MassCann’s Virtual Education Village, Panel #18: Bill Downing Interviews John Leonard.
Worked throughout my high school years on organizing store picket lines in support of the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO boycott of non-union grapes and lettuce as well as Gallo wines. Had to deal with police harassment and liquor store goon squads. Had Angela Davis’s lawyer defending one of our participants against an arrest by the Cohasset police.
Worked on presidential primaries in 1976 and 1980 with highly skilled union organizers. Marshall Ganz, for one – now at the Kennedy School of Government. Was able to create an upset primary victory in 1976 with a meager budget (at best!) but working with a small group that knew that we were doing and had fanatic working skills and did little sleep. We were less than 35 people but people would see us everywhere all over the state. It was an exhilarating high to work with such a skilled group of people that was able to accomplish so much on such a limited amount of resources. Got a taste for working elections.
In 1977, got involved with Tom Alciere (who sat in front of me in high school math class) and Gary Glazer on the Massachusetts Marijuana Initiative Committee. We had all picketed together for UFW union grapes. Tom had created wording for full legalization and formed the Committee. I had strongly cautioned Tom that it was doubtful that we would have the manpower to collect well north of 50,000 signatures but Tom was determined and not to be swayed and the first marijuana legalization ballot initiative was on. The office of MMIC were located in Tom and Gary’s apartment in East Weymouth. A local newspaper did a story on Tom and Gary and the just launched initiative. Soon after, Gary was fired from his job without cause as a janitor and school bus driver with the Hingham School system. Gary was an excellent experienced bus driver and got along very well with everyone. His fellow bus drivers stood behind him and their union forced the Hingham school system to rehire him. Later Gary worked a night watchman security job and he to be vetted by the state police because of the requirements of one of the security customers. In a successful effort to break up the group, the state police told Gary that another member of MMIC had gotten arrested with a bunch of marijuana and that that they had fingered Gary as being the source. This was, of course, all false and there had been no arrest. But their ploy worked and Gary fled the state, being rather innocent and unexperienced in the type of tactics that police used.
We got a good number of signatures for just a couple of us doing it. Those were different days. I tried to open an official MMIC account at a bank in Cambridge and the manager of the bank told that the bank would not lower and besmirch the reputation of their good bank to hosting an account such as ours and refused to do so. I remember being alone at a card table in September and October of 1977 outdoors of the Park Street subway station getting people to sign the petition to legalize marijuana. On the stands of the adjacent newsstand, the cover of High Times with Johnny Rotten and Willie Nelson both on it, stared at me. I felt a little like Don Quixote in the immensity of what I was battling against. The September rally for marijuana change on the Boston Common used to be one person.
A really great event that took place some year in the early 80’s was a forum at the Harvard Science Center that involved Dana Beal, Doc Humes and the Unidentified Flying Idea and Todd Mikuriya. One of the best and most informative presentations on marijuana prohibition I’ve ever seen was by this Dr. Todd Mikuriya of the Amorphous group who tried to legalize in California back in 1972. He was a real scholar on the issue and had a great way of communicating. As part of the forum, a number of the attendees were handed the actual scripts of the 1936 (I think) congressional hearings on outlawing “marihuana” and we reenacted the hearing on that stage. He was easily the most well informed and persuasive speaker I’ve ever heard on marijuana and it’s history.
Had been going to the Washington, D.C. smoke-in hosted by the Yippies for several years in the early 80’s. Met Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys there. Was a really nice down to earth guy in person. Went out after the 1985 D.C. smoke in to the Rainbow Gathering in Missouri in a van with Yippie organizer Dana Beal and others. We became known as “The Bad Vibes Family” as camping Rainbow neighbors would end up listening to lots of Dana’s incessant angry tirades. I drew up a sign what that wording and did a group photo shot with all of our encampment gathered around smiling, with Dana smiling in front giving the finger. That became our official name: “The Bad Vibes Family” from then on.
We then vaned it up to Madison, Wisconsin to long time Yippie and marijuana activist, Ben Masel’s home turf. What a wonderful place Madison was in July. Several of us joined a mud volley ball team and we came in second place in the citywide tournament. The Bad Vibes Family scores!
