Photos courtesy of Peachtree NORML
To pot activists in Massachusetts, where Democrats run everything and marijuana reform is assumed to be inherently lefty, Sharon Ravert at first looks like a cartoon devil. An SUV-driving, self-described “Republican mom and small business owner” from the mountains of rural north Georgia, she sounds like someone who would pen an anti-pot troll column in the Herald.
In fact, Ravert is executive director of Georgia’s Peachtree NORML brigade, and perhaps the state’s most effective pot legalization lobbyist. Last September, she even spoke at the Boston Freedom Rally to deliver some surprising-to-Yankees news: conservatives are driving Southern pot reform, and they want to unite with Northeast liberals. She was a major force behind a Georgia medical marijuana bill that gained stunning momentum before dying in committee this month, and get this: it was authored by a Republican lawmaker and backed by the state’s Tea Party. Even more astounding: in the wake of that proposal’s failure, the state’s Republican governor is said to be considering executive action to permit medical pot oil.
“It’s not a red state or blue state issue,” Ravert tells DigBoston. “This is an issue that is actually going to unite the country, I believe. We’re gonna realize that we’re not so different from each other.”
Ravert allies with the ACLU and tosses around political terms like “the New Jim Crow” with ease. But, like many pot activists, the issue is personal for her. She was radicalized by a 2006 armed police raid on her home that left her 19-year-old daughter facing over a quarter-century in prison for a couple joints worth of weed.
“When you’re busting down people’s doors for marijuana, it breeds activists,” Ravert says. “This drug war is not a war on marijuana. It’s a war on families. It’s a war on our communities. It’s become this conspiracy to make us all criminals.”
The impact on kids resonates with Georgia’s conservatives—the 4-year-old wracked with seizures because she can’t receive medical marijuana, the parents locked up on nonviolent drug charges, the teens lured into drug gangs by prohibition’s lucrative black market.
I met Ravert one night last month at a fellow activist’s house just outside one of Atlanta’s grittier city limits, where she bunks while working the corridors of the State Capitol. Perched on a sofa, the petite 49-year-old was brimming with energy despite having spent all day lobbying for the medical pot bill. She took me out to her SUV to show me a poll that found about 60 percent of Georgians back pot decriminalization.
Ravert grew up in Atlanta, where she sometimes smoked pot in an era when cops were most likely to make young perps toss their joint into a creek, rather than their asses into a wagon. She admits to being naive about the increasing militarization of police and mass incarceration of drug-takers.
In January 2006, Ravert learned the new world order. One night, her daughter Brittany had a few friends visiting their home, a ranch house on a bucolic eight acres in Lumpkin County, where Sharon also runs a pet boarding business. Later that night, cops busted one of the kids with a backpack containing drugs, and he mentioned he had visited Brittany. The local sheriff felt that warranted a SWAT raid.
Lumpkin County is the kind of place where Ravert didn’t even lock her doors at night. “How I got woken up was ‘bam-bam-bam’ on my bedroom door,” she recalls. “I opened the door and there are six cops all the way down the hallway in their military SWAT team type [gear] … They went downstairs, pulled my daughter out of bed with a gun to her head.”
The grand haul: 1.5 grams of weed and a few pipes—all belonging to other kids, Ravert says—and an old grow-light bulb Ravert once used, not to cultivate pot, but to kick-start her garden plants. The cops slapped Brittany with felony charges. She faced up to 26 years in prison and the loss of her federal college loan. After months of expensive legal hardball, Brittany took a deal that gave her a misdemeanor rap that was expunged after a year.
Talking about the raid still triggers Ravert to tears. “After something like that, your family goes through some form of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] … I’m not a law-breaker. I’ve never even had a speeding ticket, but every time I see a police officer, I shake.”
But she was angry, too. She joined a successful campaign to kick out the sheriff, a crackpot who later lost a federal lawsuit about another dubious raid that year; he used a warrantless search and manufactured evidence to turn a speeding stop into an imaginary drug-dealing and terrorism bust.
In 2012, Ravert founded Peachtree NORML as an educational partner to the existing Georgia NORML. But she discovered a talent for political lobbying and speaking, and became a leading voice in the local movement.
As a pro-pot Republican, Ravert knows she’s something of a misfit in her own national party, and certainly in the hippie-ish world of NORML. She said she recently convinced NORML founder Keith Stroup to stop publicly bashing Republicans willy-nilly, saying, “This is not just a Democratic issue … Don’t kick us in the mouth. We’re coming to help you.”
Through the NORML Women’s Alliance, she met MassCann/NORML activists, who invited to her to speak at the Boston Freedom Rally.
“I of course attracted a lot of people with my accent, wondering what the Southern woman was up there doing,” she recalls, saying her message was simple: “You got a Republican woman down here raising some Cain. And I just wanted to let everybody know that Georgia [marijuana reform] was out here, because we were getting absolutely no [national] media attention.”
“I think maybe a few people were shocked. I think they were a little weirded out by it,” she says of Boston’s liberal activists in one-on-one talks later. “But in the end, I think we all realize that we’re going to need each other to fix all the bad things that are going on—not just cannabis [prohibition].”
“I loved Boston,” Ravert adds. “Honestly, I liked the way they tell it like is. My girlfriends up there from Boston and New Jersey—being a Southern woman, I like the way that they just tell it like it is. Down here, we’ll just try to sugarcoat it.”
Likewise, Ravert isn’t sugarcoating the fact that if liberals want to legalize pot nationwide, they’re going to need a coalition with conservatives. She’s asking Bostonians to check out peachtreenorml.org and to fund-raise for Georgia’s efforts—currently all-volunteer and virtually cash-free. She believes Georgia could move medical marijuana and decriminalization quickly with a decent bankroll. According to Ravert, if Georgia pot law changes, it will be a huge influence on the entire South and maybe the Midwest, too.
“These states that have already gone before us, that aren’t living under these draconian laws, that aren’t having their kids pulled out of bed with a gun to their heads, they need to think about their brothers and sisters down here.”