Longtime political activist and former NORML Executive Director Kevin Zeese passed away unexpectedly this past weekend. He was 64 years old.
Kevin Zeese at the 2003 NORML Conference
Kevin Zeese was a pioneer in the drug policy reform movement. After earning his law degree from George Washington University, he became NORML’s Chief Legal Counsel in 1980. He later served as NORML’s Executive Director from 1983 to 1986. During his time as Director, he spearheaded litigation against the US Drug Enforcement Administration demanding that the federal government recognize the therapeutic value of cannabis. That challenge led to a pivotal 1988 ruling by the DEA’s own administrative law judge, determining: “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
Following his years with NORML, Zeese co-founded the Drug Policy Foundation – now known as the Drug Policy Alliance, where he served as Vice President and Legal Counsel. The DPF sought to shift US strategies and penalties for a broad range of controlled substances, not just marijuana.
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said: “In addition to being an incredibly gregarious and caring individual, Kevin Zeese was committed to standing up for the rights of the oppressed. His impact on drug policy reform is still felt to this day thanks to his leadership with the Drug Policy Foundation and with NORML. Kevin continued to move the ball forward during the trying ‘Just Say No’ era of the 1980’s – at a time when many of his positions were far less politically popular than they are today. May he rest in power. While he is no longer with us, Kevin’s dedication to the fight against our failed war on drugs will not be forgotten.”
NORML Founder Keith Stroup added, “Kevin was a talented and dedicated public-interest attorney who played a significant role in helping shape the drive for marijuana legalization during the difficult decade of the 1980s. He was a committed progressive activist who believed in the importance of advancing his agenda and he seemed to thrive when the political environment was most challenging.”
Zeese’s later drug policy reform efforts included cofounding the Harm Reduction Coalition as well as the group Common Sense for Drug Policy, the latter of which coordinated one of the first high-profile and sustained advertising campaigns combatting drug war-related propaganda. During this time, Zeese also played a key role in the creation of the Alliance of Reform Organizations – which sought to bring together and coordinate the efforts various reform organizations around the country.
NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “Kevin Zeese’s eloquent critique of US drug policy and the need for reform was well ahead of its time. Ironically, by the time the culture caught up with his drug war politics, Kevin had largely moved on to fight other battles. Nonetheless, his work continues to hold influence and pay dividends today.”
At the 2000 NORML Conference, Kevin Zeese discusses the practice of drug testing by the government and private groups.
Over the better part of the past two decades, Zeese dedicated his time and energy to broader progressive causes, including anti-war efforts and campaigns for economic justice such as the Occupy Movement. In 2004, he served as press secretary for Ralph Nader’s Presidential Campaign, and he continued to be closely involved in third-party political movements until his untimely passing. “Kevin leaves an enormous hole in his wake,” said Green Party Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, for whom Zeese served as press secretary. “He would want his legacy to be that we filled it by multiplying our efforts to bring about a better world.”
NORML offers its condolences to the friends and family of Kevin Zeese.
An online tribute to Kevin Zeese’s life and numerous accomplishments is scheduled for Saturday, September 19 at 3pm est. Those interested in participating may register here.