After a most interesting time in Madison, was flown out to Eugene, Oregon by Dana and/or Ben to work on the Oregon Marijuana Initiative. Ended up there, after the airline losing my backpack, for the first day of the Oregon Country Fair. It was so much fun, it didn’t even seem like work collecting signatures and as it turned to night and all fair goers left, and only the permitted vendors and participants stayed. It was one of the most incredible parties I ever remembered! The most wild saxophone player somewhere between staggering and a dance step hypnotically wildly playing down the after midnight grassy path and I’m standing next to Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters, blissfully taking it all in.
Ended up taking residence in Clackamas, Oregon, in a rather rural area, at a farm household of activists. I lived in a tent on a screened wooden platform in the middle of a chicken barn. Each morning at around 4:30 or 5 in the morning what must have been hundreds of them would all get incredibly loud and I’d wake up. I’d jump in the van with others from the household and we would go down to the OMI offices in in downtown Portland and then we’d spread out around the downtown collecting signatures. OMI had tried to get on the ballot the previous election cycle and had done a possibly passing job getting enough signatures but they had gotten totally illegally screwed out of being on the ballot by drug war Oregon secretary of state Norma Paulus. She made the announcement that we didn’t make the ballot in conjunction with a visit that day to Oregon by first lady Nancy Reagan on a swing of her “Just Say No” campaign. The techniques they used to screw us off the ballot were so obvious and upsetting to any serious observer, no matter where they stood on marijuana policy, that the state legislature promptly passed legislation reforming the initiative signature verifying procedure so we were fairly sure that our signatures would be treated legally this time around. We now had a realistic chance to make it on the ballot.
Met some very interesting co-workers there. As well as many Oregon folk, there were quite a few people from California there as part of the effort. Dennis Peron, Chris Conrad, Dale Gerringer of CA NORML, and this most interesting longtime activist and smoke shop entrepreneur, Jack Herar. Jack was way back, I think maybe as far back to the Amorphous-sponsored Proposition 19 legalization campaign in California back in 1972. A proud feather in his cap that he would occasionally tell people was his standing on the property of a Los Angeles Post Office holding an apparently very noticeable pro-marijuana sign (apparently rather inflammatory to some). President Reagan drives by in his motorcade and sees Jack with his marijuana sign and gets upset. He wants Jack and his sign off the property. The high up of the Post Office gets communicated to to make it happen whatever they have to do. The Post Office dug up some ancient non-enforced regulation and started enforcing it. You might say Jack inspired and motivated people.
Jack would tell me about the hidden history of hemp and this book he was putting together, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”. This early, early version of the book was in newspaper format (I think I still have a couple copies in my files). Dana Beal and Ben Masel had been funding him along and the plan was to put this newspaper/book in voter’s mailboxes all across the state. Sometimes I would be working by myself walking around Portland collecting signatures but other times I would work with Jack and his van and the crew that would be put together for the day. Working with Jack on his crew was like going to Parris Island and being put in a boot camp crew with a Marine Corp drill instructor. This was serious business and you were expected to work. We were on a high, though, as we were a part of something making things happen. We did not have legal protections for signature gathering in Oregon like they do in Massachusetts. The store manager could and most often did tell you to vacate from the property on pain of prosecution. That would mostly ensue from a customer complaint. We were given marching orders by Jack to stay even when we were ordered off the property. The police had to arrive and then warn you first to leave before they could legally arrest you. This was in the days before the internet and cellphones and easy mobile communication of any sort. Jack would kind of have the timing all pretty much figured out and after dropping everyone off at their respective supermarkets, he’d circle back to the first supermarket, pick up the petitioner ordered out by both the store manager and the police and drop off a new insurgent petitioner to start the process again all over again. He was a drill instructor and this was hardcore. It felt like the early morning of D-day and we were on the plane over Europe – the bay door opened, paratrooper’s shoulder was tapped and you jumped out without question to whatever was ahead.
As a measure of how tight a ship it was working with Jack, we were collecting signatures at a little festival in a park in Portland. The Kingsman were performing and of course they were going to perform “Louie, Louie”. In 4th and 5th grade we worshiped the song and here it was, these garage rock gods were about to perform it. Probably my only chance in life to be in their holy presence but I had to ignore them and work, their vaunted presence so close I could half hear them so tantalizingly close.
