yes exactly.
RM: Unless young people change their attitude as they get older, which doesn’t seem that likely, it becomes less and less of an issue. Nobody cares.
RE: The gay rights movement is the very best model that we have for marijuana reform. Because we’ve got plenty of supporters, they just stay in the closet.
RE: The gay rights movement succeed by getting people out of the closet. We have not done that yet.
RM: Right. And I…
RE: At least we can get them in the voting booth and that’s a good.
RM: Now we can continue that analogy – can you could you tell me all of the horrible harm that has been caused by gay rights?
RE: No, I’m not aware of any. [laughs]
RM: Yes. That harkens back to the earlier answer about the legalization of marijuana.
RE: Yes. Yes.
My thanks for Richard Evans for his time, his insights, and his many contributions to the marijuana reform movement over the past decades. He continues to work on and write about supporting a legal cannabis industry.
Russell Matson is a criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts.