Reform Report: Second Annual Southern Cannabis Reform Conference in Atlanta

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The 2nd annual Southern Cannabis Reform conference was held in Atlanta on March 22nd.  The South is often thought of as caboose of cannabis reform; however, there are still positive strides in reform being made in Georgia and though out the southern United States.

Activists in the South face extreme social and political conservatism when attempting to reform marijuana laws – so extreme in fact, that one prominent cannabis activist family recently had their front door beaten down by a SWAT team in the early hours of the morning for police only to recover 1.7grams (about $25 worth) of marijuana, and forever traumatizing this peaceful yet outspoken family. Of Georgia’s 159 counties approximately 139 of those are politically conservative counties, having voted republican in the last presidential election.

The Georgia House of Representatives recently voted against the state’s only pending medical marijuana legislation, a “CBD-only” bill allowing high CBD cannabis oil with only 2% THC allowed to be brought into Georgia from another state, with a doctor’s prescription, and in its original container.

Although the limited CBD legislation failed, leaving many marijuana reformers to question the future of cannabis reform in the State of Georgia, the south is still ripe with activists.  It takes a certain fortitude to be outspoken about marijuana in the the most conservative region on the United States, and fortitude was clearly exemplified by the participants in the Southern Cannabis Reform conference.

The Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Atlanta was bustling with about 75 people at 8am on the Saturday morning of the conference.  Marijuana crosses cultural, economic, and even political barriers in the South, and brings people together who would not normally consider themselves to have something in common.  It is not uncommon to find several stereotypes – red necks, thugs, suburban kids, soccer moms, young adults – finding common ground in Atlanta with marijuana. The City of Atlanta and surrounding areas are some of the most racially, economically, and politically diverse regions in the United States, and the conference attendees embodied the melting pot that is Atlanta.

Peachtree NORML hosted the event, which featured an array of speakers including drug policy reformers, medical professionals, law enforcement, clergy, and advocates. Sharon Ravert, Peachtree NORML’s founder and executive director, believes the way to end prohibition is to educate one mind at a time about the benefits of cannabis and also the harms of cannabis prohibition.

Education was certainly the theme of the conference, with one of the first panels being a scholarly discussion on Cannabis Therapeutics and the Endocannabanoid System lead by Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, a cannabis therapeutics specialist, and Atlanta area general practicioner Dr. Isioma Okobah.  The panel discussion explored in-depth the intricate cannabinoid system and many of the medicinal effects of cannabis treatments for a variety of conditions.

Russ Bellville was broadcasting his 420Radio Show from the conference and spoke  about recent driving statistics in Colorado and Washington.  Armed with data and graphs, Bellville pointed out that automobile accidents have not increased in either state since marijuana became legalized for recreational use by adults over age 21.  He isn’t arguing that marijuana has made the roads safer, but “it certainly hasn’t made them less safe” as many legalization opponents have proclaimed would happen.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Major Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) shared the personal story of the death of his police partner during a confidential informant operation in Baltimore.  This incident made Mr. Franklin rethink his views on drug laws and he now spends his time advocating across the country for a change in the nation’s drug policy.  Mr. Franklin said that he hopes that people one day will feel a sense of calm when being approached by a police officer because they have nothing to fear, as opposed to the feeling of panic most people currently feel during a police encounter.

The final panel included victims of the drug war speaking out about their experiences.  The panel was comprised of people in the Atlanta area who have been the victims of police abuse of power by having their privacy and homes invaded, and people who have lost friends and family members to the drug war in some fashion.  I was honored to be part of this panel where I could speak about my best friend Rachel Hoffman who was murdered during a botched buy/bust operation.  Being able to speak of victims of the drug war helps heal people and keeps alive the stories of those who are no longer with us.

The conference concluded with a candlelight vigil which honored victims of the drug war.

Southern hospitality is a real thing that is alive within the cannabis community in the Atlanta area, a community that is working together in one of the most socially and politically conservative areas in the country to bring the conversation of marijuana reform to Georgia.