Well enough signatures were collected and this time we weren’t screwed by the Secretary of State and the measure appeared on the ballot in 1986. We lost, getting just over 26% of the vote but it a lot of us considered it a victory. We had gotten on the ballot and then we had won over a third of the vote in Multnomah County (the Portland area), where we had been most active, and over a quarter of the vote statewide. It was the only place in the country where something was really happening with people power to change the marijuana laws. The “Just Say No” era was a really dark time for marijuana reform. People who didn’t live through it would have a hard time imagining it in today’s legalized marijuana climate. Democrats and Republicans were vying with each other to see who could legislate for longer sentences for drugs. That was the answer to the drug problem: easy civil forfeiture, longer and longer jail sentences and even a life sentence, if possible. I remember that a major city newspaper wouldn’t even publish a pro-marijuana reform letter to the editor as the idea was so outrageous. Anti-marijuana extremist (and also fanatic in many other political matters) Lyndon Larouche was running for president in 1980 on the platform of “I will end the drug war in 30 days, if elected”. Those who were familiar with his brand of politics knew he didn’t mean community service instead of jail but more something more like mass executions. The Just Say No era was launched by concerned parent’s groups concerned about the growing acceptance of marijuana. They formed a complete 180 degree reaction to the increasingly accepting attitude during the Jimmy Carter years. Jack Herar masqueraded in an identity as one of these concerned parents and attended a Larouche-organized anti-drug conference. At the end of the conference, a few people gathered in a backroom where they were playing classical music. An organizer told Jack that once they took over people would not be listening to rock and roll anymore, only classical music.
Back in 1989, out in North Adams, Mass. came to be the very first Freedom Festival, although it did not go by that name at the time. And Mass Cann had not yet been formed as of that time, either. Although in that event lay the seed of the organization. I met others and heard that an organization would soon be forming. It was organized by Curt Mansfield, who was from western Mass. Nice guy. He moved out to Nederland, Colorado shortly after the rally and I never heard of him again. The rally was intended for downtown but the city fathers issued the permit for the town dump – the only place where they thought was appropriate for a rally of our ilk. Northampton attorney and National NORML board member, Dick Evans, challenged it in court and won us our 1st Amendment right to have it downtown. What a great sunny day it was! Counter picketers were there with signs against us. Jack Herer was there to speak and defiantly smoke. Abbie Hoffman’s son, Andrew, kidnapped a life-sized plywood stand life size Ronald Reagan from this girl, Missy, who had a tourist-oriented take your picture with Reagan business down near Faneuil Hall. He made a huge chicken wire paper mache joint and strapped it to the extended van roof racks and we headed on out to the rally, with a price on Reagan’s head stashed safely inside. We had a reworked actual speech of Reagan’s playing out over the PA in downtown Pittsfield as Reagan, Andrew, and the huge joint took the stage. What fun not only the rally was but the greatest little after party and sleep over in a mountain field with a stage just off of Route 2 in Florida. Beautiful scenery looking over those rolling forested hills of the Berkshires.
I had been bumming around South America and while down there, came upon a great dependable source of hand painted ceramic beads. I eventually moved to the American Southwest and started selling beads and crafts at flea markets and wholesale to stores that I was importing up into this country. The beads caught on well in the Navajo reservation and more money started to flow. I founded out about these great Chinese made denim jackets made out of hemp that an importer from Canada was wholesaling and added those to my inventory. There wasn’t a lot of room for mark up on them but they surely generated excitement in college towns and elsewhere. I was always on the move selling.
I moved back to Massachusetts in 1991, met some Mass Cann members at bead events that I was going to and got involved in Mass Cann. At that year’s rally in front of the state house, a friend and I laid out some merchandise on a table and started selling it. I had a lot of experience vending in the Southwest and at some of the D.C. smoke-ins and fell into selling larger and larger amounts of merchandise as the years went on. I would buy the items with Mass Cann money and all the profits went to Mass Cann. As the years went on, besides all manner of pro-marijuana stickers, buttons, books and such, we were also producing a lot of custom Mass Cann branded items such as T-shirts, matches, computer pads, and even Mass Cann “Fight AIDS Not Marijuana” condoms. We had a good operation going that grossed tens of thousands of dollars over the years.
