November 5 marked a milestone for the marijuana-reform organization Show-Me Cannabis. In the months leading up to that date the group had busied itself meeting with attorneys, conducting polls and closely monitoring legalization efforts in other states. Now, a day after the mid-term elections, Show-Me Cannabis was ready to formally submit its proposed constitutional amendment allowing the sale, taxation and regulation of marijuana in Missouri for those over the age of 21.
"Two more states and the District of Columbia rejected cannabis prohibition at the ballot box yesterday," wrote Show-Me Cannabis executive director John Payne in a November 5 press release trumpeting its ballot initiative. "We fully intend to join them in 2016, so we are starting this process as early as we possibly can. We still have a long road ahead of us, but we can feel the wind at our backs."
Two months later, Show-Me Cannabis is now in the process of gathering signatures to get its proposed amendment before voters in 2016. Doing so is no easy task. It needs 160,000-plus voters to sign the petition, and many of those autographs need to come from Missourians living in the state's more rural (and conservative) congressional districts. Payne estimates that the group will also need to raise millions of dollars for an awareness campaign and to pay for signature gathering. And if those obstacles are not enough, there's now the threat of a competing ballot initiative that, at the very least, could serve to confuse the public about Show-Me Cannabis' goals.
On December 2, another legalization effort filed its own petition with the state. Unlike the one backed by Show-Me Cannabis, this proposed amendment would place absolutely no restrictions on the use of marijuana in Missouri. Anyone could use it and the state could not regulate and tax it, making a Missouri an outlier even among progressive states such as Colorado and Washington that were the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
That this ultra-lenient and arguably irresponsible ballot initiative (it expressly prohibits police from issuing DUIs to those under the influence of marijuana) came from the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was of no surprise to the folks at Show-Me Cannabis. Over the past year, Kansas City NORML and its president, Nick Raines, had developed a reputation as rogue crusaders within the state's pot reform movement. Where Show-Me Cannabis heeds a more mainstream approach toward reform, Raines and his cohorts believe regulation and taxation represent nothing short of surrender.
Such ideological divides are not uncommon among marijuana activists, but here in Missouri they've taken a peculiar and nasty turn that earlier this month led the governing body of NORML to disband its Kansas City chapter.
"They want to make us out to be the bad guys," says Raines, the man in the middle of the controversy who stands accused of threatening fellow marijuana activists. "I don't understand why people are so scared."Nick Raines is a big man who wears the kind of dark, horseshoe mustache popular with Hollywood villains and outlaws. He spent years working as a hip-hop club bouncer and his brawn in that capacity earned him the moniker "Turbo" after one of the muscle-bound competitors in the '90s television show, American Gladiators.
It was the other Raines — the pot activist, not the combatant — who Eapen Thampy wanted to meet last March. Thampy co-founded Show-Me Cannabis in 2010, and two years later he helped mount the group's first initiative to legalize marijuana — an effort that failed to get the requisite signatures to land on the ballot. Thampy and Show-Me Cannabis flirted with another initiative petition for November 2014 but pulled back last February after data suggested the measure stood just a 50/50 chance of passing at the polls. Instead, Show-Me Cannabis set a new target of November 2016, a presidential election that would bring out younger, pot-friendly Missourians to the polls. To get the measure on the ballot, Show-Me Cannabis would be counting on people like Raines and his Kansas City NORML for support.
"I was excited to hear that there was going to be more grassroots supporters, that was something we really needed," says Thampy, recalling the meeting last spring with Raines inside a Kansas City jazz club. A few minutes into their conversation, Thampy says Raines surprised him when he didn't show any interest in assisting Show-Me Cannabis' petition efforts. In fact, he planned just the opposite.
"He asked me why I support prohibition," says Thampy. "At the time I didn't have a negative impression, but he was pretty aggressive in questioning me. When I got to understand what he was trying to do, I was like — Oh, so that's what he was going after. He was one of those people who believes any attempt at regulation, any attempt at taxation is a strategy designed to maintain the criminal status of marijuana."
Soon after that meeting, Raines re-entered Thampy's circle. This time it was by way of the Facebook posts and comment sections frequented by Missouri legalization advocates. A few members of that online community found themselves the target of all-caps rants from Raines and other Kansas City NORML supporters. One was Trish Bertrand, president of Springfield NORML.
