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Tom Aylesworth of Fredericksburg smokes a joint in a friend's hotel room during the national NORML conference in Washington Friday.
Andrew Looney, owner of Looney Games, demonstrates Aquarius, a game that he created. Looney said that smoking marijuana enhances his creativity and helps him think of ideas for new games.
Lauren Hathorn of Phoenix (right) attended the conference to promote "Busted," a video produced by Flex Your Rights.
Alan Heyman, web content manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, pins a T-shirt to his table at the NORML conference in Washington Friday.
It was five years ago, and a casual friend had gone to Southeast D.C. to buy a small amount of marijuana.
Dana Griffin got caught between rival gang gunfire, and a shotgun blast left him dead.
Aylesworth was outraged.
"I was like, 'This is friggin' ridiculous!' He was going to buy some pot and got shot in the chest and died."
The next day, Aylesworth decided to "come out of the closet," a phrase he uses to equate private drug-users with homosexuals who go public.
He fired off an e-mail to everyone in his address book: his parents, his in-laws, his friends, his co-workers.
The marijuana laws are unjust, and "by the way, I've been smoking pot since I was 15," he wrote.
"It was cathartic," said Aylesworth, 36, of Fredericksburg. "And I was just tired of hiding it."
Besides sending the e-mail, Aylesworth called up the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He volunteered to run the group's Web site.
No longer NORML’s Webmaster, Aylesworth nonetheless was among a couple of hundred folks who turned out for the group’s national conference in Washington over the weekend.
To be fair, plenty of groups highlight what they say are the harmful effects of marijuana.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, for instance, notes that smoking pot may lead to decreased memory and slower learning; increase a smoker's risk of a heart attack; lead to respiratory illness; and reduce the user's immune system, among other side affects.
Not surprisingly, those at the NORML conference came with very different views.
The gathering included about 15 wheel-chair bound folks who want to legalize marijuana to ease their medical conditions; dozens of college students, including a busload of 40 who came up from six Florida schools; dozens more older recreational users; and a smattering of civil libertarians who believe banning pot violates Americans’ constitutional rights.
Each group hopes to benefit from the other.
"The medicinal issue is going to be the wedge issue," said Robert Ablon, 34, of Oakland, Calif. He, himself, is a recreational user.
"We’re going to force you to arrest cancer patients."
The NORML folks seemed to unnerve not only the hotel management, but also young folks attending a nearby meeting of the Center for the Study for the Presidency, designed to turn out tomorrow’s leaders.
Besides NORML officers, others dropped by to address—and appeal to—supporters of marijuana-law reform.
Gary Nolan, billed as the leading Libertarian Party candidate for president, delivered such crowd-pleasing lines as:
"Like me, you would probably like to send the DEA to Guam" and "Let's end this war on drugs!"
On Thursday, NORML members lobbied members of Congress to consider easing marijuana laws.
A spokesman for Rep. Frank Wolf said members of his staff did meet with a NORML member on Thursday, but that co-sponsoring any marijuana reform laws isn't something high on the Virginia congressman's radar.
"It's too hypothetical to answer that," said Dan Scandling, a spokesman for Wolf. "You don't know what it's going to look like and in what form or anything like that," he said.
Back at the conference Friday, attendees perused booths where they learned about NORML’s "Cannabis Cruise" aboard the "SS Love."
They munched on chocolate-covered hemp pretzels.
And they met like-minded folks who came to pitch their own pet causes.
Amanda Phillips, 31, of Burlington, Mass., is an accounting manager for a company that manages nursing homes and extended-living facilities.
In her free time, she's also the president of a group called the Free State Project, which advocates—among other issues—everyone's right to smoke pot.
"This is my volunteer side show," she joked.
The group's goal is to persuade 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire.
"The state motto is 'Live Free or Die,' " she pointed out.
"We want to create a similar government with less infringement on all aspects of people's lives," she said. "It's a chance to put my ideals into action and to live what we believe."
Like Phillips, each person came with her own story.
Alex Franco, 25, of San Francisco has a career you won't find advertised on monster.com.
"I'm a cannabis provider," she explained.
Although it's illegal, she said, she feels compelled to ease the pain of those who suffer from such ailments as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
"The most common misconception is that there's no benefit," she said.
Franco suffers from degenerative disc disease and said legal pain killers and muscle relaxers leave her unable to function. With pot, she said, she can ease her pain and still lead a normal life.
Jim Miller's wife was once the country's most public face of medicinal marijuana use.
Cheryl Miller, who had MS for 31 years, was perhaps best known for eating marijuana in the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Rogan in March 1998.
Her husband continues to attend NORML conventions, where he's stopped by other supporters of medicinal pot.
"This is why we do what we do," Miller said Friday.
Gary Stork, 49, of Madison, Wis., said he accidentally discovered the benefits of marijuana as a teenager.
He was born with glaucoma and faced the possibility of losing his sight.
He smoked pot before visiting a doctor in 1972 and realized his eyes were in better shape than usual.
"I made the connection that day that I could save my eyesight," he said. "I just turned 49 and I'm not blind, and I would have been if I had not found marijuana."
Andrew Looney was 30 when he came home with a memo that shocked his wife, Kristen. A NASA scientist, he had written down that he wanted to try marijuana to see if it boosted his creativity.
"In school, I was such an anti-drug teetotaler that it's amazing I've become the stoner that I am," said Looney, a couple of minutes after smoking a joint in his hotel room.
Looney said his creativity and energy have soared since he started using marijuana ten years ago.
He and his wife now run a successful game company, and Looney said he's created his best work while high.
"Nancy Reagan cost me 10 years of being a stoner," he said very seriously. "Think what I could have done with those 10 years?"
Aylesworth, the Fredericksburg resident, said the convention shatters the stereotype that pot burns brain cells and endangers society.
He said he makes about $100,000 a year as a computer consultant.
"I'm a complete pothead and I have a good job," he said.
After he wrote his email in 1999, his wife's parents stopped talking to them for about a year. Other than that, few people blinked.
"Everybody agrees with it, " Aylesworth said. "But they're afraid to talk about it."