What got me to join onto the board was that as I got more involved with Mass Cann in the very early ’90’s, I organized a call to action phone tree. Something extinct now with the internet. I needed to become a member of the Board of Directors to be able to access member information and that began my career as a board member that lasted till March of 2004. For one year of those years, I was chairman of the board.
In something like 1997 or 1998, I was talking with someone that did some fashion design and got the idea to do the first hemp fashion show at the rally. I got a hold of several fashion designers to do some custom hemp fashions at the rally. One Boston designer, Nadra Alexander, had a practiced group of models that were absolutely great on stage: The House of Nadra. They really made the fashion show more than anything else. I also got in contact with Jon Napoli who ran the Hempest store in Boston and had him bring some of their manufactured hemp clothes worn by his people as well. It all came off well. Ours was the largest pot rally at the time, before Seattle surpassed us. I think is fairly safe to say that we put on, at the time, the largest hemp fashion show in the world and it was quite memorable.
I was always interested in going in a more purely political direction with my activism but when I started out in this field the polling had it that only something like 15% of the population supported legalization. You aren’t going to win elections with that level of support. Our job at this stage was to write up and hand out informative flyers, do university teach-ins, rallies with good speakers, and set up our literature and merchandise table wherever we could. I especially thought we were effective at political conventions. We opened some eyes especially at some of the Democratic and Republican state conventions. We were connecting with some of the most important people in the state that we needed to open up to our way of thinking. I remember a leaflet that Jon Holmes authored about racism and the drug war that we did a very good jobhanding out at the Democratic State Convention in Worcester that definitely caused controversy. John Kerry was standing there reading what Jon wrote and looked rather pissed off. As the menfolk were handing out literature, the very beautiful young women volunteering for Mass Cann were (wo)manning the literature table, handing our propaganda and handfuls of free matches with militant graphics and variously colored “Fight AIDS not Marijuana” condoms. Our political table became the most popular political table there with a line of delegates waiting for their turn for their free risque collectables.
Two different convention years we attempted to collect enough delegate signatures to put legalizing medical marijuana on the Democratic state party platform, at both the Salem and Springfield conventions. We came close both times, especially in Salem, but just a slight bit short of the requisite number. At later Democratic conventions, we would collect signatures of those delegates who lived within districts where we were running PPQs. We did at least one and maybe two Republican state conventions before they banded our vendor presence. There were no allegations of bad behavior that precipitated such a move, it was purely the ideas we were exposing people, too. I loved doing the Republican State Conventions. People were very surprised to see us there but a good number of people really listened to us as we conversed with them and a fair number were fairly friendly to us and open to our ideas. The Republican hierarchy, it seemed, was rather out of touch with it’s rank and file. Bill Downing produced a flyer with Abraham Lincoln’s picture on it with his thoughts on prohibition that we handed out to state delegates outside of the convention that we had been banned from the inside of.
Mass Cann tabled at the first Lollapalooza concert in Great Woods and it was a great success. We collected a lot of good names including Joe Bonni, who’s background and connections in the Boston rock scene made for a much more popular line up of bands and we then got linked up with WBCN sponsoring our rallies. That made for a huge rally in 1997 and onwards.
As these rallies got bigger, the treasurer of Mass Cann had a strong idea of running a statewide marijuana initiative and getting many of the requisite number of signatures at the rally. I started strongly opposing the effort, saying that we don’t have a prayer of collecting enough valid signatures and especially at rallies where there would be a very high invalidity rate. And even if we were able to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, we didn’t have a dime to run a serious campaign. And even if we did have a good dime to run a campaign, our level of support in the voting population would not bring us across the finish line. This was a really bad strategy, I thought, that could only hurt us and not help in any way. And I strongly believed in not wasting people’s hard labor and time. Things got a little acrimonious with Board members over a couple failing initiative signature drives. I very much liked the idea of spurring people to political action but wanted it to be political action that would benefit the cause. I felt uncomfortable just saying no to activism but wanted it to be something productive. When I learned about the Public Policy Question non-binding voting mechanism, I thought this is it. We can take on a district with a realistic possibility of getting enough valid signatures, choose districts that we have a realistic chance of winning on an issue like medical marijuana or decriminalization, and run a campaign on a low bones budget. This is the way to go!
