High Country: Gonzo lives on at NORML’s Aspen Legal Seminar

Katie Shapiro
High Country
Keith Stroup presents Anita Thompson with a Special Appreciation Award from the NORML Board of Directors.
Courtesy of NORML

“I would like to welcome all of y’all to this fair town and village. It’s a pretty special place in many respects. It’s being taking over by the f—ing greedheads, but I will tell you that it is still a bastion of hippiedom,” proclaimed Gerry Goldstein during the opening remarks of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws annual Aspen Legal Seminar. “That’s why most of us came here.”

The renowned criminal defense attorney, longtime NORML activist and Aspenite continued in introducing “our friend,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who “was the most outspoken proponent of Amendment 64, which brought us recreational marijuana in this fair state.”

DiSalvo then shared with a crowd of more than 50 attendees that, “Marijuana has been a part of this community since I got here in 1980. It’s virtually been legal here since 1980. The police … we’ve always had an attitude that if you were cool about it, and you weren’t rubbing it in somebody’s face, we didn’t care.”

For a historically progressive and seemingly idyllic enclave of cannabis consumers, our local headlines reporting on efforts fighting against the cause often catch me by surprise. I digress with two recent examples:

1. Nearly five years after the legalization of recreational marijuana, I still can’t shop for it in my new neighborhood of Snowmass Village (a 2013 moratorium on retail dispensaries remains). “It could cost us more” than the revenue generated by a marijuana sales tax, Snowmass Mayor Markey Butler said at a work session May 14.

With all due respect, madam mayor, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2017, $11.3 million in marijuana sales revenue was recorded compared with $10.5 million in liquor stores, marking the first time ever that cannabis has outsold alcohol in Aspen for the year.

2. Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH) is launching an opioid reduction initiative as a response to the national crisis and increased prescription rates in Pitkin County over the last three years (Colorado ranks 12th in non-medical opioid use nationally). When I inquired via phone if cannabis will be a topic of discussion at its first community forum June 20, AVH’s chief clinical officer Lori Maloy just said “no.”

Might I suggest adding a screening of chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s special report “Weed 4: Pot vs. Pills” on CNN, which shares staggering stats from new studies such as that states with medical marijuana had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year.

Back to last weekend’s cannabis conference. What do most locals and visitors to Aspen also not know? The country’s top thought leaders in marijuana law and policy reform have been convening at The Gant every June for 12 years now. And through its local chapters, in courtrooms and on the Hill, they’ve been fighting the good fight since 1970, when NORML was founded by Keith Stroup.

Two years later, Goldstein first got involved when he volunteered to represent NORML in the state of Texas (his practice Goldstein, Goldstein, Hilley & Orr is still based in San Antonio), which, at the time, was handing down the harshest marijuana sentences in the country. Since then, he has earned countless professional accolades, but counts NORML’s Al Horn Memorial Award (1999) and Michael J. Kennedy Social Justice Award (2016) among some of his most prized. Off the clock, the 74-year-old is also known around town for earning a 100-day skiing pin most seasons.

NORML’s roots in Fat City date back to when Stroup met Hunter S. Thompson in 1972 at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Counting Thompson as the organization’s original public supporter, visits to Owl Farm ensued and have continued for NORML’s then-executive director and now-legal counsel. While on hiatus for 2018, the three-day symposium has always culminated at the infamous Woody Creek compound for a barbecue benefit graciously hosted by Anita Thompson in his honor.

Saturday night is always a beloved benefit dinner at the Goldsteins’ house, where in recent years chef Chris Lanter is in the kitchen personally topping plates with cannabis-infused spins on Home Team BBQ’s signature sauces.

Goldstein’s call to gather in what is arguably Aspen’s coziest living room was for Anita, who Stroup presented with a Special Appreciation Award from the NORML Board of Directors, “in grateful recognition for her support for NORML and our work to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults.”

“I love you guys so much. It is a favorite day of the year — after Hunter passed away — to have his people at Owl Farm celebrating the work of NORML. By starting this organization, you have kept a lot of people out of prison … including Hunter,” she said, the room erupting in laughter and cheers.

In return, she presented Stroup with hand-painted antlers, embedded with red earth from the property, “to let you know NORML is always welcome at Owl Farm,” she said.

Aspen-based criminal defense attorney Lauren Maytin is also carrying on the legend of Gonzo locally and in Colorado through the organization as a lifetime NORML member, the longest serving member on the board of directors for Colorado NORML (its longest-serving member) and member of the Cannabis Counsel.

A recipient of the John Flowers Mark NORML Scholarship in 2001 while studying at the University of Denver College of Law, she has committed her life to the cause, but credits one of her biggest successes as the creation of Colorado NORML’s Hunter S. Thompson Scholarship, which she first launched in 2008 and provides recipients with travel accommodations and a pass to the Aspen Legal Seminar. The 2018 Colorado NORML Hunter S. Thompson recipients were Jennifer Fields, a public defender in Berrien County, Michigan, and Ebony Miller, a Denver-based cannabis advocate, who is currently pursuing a Master of Science in health services administration.

“I’m very proud to symbolize his (Thompson’s) love and his admiration for this movement by expanding a student’s education and spreading the message of normalization and legalization throughout the country,” Maytin says. “So many people in this town have been supportive of us that we’ve been successful in raising funds locally. And to have such an inspiring event like this here every year … we’re just really lucky.”

Katie Shapiro would like to quote Keith Stroup from a smoke session over the weekend, “We’re winning this fight … it’s not over yet, but we are kicking ass!” She can be reached at and followed around high country @kshapiromedia.

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