Aug. 25 2010 09:19 AM

Head of local pro-pot group out over public spat

Craig Beresh

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” —Pogo

Local attorney Mark-Robert Bluemel, who's been involved in the marijuana-legalization wars since the '90s, makes it a point when a leadership change occurs at San Diego's chapters of pro-pot national organizations NORML and Americans for Safe Access (ASA) to tell the new honchos something rather basic.

“I've told them all, ‘You need to get along!'” he recounted recently. “Unfortunately, I've been following that fight for years. Sometimes, they're like cats and dogs.”

As a member of the city's Medical Marijuana Task Force, Bluemel witnessed the friction firsthand. “I had to tell people from both organizations that were yelling at us that we were a think tank, tasked with proposing good ideas for regulating medical marijuana. They were expecting us to jump down the throat of Bonnie Dumanis and Jerry Sanders.”

He refers, of course, to the Queen of Medical Marijuana Prosecutors (however unsuccessful to date) and the Silent Mayor on this topic. But what worries him—particularly after the latest kerfuffle—is that groups like NORML and ASA are losing focus at a critical time and, instead, “are seeing this as an opportunity for 15 minutes of fame, sadly enough, rather than truly wanting to help the patients and the cause.”

If true, Bluemel laments, these activists “are playing right into the hands of the opponents and the minority of the population that's against medical marijuana.”

The latest local soldier in the pot-legalization war to fall was Craig Beresh, executive director of the southern California chapter of NORML. Depending on who's telling the story, Beresh was A) told to step down from the volunteer post for unprofessional behavior (national NORML) or B) hung out to dry in a power play orchestrated by his enemies over at ASA (Beresh himself).

Frankly, this topic has perplexed Spin Cycle like no other. Two organizations supposedly on the same team clawing for attention as a November election draws near that provides a viable opportunity to propel California into new territory: the loosening of the stigma surrounding marijuana and its disciples.

Some of the allegations seem so, well, unbelievable that Hollywood would likely reject the screenplay as too far-fetched. Plus, when you're writing on a topic as legally confusing as this one, you know lawyers are swimming all around, waiting for an opportunity to make a buck. Or many.

Still, the letter from NORML headquarters that swept across the internet last week was quite a surprise.

“The southern California NORML Chapter, headed by Craig Beresh, is officially under suspension pending the removal of Mr. Beresh as executive director and formation of a new board for the non-profit, should it wish to apply for reinstatement,” the letter from NORML outreach coordinator Russ Belville opened with a boom.

The decision, the letter continued, came from “the culmination of many complaints we have received at National and California NORML about the operation of the chapter and the behavior of its director, Craig Beresh.”

The final straw came when Beresh, upon learning that the chapter and his position with it were in jeopardy, “decided to bypass my office” and contact retired-but-still-rascally NORML founder Keith Stroup at home, “which led to a shouting match,” Belville wrote.

Beresh says he was given Stroup's home number to call— NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre doesn't dispute that—but he acknowledged to Spin Cycle that he knew his days as local NORML leader were numbered after that.

While St. Pierre praised Beresh for his service and his passion about marijuana legalization, what really pissed him off was that when the local chapter was asked to take down its website, Beresh redirected unsuspecting visitors to a new pro-pot website of his own making.

“That's not cool,” St. Pierre told Spin. “After you leave an organization, you're not supposed to point the fucking chapter's web page to your private web page. That's outrageous.”

For his part, Beresh—who'd led the local organization since its christening last September—would only say that he “had tears in his eyes” when he took down the website.

One thing you come away with when you speak to NORML's St. Pierre is this: Don't muck with NORML's brand name. Along with the magazine High Times, there aren't two more recognizable brands in the estimated $14-billion marijuana “industry,” as it were.

“And that's not just with stoners,” St. Pierre adds. “We're talking the general public, as well.”

NORML is constantly pitched to put its name on everything from bongs to cannabis colleges, and St. Pierre said the last five free lunches he's enjoyed have come at the expense of major pharmaceutical lobbyists who certainly are keeping a moneyed eye on the evolution of marijuana laws across the country.

So, can an organization (NORML) that advocates legalization get along with a group (ASA) that focuses solely on getting medical marijuana safely into the hands of patients who want it? It's not easy.

St. Pierre argues that the medical-marijuana community is facing what he called a “boxed canyon,” in that if proponents truly want medical-grade pot, there's a little federal agency known as the Food and Drug Administration that will want to weigh in on that desire.

“So they better prepare for a long wait for that approval,” St. Pierre said, “and they better have about a half a billion dollars in market capitalization to pay for the process. That's why we think legalization makes more sense. It eliminates that process. It won't matter if you want it for medicine or for recreation.”

St. Pierre said it will be up to local members to decide how it wants to proceed with reinstating the chapter.

Kimberly Simms, a local attorney and formerly one of three SoCal NORML board members, says a seven-member transition panel has been set up to move forward with the newly minted San Diego County NORML.

“This is all really sad,” Simms said. “And Craig is certainly welcome at the next meeting. It'll be an open-door policy.”

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