"I was threatened," says Bertrand, who provided Riverfront Times with screen shots of the May 28 comment thread in which she says Raines and others were arguing about the "motives" behind Show-Cannabis' upcoming petition.
"Quit twisting people's words stop looking for a fucking fight with us," Raines wrote. "You don't want one with me personally and now you are just pissing me off."
Raines immediately followed up with another angry message, tagging Bertrand: "I am a patient man but you do not want to make an enemy out of me Trish R Bertrand...You better ask some people about me..."
Soon, pot activists all over Missouri were asking about Raines. He was some kind of bouncer, Bertrand heard. Thampy, meanwhile, looked up Raines' public court records and found that restraining orders had been taken out against him.Raines acknowledges the restraining orders against him, which he says stem from a nasty divorce more than a decade ago. As for the perceived Facebook threats to Bertrand, he says they were misinterpreted or intentionally taken out of context. He wasn't trying to intimidate anyone.
But the bizarre social media behavior didn't end just there. Also last May, the Kansas City NORML Facebook page shared a story about conservative columnist Michelle Malkin's incongruous approval of cannabis legalization. The Kansas City NORML Facebook commented on its own post: "She is a neo-con whore she will say anything for a buck."
Another post, this one found on the personal page of Kansas City NORML's secretary, featured a meme of a man pinning a struggling woman to the ground, overlaid with the text, "Instead of screaming rape, how about you stop telling me no?" (Raines points out that the rape-y meme was intended as a satire of the "Breathe Easy, Don't Break the Law" T-shirt popularized by some police supporters after the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City.)
By late fall, Thampy had had enough.
"The Kansas City chapter of NORML is comprised of violent, misogynistic domestic abusers," fumed Thampy in a Facebook post this past November. "I've been petitioning [NORML secretary] Dan Viets and [NORML executive director] Mitch Eareywine to revoke their charter for months."
It wasn't until December, however, that the Kansas City NORML chapter landed on the radar of Keith Stroup. If there's a face to NORML it belongs to Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970 with a $5,000 grant from Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and who continues to serve as the organization's legal counsel. Stroup says he's learned a few things observing the long, sometimes farcical arc of America's cannabis legalization movement — from the tantalizing optimism of the mid 1970s when then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter campaigned on cannabis decriminalization, to the 1980s backslide toward "just say no" conservatism and, finally, to today's resurgence of the legalization movement.
One of those lessons is that marijuana advocates need to cater to the mainstream, and Kansas City NORML's ballot initiative fell far short of that.
"We had a couple of complaints, forwarded to me, asking, 'Why do you have this Kansas City NORML group that seems to have a different position with national NORML?'" remembers Stroup."That's not always a problem. We allow a lot of discretion. We don't command that people all use the same language or precisely agree at each detail. When I contacted Nick Raines to ask him about it, he basically said that he was surprised that national NORML wasn't more sympathetic."
The longer Stroup talked to Raines, the more leery he became. For one thing, the Kansas City NORML president hadn't read NORML's bedrock policy statement, "Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use," before filing his ballot initiative that calls for no restriction on marijuana use. Had he, he'd have known that NORML's advocates the use of marijuana for "adults only" and discourages people from driving under the influence of the drug.
Days after that phone call came more warning signs. Stroup received screen shots of Raines' and Kansas City NORML's offensive Facebook posts and aggressive comments. Shocked, he consulted NORML's executive director and chairman of the board.
On January 7, Stroup emailed Raines to give him the news: Kansas City NORML was no more.
"Frankly, if it was just the screenshots alone I think we would have had a discussion with him about acting more adult and not using Facebook pages for that kind of insulting post," Stroup says. "But on top of that, they were clearly going in a different direction that NORML wanted to go. It was time to take the action."
Raines wouldn't be sidelined long.
January 21 found Raines standing behind Christine Bay and her three-year-old daughter at a hearing inside the Kansas State Capitol. The young, red haired girl in Bay's arms suffers debilitating seizures that often lead to trips to hospitals and urgent-care clinics.
"Her pediatrician wants her to have the opportunity to try cannabis oil," Bay told senators considering a medical marijuana bill for the Sunflower State. "I ask that you allow our doctors to do their job and preserve the lives of these children and patients."
Standing next to Raines on the hearing-room floor was Mark Pedersen, a fellow marijuana advocate who a few years back founded the pro-pot group Sensible Missouri — an organization that today has a brand new leader in Raines.
