For the past two decades, there were two things you could count on in Washington, D.C.: Congress would never vote to legalize cannabis, and Allen St. Pierre would always return your call.
St. Pierre, America’s most upbeat, quick-witted, and loquacious cannabis advocate, has served as the executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, for 24 years. He will not serve a 25th. Earlier this week he informed the group’s board of directors that he would resign his post effective July 15. St. Pierre and his wife, Sara, had their first child earlier this year, and the family life the couple desires “is not possible while working for NORML,” he told Leafly Thursday afternoon.
Although it’s the nation’s oldest and best-known cannabis advocacy group, NORML is not blessed with the deepest pockets. St. Pierre signed on as executive director in 1991 at a wage of $164 a week. While that rate has risen, it’s still nowhere near the salaries pulled in by executives with half his talent, energy, and experience. When a child entered the equation, he decided he could either work less or make more, but he couldn’t continue to be an available-all-hours advocate without health insurance and a better wage.
Allen St. Pierre
“I’ve leaving on good terms,” he said. “NORML’s board members have contacted me about opportunities, and my box floweth over with really interesting and at times bizarre inquiries about the next things I might be inclined to do.” St. Pierre will step down from day-to-day duties but will remain a member of the NORML board and promised he’ll “still keep one foot in advocacy.” He said he’s currently in touch with elected policy makers, legal cannabis business owners, and trade associations about his possible next move.
NORML will almost certainly replace him as executive director, but they can’t replace his pivotal role in America’s cannabis conversation. During his quarter-century at NORML, St. Pierre would gladly return anybody’s phone call, no matter if you were a rookie reporter, expert grower, angry NORML chapter head, or confused member of Congress. Despite the thrashing cannabis took on Capitol Hill, he always remained upbeat. His wry sense of humor and his ability to laugh at the absurdity of America’s cannabis laws and taboos weren’t just an unexpected balm; they were a model of sanity for advocates around the country. Yes, he acknowledged, what you’re seeing really is crazy. That’s why I’m working to change it.
He took the job in 1991, near the height of the nation’s drug war frenzy. The group’s offices were, in his recollection, “a rat-infested hellhole,” and there were liens on NORML’s bank account. Today, the group is by no means flush, but it pays its bills and occupies the corner of an H Street building four blocks from the White House. Oh, and cannabis is now legal for adult use in four states and D.C., and legal for medical use in 25 states across the nation. So a few things have improved on his watch.
They improved, in part, because St. Pierre was willing to talk about cannabis with anybody who would listen. He was (sorry — he still is — Allen’s not dead yet) charming and logical and never bitter, and he opened countless thousands of minds, including my own. In early 2012 I traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview lobbyists and federal officials for a project that would become my book Weed the People. I sat down with St. Pierre at 10 a.m. and I don’t think I left the office until 2:30, my voice recorder’s batteries drained. He guided me from Harry Anslinger to Colorado legalization, laughing along the way, shaking his head at the farce, the folly, and the real damage done to decent people whose only crime was to enjoy a mild intoxicant that came in the form of a leaf.
Allen St. Pierre didn’t make a lot of money but he made a lot of good. Here’s hoping that his next endeavor produces equal amounts of both.