Mikel Weisser, new National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws state director, plans to rebuild Arizona's fractured NORML in anticipation of a vote to legalize pot for adult use in November.
“I’m committed to making marijuana legalization my life’s work,” Weisser said.
A former high school history teacher, Weisser became involved with politics when his wife, Beth, ran for Congress in 2010. Both of them wanted to change society, he said. Weisser said he began by addressing problems he saw with Arizona’s medical-marijuana laws.
He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona’s 4th Congressional District in 2012 and 2014, campaigning for the end of cannabis prohibition.
After those defeats, he decided to devote himself to cannabis reform, focusing on the importance of two initiatives that may be on the 2016 ballot: one proposed by the Marijuana Policy Project called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, and one proposed by Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, led by Jason Medar.
Both initiatives would allow Arizonans 21 and older to grow and consume marijuana. Medar's AZFMR initiative also calls for a reduction in the penalty for the possession of up to eight ounces from a felony to a misdemeanor.
NORML in Arizona has had a turbulent history, suffering a significant blow in the late 1990s, when several leaders were prosecuted for marijuana crimes. Membership began to increase in the early 2000s, and chapters were created in Phoenix, Tucson, and a few other areas around the state. Weisser said some of the chapters were not fully compliant with the national organization’s policies.
“There started to be a split between the state chapter and the leading organizers in the Phoenix metro area,” Weisser said. “One group wanted to become more professional in an attempt to appeal more to the middle class. Members wanted to tone down the rhetoric [so it would] not scare off supporters. The other group wanted to let their freak flag fly. To be honest, I’m actually from that second group.”
Eventually, the relationship between national leadership and the Phoenix chapter hit the breaking point.
“The state chapter showed up at the Phoenix chapter’s meeting,” Weisser said. “They got on stage and said, ‘You guys are revoked.’ Mic drop. It was hugely dramatic.”
In 2013, Weisser was a founding member of another marijuana-advocacy organization, Safer Arizona. That group started two widely publicized legalization efforts. One was a bill introduced in the state Legislature, the other was a citizens initiative that failed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.
“That’s what I’m worried about for Jason Medar and Arizonans for Mindful Regulation,” Weisser said. “They’re either going to figure it out in the next couple months or face disaster. We faced the disaster.”
Having faced defeat, Weisser said he knew that his Safer Arizona needed to scale up its operation and get more resources to achieve its goals. Knowing that the Marijuana Policy Project was coming to the state, Weisser decided to pursue a partnership between the two groups.
“We made sure that the activist voice was written into the MPP bill,” Weisser said. “However, a significant portion of what we wrote was left on the cutting-room floor. In the end, we did our best to make sure that cultivation, access for small business, and consumer protections were included.”
The bill was finalized and approved by Weisser in April 2015. However, it was not well received by the activist community and led to the subsequent breakup of Safer Arizona in June.
Weisser was then asked to take on the challenge of reuniting the activist community using the power of Arizona NORML. Weisser stands between the competing MPP and AZFMR initiatives. He said he does his best to remain impartial, trying to bring together all factions at NORML meetings.
“You’ll notice that, even though I was basically fired by Safer Arizona, [their representatives] were still on our agenda to speak tonight,” Weisser said. “I don’t see how I can bring Arizona back together by saying this group is allowed and this group isn’t, no matter what has happened between us.”
The group holds monthly meetings at The Refuge on Seventh Avenue, where volunteer and fundraising efforts are coordinated and NORML's state board is heard from.
NORML does not have an official stance on the competing initiatives. Weisser said it is the policy of the organization not to endorse any initiative not yet on the ballot. The organization tries to create a fair playing field, calling out misbehavior on both sides, he said.
“As a history teacher, I’ve seen how much of America has been ruined by corruption,” Weisser said. “I want this movement to be above that. We need to be above it; otherwise, people are just going to point their finger and say, ‘See, you don’t deserve it.’”
Weisser is optimistic but nervous about the chances of legalization passing in 2016, especially with recent polling showing Arizonans split 50-50 on the issue.
“The real question will be whether the MPP initiative is going to be good enough for the educated marijuana voter,” Weisser said.
Weisser hopes that all activists will see MPP’s bill as a step in the right direction, a foundation on which the state can continue to build. He said the state owes it to the approximately 16,000 Arizonans arrested every year for marijuana-related crimes.