With politics, parties and another smokedown protest at Independence Hall, participants made the most of the holiday — best known for binge drinking — to highlight the safer option.

PhillyNORML held its first regional conference on March 16 partnering with its national office and campus group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). Panels and keynotes were held at Claudia Cohen Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. The capacity crowd spent the day hearing from experts in cannabis science, legal issues and politics.

The event brought together the executive directors of several regional organizations working to reform marijuana laws:  Evan Nison of New Jersey NORML; Kevin Clough of PhillyNORML; and Patrick Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML.

Also attending: Diane Fornbacher, the Vice Chair of NORML Women's Alliance; Gabriel Sayegh, director of Drug Policy Alliance NY; Erik Alteri, National NORML Communication Director;  and Ken Wolski RN and Dr. Jahan Marcu, advisory board members of Americans for Safe Access (ASA).

High Times magazine publisher Rick Cusick led a lively discussion about culture.

Pa. State Sen. Daylin Leach spoke about how he approached the issue of marijuana legalization during his keynote speech. Leach said that after Washington and Colorado decriminalized marijuana, six other states were expected to propose similar legislation.

"But Pennsylvania was never one of them and I thought 'Well, I can change that'," Leach said.

Leach and Pa. State. Rep. Mark Cohen have bills pending in Harrisburg aimed at regulating marijuana in a way similar to the state-store system.

Though New Jersey has active legislation to decriminalize personal pot possession by adults, the bills introduced by Lynch and Cohen are considered the most progressive in the region.

An evening fundraiser for PhillyNORML gave everyone a chance to unwind. The Panic Hour emceed a night of comedy music and food with New York comic Rob Cantrell and local band CultureReal.

PhillyNORML Executive Director Kevin Clough said the day brought in more than $5,000 that will be spent on the PA reform effort.

But that wasn't all for the most motivated stoners in the area. On Sunday, St. Patrick's Day proper, PhillyNORML and The Panic Hour teamed up for the third "Smoke Down Prohibition" event at Independence Hall.

More than 150 people gathered to hear pro-legalization speeches. Ed "NJWeedman" Forchion, just out of jail, was even on hand to address the crowd. At 4:20 p.m. those gathered held a "moment of cannabis reflection" with many in the crowd lighting joints in protest of prohibition laws. There were no arrests or citations.

"This was one of the best of one-day conferences in NORML's 40 year history ushering in a brand new era for PhillyNORML," said Kevin Clough, the organization's executive director.

"Now we have a much larger working budget to spread information to voters and legislators, train our volunteers and promote events throughout the Philadelphia area."

Clough sees the movement growing faster than hydroponic flowers."We are seeing chapters forming in Lancaster, PA and Delaware. These types of events allow connections between chapters to strengthen and empower activists across the region," he said.

Chris Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. 

Contact Chris Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com