Like Pedersen, Raines is a firm believer in the medical promise of marijuana. He remembers witnessing the drug's potential a few years ago when his long-ailing stepmother was on her death bed, drained and weakened after a long struggle with cancer. Raines was a casual toker back then (he says he no longer uses marijuana because of his job) and rolled a joint for his dying mom. Ten minutes later she came bursting through bedroom door on her feet — something Raines and his sister hadn't seen for months.
"Our heads like shot around, absolutely shocked," Raines recalls. "And my step mom was like, 'Fuck you Nicholas, I'm hungry.'"
He still chuckles at the memory. "She proceeded to make the biggest breakfast for all of us. She lasted seven or eight months longer and had a quality of life that she never would have had without cannabis."
Pedersen, who authored Kansas City NORML's controversial ballot initiative, has a somewhat similar tale. A Missouri native now living in Colorado, he says pot treated the fibromyalgia that struck him after years spent breathing the polluted air of his hometown of Herculaneum and its notorious lead smelter. Now he spends his days producing cannabis oil for terminal patients and giving presentations about the wondrous healing properties of weed.
"I made a promise many years ago to the patients of Missouri that I would write the first full legalization bill, and I attempted to do that in 2012," says Pedersen, who has also run afoul of Show-Me Cannabis.
Indeed, Pedersen once served on Show-Me Cannabis' board and in 2012 wrote up the group's original ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Missouri. But where Pedersen proposed few restrictions in his draft bill, other members of the group eventually added restraints such as an age limit and DUI provision.
Shortly afterward, Show-Me Cannabis booted Pedersen out of the organization. Members worried that his personal pot garden could bring the group unwanted attention if word of it leaked out. According to Thampy, Pedersen's lack of medical credentials also worried donors who wanted a spokesperson with doctoral authority, not some guy cranking out cannabis oil who believes weed is harmless as a tomato and cures cancer.
But to pot advocates like Raines and Pedersen, the politicized, message-conscious Show-Me Cannabis is the blind party here.
"Missouri doesn't need baby steps," Raines insists. "This a reckoning for all these years, all the Americans that were lied to about the healing qualities of cannabis."
For Stroup, the divide between Raines and the establishment feels familiar. Forty years ago Stroup was the outside radical applying pressure against the establishment, and he initially chose the NORML acronym to stand for "The National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws." Stroup says he had to be convinced to change it to "Reform" so he could reach a broader base of supporters. Like Show-Me Cannabis, NORML advocates using the tax-and-regulate model currently enforced on the alcohol industry, while adding provisions as needed to address issues such as medical marijuana, expunging criminal records and setting limits on the number of plants individuals may own.
"Most of us have found that you only make progress through incremental changes, but I think you're always going to have people who are trying to push the envelope. I think that's obviously a good thing," says Stroup. "If they want to do it, without using the NORML name, I'm all for it. Frankly I think it makes [Show-Me Cannabis'] petition look far more moderate, and it may actually help it."
There may be something to Stoup's last point. Nushin Rashidian, a journalist who co-wrote A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, explains that splinter groups like Kansas City NORML cropped up during the legalization pushes in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. But the endgame is always the same.
"It created headaches for the campaigns that were trying to do it right, but I don't think these more lax or more fringe legalization efforts really ever pose a danger," says Rashidian. "It's always a group of very riled up activists, and eventually they kind of run themselves into the ground."
Yet as Raines has already proven in his post-NORML return, he's not going anywhere soon. Moreover, he believes it's his ballot initiative calling for the unrestricted legalization of marijuana that Missourians will ultimately favor at the polls.
"For them to say Missouri is not ready is absolutely not true," he says of Show-Me Cannabis' objection to his ballot initiative. "That's what they want you to believe because they don't want any competition, they don't want any choices."
Meanwhile, Thampy and others at Show-Me Cannabis shake their heads. To them, Raines and his initiative remains pure fantasy — the kind better suited for a dorm room bong circle than hallways of the Capitol.
"What they want is more than to just legalize marijuana, they want to totally create a new social and government system," he says, sounding exasperated. "We've done outreach, we've done media, we're in the political discussion, we have lobbyists, we have staff members. We have built the organization that is capable of victory, and it's kind of bizarre being in this conversation with people who don't understand any of that."