It was Fall of 1999 and I had been doing a lot of the very political work over the years with Board member Maddy Webster and discussed my vision with her and said to let’s put together a meeting of activists throughout state that want to work on putting together PPQ efforts as an alternative to attempting a state initiative. The opposition to this idea held a very strong position at Mass Cann. Our relationship had degraded to a difficult personal level. I knew to try to attempt this at a Mass Cann meeting would just end up as a nasty exchange where nothing would be effectively accomplished. I was sick of several years of this type of behavior at Board meetings and elsewhere. I was 100% into accomplishing particular things and 0% into making an argument out of it. I saw the field all empty of the opposition, the receiver was wide open, and all the quarterback had to do was throw. We had the meeting, a full house at Maddy’s. There was some activists from UMass Amherst Cannabis Reform Coalition there as well as others. A decision to focus on marijuana decrim came out of the meeting and the senate district of ex-cop Charlie Shannon was chosen. He had been a big opponent of the then Governor Bill Weld’s effort to legalize medical marijuana and here he was representing a very liberal minded district of Somerville, Medford, and Winchester. I also wanted to pursue the medical marijuana issue and worked with a Provincetown selectman to put that on the ballot in the Cape Cod district of Republican Shirley Gomes. It all worked out very well. We won with 66% in Senator Shannon’s district and 62% in Rep. Gomes district. They were originally both in opposition to our positions but after we won, they both not only came around but came proponents of ours, respectively sponsoring marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana legislation. We were on all way!
In the first year of the non-binding Public Policy Questions (or PPQs) in 2000 there were 4 wins out of 4 losses. Jim Pillsbury of Framingham was at the meeting, too, and formed Metro-West NORML and did the same decrim question there and won. Board member Steve Epstein, who was not part of the meeting, did a decrim question with his own wording up in Essex County. Drug Policy Alliance lost with their strategy of trying to lots of different things with their losing Mass initiative in 2020. Marijuana Policy Project lost with their losing strategy to attempt full legalization in Alaska and Nevada. I put my best effort into persuading MPP that attempting full legalization was perhaps a bridge too far at this particular moment and that we should mostly focus our election strategy on medical marijuana and decrim. Both board member Jon Holmes and I were each repeatedly calling MPP and said look at all the victories we had spending all of $4,000 and contrast that to the millions that were just spent on losses by DPA and MPP. We said you should look at what we are doing right and get involved in Massachusetts. Rob Kampia came to Boston and met with Maddie, Scott, Steve E. and several others shortly after the election. That was the beginning of MPP’s involvement in Massachusetts. I knew this was the way to go and even if these national groups didn’t totally listen to us at first, if they kept losing and we kept winning as the years went on, they would eventually come around.
The effort that started out with the meeting in Maddie’s Somerville apartment eventually morphed into Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. It was easier to avoid the arguments and personality disputes in running the PPQs and to move into serious lobbying, we needed grant money to hire lobbyists and to get grant money, we had to have no official connection to a pot rally. Also, to have credibility with legislators on Beacon Hill, we needed to distance ourselves from the rally. Our first professional quality, very effective (but volunteer) lobbyist, Scott Mortimer, was asked of that connection over and over again when he would first talk to an elected official or one of their aides.
I could go for pages with the year but year PPQ developments but don’t want to go on for too much length here. Drug Policy Forum ran approximately something like 45 PPQs from 2000 to 2016 and never lost one. The MPP decrim initiative won in 2008 and the medical marijuana initiative won in 2012.
In the last year of the PPQs in 2014, our sole focus became legalization aka, in more voter friendly phrasing, “tax and regulate like alcohol”.
We ran the campaign in 8 carefully chosen districts, that comprised 56 towns, running from the very western Berkshires to eastern Cape Cod. We won huge averaging a 72% plurality:
4th Barnstable: Approved 73%
4th Berkshire Approved 74%
1st Essex Approved 72%
2nd Franklin Approved 69%
14th Middlesex Approved 72%
15th Middlesex Approved 72%
24thMiddlesex Approved 74%
8th Norfolk Approved 73%
MPP then took the results of our huge victories across the state to funders in the country as proof of how winnable legalization would be in Massachusetts. MPP got the money they needed, put the issue on the ballot in 2016 and the rest is history.