Chris Conrad & Mikki Norris, California

The San Francisco Bay Area holds a place in history as the center of grassroots organizing that made medical cannabis legal – first in the city and county, then in the state of California and much of the rest of the United States. Among the committed activists who propelled that movement are Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, a couple who have each contributed their ideas and talents in a wide variety of ways, including working with Americans for Safe Access.

Chris Conrad & Mikki Norris

For nearly four decades, Chris and Mikki, aka "the Power Couple of Pot," have taken a three-pronged approach, devising separate strategies to legalize hemp, medical access, and adult use. They contributed to the campaigns to pass the first state medical cannabis law, California’s Proposition 215, in 1996 and others since then.

“In war, the first thing you do is get the wounded off the field of battle,” Chris says. “The sick and the dying shouldn’t be in the line of fire in the drug war.”

Prop 215 made personal use, possession and cultivation of cannabis legal under California law for qualified patients, but the means of distribution and other details were left vague in the voter initiative, so years of litigation and criminal cases ensued. As state courts mapped the limits of the law, Chris was a central player, testifying as an expert witness in hundreds of cases that shaped California’s nascent medical cannabis program, including the precedent-setting decisions in Mower (2002) and Kelly (2010).

Chris was able to fill that role because of his unusual experience working for years in Europe, including the legal cannabis market in the Netherlands, left him uniquely situated to provide testimony on plant counts and canopy yields. Since then, he has worked on more than 2,500 cases and testified before more than 350 state, federal and military courts. Advocating for people who use cannabis medicinally is a priority.

Chris Conrad“Lots of people had experience with cannabis cultivation then, but almost no one in the U.S. had done so legally,” says Chris. “Because I had worked in the Netherlands, where it was legal, prosecutors couldn’t discredit me on the stand as a criminal.”  

Educating people about the many uses of cannabis hemp has been central to their efforts since 1988. His first book, Hemp: Lifeline to the Future, followed his editing and design of the late Jack Herer’s iconic The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and curation of the Hash, Marihuana and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam with groundbreaking cannabis entrepreneurs Ben and Alan Dronkers. The year Prop 215 went into effect, Chris published his second book, Hemp for Health, since translated into six languages. He has published multiple editions of Cannabis Yields and Dosage. His latest book, coauthored with Jeremy Daw, is the Newbies Guide to Cannabis and the Industry.

In addition to pamphlets and books, Chris and Mikki also helped share cannabis-related news with other activists and the general public. From 2008 to 2013, they published The West Coast Leaf newspaper and now host theLeafOnline.

Education remains at the core of their work. Together they founded Friends of Prop 64 to support the campaign for California’s adult-use initiative, which won with 57% of the vote. Chris has taught in a variety of capacities, including Oaksterdam University and courses that provide continuing education credits for attorneys (CLEs) and medical professionals (CMEs). Mikki has taught advocacy classes at OU as well.

Organizing was another key to Chris and Mikki’s work. They formed the American Hemp Council, Family Council on Drug Awareness and Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp in the late 1980s and helped found the Hemp Industries Association in 1994.

Following raids on patients, Chris formed Safe Access Now to establish a reasonable “Safe Harbor” for patient grows and full implementation of California’s medical cannabis law. When they went to register a URL, they discovered that someone had just claimed, so they got Just days later, at a Bay Area meeting for medical cannabis activists, they learned who had the .org URL – a new patient advocacy organization called Americans for Safe Access!

“It was a funny moment at that meeting when Steph Sherer announced the website,” says Chris. “‘So, you guys got it!’ What are the odds we’d both pop up with it at the same time and place?”

That coincidental convergence of ideas was just the start of collaboration and cross-pollination of strategies between ASA and Chris and Mikki.

Mikki NorrisBack in 1995, the couple had created the Human Rights and the Drug War photo exhibit, with the late Virginia Resner, to put faces on the individuals whose lives had been ruined by law enforcement. They traveled the US and Europe with that exhibit and then turned it into the book Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War.

Working with ASA, Mikki created a similar publication focused on medical cannabis patients: Patients in the Crossfire: Casualties in the War on Medical Marijuana. Amplifying the dramatic stories of the individual patients and other people caught up in the criminal prosecutions of the drug war, it served as a lobbying tool for successful state campaigns across the US. Mikki continued on that tack with the Cannabis Consumers Campaign, which encourages people to help breakdown stigma by coming out of the cannabis closet and showing the diversity of cannabis users.

“I’ve always thought about cannabis and other drugs as a human rights issue,” says Mikki. “We still have work to do to secure our civil rights. People shouldn’t lose the right to employment, housing, or being a parent because of cannabis, but that’s still happening.”

The changes in law and growing normalization of cannabis use have updated their concerns. To balance the over commercialization of cannabis and recognize the many gifts the plant brings to people’s lives, Chris and Mikki they have been leading Cannamaste ceremonies focused on cannabis spirituality, or Cantheism.

Yet they also recognize that the work they’ve begun remains undone.

“We have to get the prisoners out,” says Mikki. “No one should be in prison for cannabis.

This profile was originally published in the December 2021 ASA Activist Newsletter