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Meet Dan Viets: marijuana's leading man

Viets went mainstream years ago, but his campaign to legalize marijuana goes on

Pinar Istek

November 24, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Dan Viets can get loud. As his voice rises in volume, his sentences become quicker, and the point becomes stronger. But he does not raise his voice because he’s a loud person, nor does he do it because he needs to speak loudly to be heard. Dan Viets raises his voice because he has passion for everything he believes. For the past 42 years, he has been making his voice and the voice of thousands of others heard in Columbia and around the country. Don’t expect him to quiet down any time soon.

Viets, 59, is best known for his tireless crusade toward the legalization of marijuana. But Viets is much more than your typical activist. He’s a practicing defense attorney who is the former owner of the head shop Aardvarx and has co-authored a book, Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius, about Walt Disney’s connections to Missouri. His influence stretches far beyond the world of activism.


Two initiatives filed by Show Me Cannabis Regulation and Viets would put the legalization of marijuana to a vote in 2012. The two initiatives are identical, but one is a constitutional amendment and another is a statutory amendment. If passed, the initiative would:

• Legalize marijuana to adults over the age of 21
• Legalize the licensed sale of marijuana
• Tax the sale of marijuana up to $100 a pound
• Legalize the use of medical marijuana for people of any age
• Free individuals currently serving a prison sentence solely for a marijuana-related crime
• Expunge marijuana-related crimes on record
• Allow up to 100 feet of small scale cultivation
To get the legislation on the ballot, thousands of signatures from registered voters are needed. The number changes between the two initiatives:

Constitutional amendment:
Eight percent of the total votes cast in the 2008 governor’s election from six out of the state’s nine congressional districts.

Statutory amendment:
Five percent of the total votes cast in the 2008 governor’s election from six out of the state’s nine congressional districts.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan approved the language of each initiative earlier this month. The next task is to gather thousands of signatures before the May 6, 2012, deadline.

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Recent statistics suggest Viets’ fight for legalization is gaining ground. In a Gallup poll published Oct. 17, a record 50 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. In the Midwest, the number jumps to 54 percent. After years of hitting a wall in the fight for marijuana legalization, Viets is starting to see an opening.

He is now pushing to take advantage of Midwestern support by getting legalization on the 2012 ballot. It would require 100,000 signatures from eight out of the nine congressional districts in order to put legalization on as a statutory amendment. An additional 50,000 signatures would be required to put it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Viets prefers the latter in order to make it difficult for legislators to tinker with the amendment if it were to pass.

“We’ve seen the legislature, time after time, repeal or amend initiatives the people have passed,” Viets says. “You would think that legislators being elected representatives might respect the will of the voters, but they don’t.”

For now, Viets is keeping his head down while helping the cause in any way possible. Viets remains active in National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at the national level on the board of directors and the state level, where he is the state director of MO NORML. As his day job, Viets works as a defense lawyer around the state and specializes in drug law defense.

Viets’ story began in the small town of Craig, a northwestern Missouri town of about 300 people close to the Nebraska border. During his youth, Viets never saw himself becoming the activist he is now. In fact, he was raised in a Republican household and says he supported Barry Goldwater, the staunchly conservative Republican nominee in 1964 when Viets was in eighth grade. In Craig, Viets hadn’t seen or heard anything about marijuana.

“The whole rest of his family is very conservative,” Viets’ wife, Sheila Dundon, says. “He’s kind of the odd man out.”

Before entering his freshman year at MU in 1969, Viets considered becoming a journalist. After getting active in politics, which includes a stint as Missouri Student Association president and a trip to Washington, D.C., it became apparent that law was a better fit.

NORML, like Viets, was also just getting its start during the early 1970s. The organization formed in Washington, D.C., a year after Viets came to Columbia and began advocating for the reform of marijuana laws. At the time, Viets had read about NORML but hadn’t gotten involved yet. On a visit to D.C. for a National Student Associations conference, Viets found out that NORML was having its first national conference during the same time. An interested Viets made a point to attend.

John Galliher has been teaching sociology at MU since the 1960s and retired earlier this year, though he plans to return to the classroom in the future. He saw firsthand the beginnings of Viets’ post-college career. Galliher remembers Viets as a student who smoked marijuana in public and calls him an “institution in Columbia.”

Viets’ activism began to take shape at MU. As MSA president, elected in 1972, one of the issues he helped champion was encouraging fellow students to become more active in decision-making processes at MU. More specifically, Viets was upset with the idea that administrators were treating students as products shaped and formed by a factory.

“We thought we were full citizens with a right to the role of governing the university,” Viets says. “And nobody thought we were going to take over the university, but we certainly had the right to full share of the governing of the institution.”

That right involved getting students more active in politics at the local, state and national levels.

“The administration felt I was being uncooperative simply because I was uncooperative,” Viets said during his term as MSA president. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAVITAR

Today, the cause is different, but the theme remains the same: championing the ideas of civil liberties and the right to free will. Viets does not stand for legalization of marijuana so more people can get high; he stands for legalization because he believes citizens have a right to control what they put into their bodies.

“We own our bodies, the government does not own our bodies,” Viets says. “We have the right as human beings to decide what we will do with our own bodies. If we don’t have that right, then we don’t have any freedom.”

For Viets, this ideal extends beyond marijuana activism. He supports Planned Parenthood as well as gay rights. Viets feels the public often misunderstands what rights organizations really advocate. He says Planned Parenthood isn’t advocating abortion; it is advocating the right to choose. Viets relates this idea back to marijuana activism by explaining he wants people to have freedom in the choice.

After graduating, Viets spent a couple years opening and establishing Aardvarx and cementing himself in Columbia politics. He would continue his education in the early ’80s by attending MU’s law school.

As a lawyer and an active member of NORML, Viets was on the front lines of marijuana reform. States, such as Oregon and California, in the 1970s began decriminalizing marijuana - a big step toward reform. In total, eight states passed some form of decriminalization during the ’70s. But Viets says the movement slowed during the 1980s because of pressing public opposition. “The movement toward decriminalization clearly stalled in the late ’70s,” Viets says, “and the ’80s were just a period of trying to hold on to the progress we had won.”

Movements, such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign during the decade turned a large portion of the public against legalization.

To Viets, revolution is slow and gradual. Despite periods of stagnation in marijuana legalization, he never thought about giving up, especially with the process of reform accelerating at the rate it is now.

Missouri is an excellent example of how marijuana laws differ at each level of government. In 2004, Columbia marijuana reform hit a high point with the passing of two laws. The first law, section 16-255.1, was a medical marijuana ordinance that removed all penalties of purchasing, using and possessing medical marijuana and paraphernalia for patients with a recommendation by a doctor. Even if the patient receives the doctor’s recommendation after the arrest, the case will be dropped.

The second law was a decriminalization law, which removed the threat of arrest for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (less than 35 grams) and restricted punishment of a fine up to $250 and/or community service hours for first-time offenders.

But the Midwest, Missouri specifically, has been especially slow to reform its marijuana laws. Possession outside of Columbia of less than 35 grams of marijuana can result in a Class A misdemeanor and up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Any amount more than 35 grams is a felony and incarceration penalties and fines become more severe. Any sale of marijuana is a felony and can result in prison time and/or a hefty fine up to $20,000, depending on the amount.

Compare Missouri to a progressive state like Oregon, and the penalties appear to be even more severe. There, possession of anything less than one ounce is a civil violation with a possible fine of up to $1,000 and no threat of incarceration.

Now, seven years after decriminalization, Viets needs between 100,000 and 150,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, which is how the two laws were passed in 2004 in Columbia. Viets says citizens might have to wait a while to see dispensaries on local street corners, but it is a possibility for the future.

It might seem as if Viets has less to be loud about with public opinion finally swinging in support of legalization, but don’t think for a moment that he has lost his fire. Just ask him about Missouri’s criminalization of the herbal incense K2 earlier this year, which he calls a mistake.

“It should never have been a criminal prohibition,” Viets says. “That’s the legislature’s knee-jerk reaction to anything they don’t like.”

A tireless crusader for marijuana reform, Viets talks on the phone in his kitchen. PHOTO BY PINAR ISTEK

Viets says the banning of K2 was a step backward in drug reform because it created a new crime. Instead, he would have preferred to see more research about the health effects of K2 and restriction of sales to people over the age of 21.

Unfortunately for Viets, and despite all of the causes he works toward, activism doesn’t make him rich. In fact, if marijuana were to become legal in Missouri, there is a great chance that much of his client base in drug defense would shrink considerably. This fact seems to neither deter nor worry Viets.

“Dan could have become a wealthy man if he directed his efforts elsewhere,” Galliher says. “And he hasn’t because he’s devoted his work to human rights in Columbia.”

Even as a defense lawyer, Viets isn’t a rich man. His wife works as a bookkeeper and office manager for her husband’s law firm. She says her husband understands the troubles and strains marijuana laws place on individuals and families, be it financially or mentally.

“There aren’t many criminal defense lawyers that will work with a client to make a payment plan,” Dundon says.

Dundon also helps clients with the strain of drug law punishment. As a former nurse, she helps some clients cope or find rehab facilities. Her experience aids some of the hidden consequences of being caught with drugs, such as financial woes and fractured families.

But no matter how much the couple tries to help, they still feel they could do more. The hardest part of an activist’s job isn’t the public opposition or the lack of good money. Viets says it’s something different: seeing good people go to prison.

The culture of prison is something Viets takes particularly seriously. He is a staunch supporter of prison reform. He also says that law enforcement officials often target minorities.

Although African-Americans represent just more than 12 percent of the population, they make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. federal prison population, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Latinos comprise more than 16 percent of the population and represent 34 percent of the prison population.

How most of those inmates landed in the pen is the same: 50.4 percent of U.S. federal prisoners are in prison for a drug-related offense. To put it in perspective, at 15.2 percent, the second-highest offenses that land people in prison are weapon, explosive and arson-related. The prison population now totals more than 217,000.

Dan Viets, wearing a v-neck pullover and sandals, marches down Broadway in protest of the 1970 Kent State and Jackson State killings during his term as MU’s Student Mobilization Committee vice president. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAVITAR

In 2010, President Obama proposed a $528 million infusion to federal prisons. Half of that money was supposed to be put toward closing down Guantanamo Bay. The rest was supposed to be dispersed among other prison-related endeavors, such as hiring more workers and funding the construction of new prisons. Viets is outraged about the strain prison puts on society as a whole. There is the obvious tax hike Americans see and then there are hidden costs.

“If (marijuana offenders) weren’t in prison, most of them would be working,” Viets says. “Most of them would be supporting themselves, their families and paying taxes. So we lose twice when we put people in prison for non-violent activity.”

Today, the hair Viets has left stretches around the back of his head, and his salt-and-pepper beard gives him a distinguished look. If you see him in public, expect to see him in a suit. He maintains a professional appearance, despite fighting for a cause most commonly associated with inmates and jail time.

Beyond his charitable crusades on behalf of social justice, Viets finds time to explore his other interests. He’s an avid fan of film and helped start a Steve McQueen festival in the actor’s boyhood hometown of Slater, Mo.

Viets and Dundon have been married 11 years. The couple met in 1979 through Dundon’s sister. Prior to their meeting, Dundon says she had heard of Viets before and even remembers voting for him when he ran for public office. Shortly after sharing a night out at The Blue Note, the couple began dating. They lived together for 20 years before tying the knot. Viets’ articulation of his beliefs was one of the first things Dundon liked about him.

“I was greatly impressed with his ability to stand up in public and stand up for what he believes in even though everybody else in the room totally hates him,” Dundon says.

Dundon has seen her husband evolve from local businessman and politician to a reputable drug defense lawyer in the last 30 years. Aging, she says, has only helped Viets become more knowledgeable about his subjects.

Behind the political maelstrom, Viets tends to emit a much softer image. He also frequently adopts stray cats. Dundon says she and her husband don’t have any kids, but currently own nine cats.

When speaking of activism in marijuana legalization and in his career, it’s clear Viets doesn’t plan on giving up this life anytime soon. “There is no retirement,” Viets says. “What does that mean? I just can’t envision doing nothing.”

Viets will be the first to tell you growing public support of marijuana in Columbia hasn’t been all of his doing. However, he has played a pivotal role in the movement. As he gets older, his beard might get a little grayer and his walk might get slower, but his voice will never quiet.

“To me, activist just means ‘good citizen,’” Viets says. “I don’t know why there aren’t more people who are active, but it has never occurred to me not to be.”

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