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Kevin Zeese, attorney and activist who sought to reform drug laws, dies

Kevin Zeese was a co-founder of Common Sense for Drug Policy.
Kevin Zeese was a co-founder of Common Sense for Drug Policy.

Growing up as a fan of the NFL franchise representing Washington, D.C., Alex Zeese hungered to watch every game the team played. And he was joined by his father, Kevin Zeese, even as a reluctant observer.

“I loved football, but he hated all sports,” Alex Zeese recalled. “He was not into sports, but he was willing to sit there and watch games with me.”

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His father’s sacrifice, however, had a greater purpose.

“He and my mom always pushed us to find a something we were passionate about from an early age because their belief was that if you can find something you really love to do and you can do that for a living, that makes life so much better,” Alex Zeese said from his home in Washington. “So they always encouraged us.”

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Mr. Zeese, an attorney who turned his passion for ending the war on drugs into a career as an activist and a run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, died Sept. 6 of a heart attack at his home in Baltimore. He would have turned 65 next month.

John K. Zwerling, a partner of a law firm that hired Mr. Zeese as an associate for several years in the 1980s, had known him for more than 40 years since he was a member of a panel that interviewed Mr. Zeese to become executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He said Mr. Zeese’s death is a loss for Common Sense for Drug Policy, an association he co-founded more than 25 years ago.

“I think his death will be a real blow to that community,” Mr. Zwerling said. “But I’m sure it will inspire some to step up and do more to try to not lose the momentum that he created.”

Mr. Zeese was the eldest of three children born to and raised by the former Barbara Brudenell-Bruce, a nurse, and Charles Zeese, a teacher, in Queens, New York. While he attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, Mr. Zeese’s life was shaped by a visit from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and radical lawyer William Kunstler, who urged white students to join their Black peers to combat racism.

“Kevin was really inspired by that, and he got involved in the anti-racist protest,” said Margaret Flowers, Mr. Zeese’s partner of 10 years. “He went to Boston and served as a marshal on a march and was beaten by police on horseback. So he experienced what people, particularly Black people, experienced at the hands of the police.”

After graduating in 1977 with a bachelor’s in political science and from the George Washington University Law School in 1980 with a law degree, Mr. Zeese joined NORML as chief counsel in 1980. As the body’s executive director from 1983 to 1986, he helped prohibit spraying marijuana in Mexico and the United States with herbicides.

Mr. Zeese co-founded the Drug Policy Foundation with American University professor Arnold S. Trebach in 1987 and served as vice president and counsel from 1986 to 1994. In 1993, Mr. Zeese founded the Harm Reduction Coalition and then a year later, the Common Sense organization, of which he was president until his death.

Mr. Zeese knew that his stances were controversial and often unwelcome.

“It was absolutely unpopular,” Dr. Flowers said. “Most of the people at that time heard [former president] Ronald Reagan and Just Say No, and he would get death threats. But he was brave and he was unwavering when he believed there was an injustice. He was willing to put himself out there to fight for it.”

Mr. Zeese, who unsuccessfully ran against Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican Michael Steele to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate in 2006 on a platform that included withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and curbing a “hawkish” Israel lobby in the United States, was a key organizer of Popular Resistance. He also played a pivotal role in the 2011 Occupy encampment at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Zeese and Popular Resistance then joined two other groups to form the Embassy Protection Collective, which entered the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington on April 10, 2019, and stayed there for 37 days to protest what the group viewed as a coup by the U.S. government to install Juan Guaidó as president of the South American nation.

“It was definitely a victory,” said Dr. Flowers, who was one of four people along with Mr. Zeese who were arrested and charged in federal court before agreeing in June to a plea bargain of a fine and probation. “He, I and two others were the last people in there, and we were arrested. But not only did it raise a tremendous amount of awareness of what was happening and how the U.S. was violating international law, but it strengthened solidarity around the world, and it kept the coup leaders from being allowed into the embassy. That embassy continues to be empty to this day.”

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Mr. Zwerling, who had lost touch with Mr. Zeese, was reacquainted with him when he was hired as part of a legal team to defend Mr. Zeese and others after the Venezuelan Embassy occupation.

“I didn’t like his politics necessarily, but he was very genuine in his beliefs,” Mr. Zwerling said. “It was kind of fun to debate him up to a point before we knew we could no longer talk about it. He was just a true believer in improving this country.”

Alex Zeese called his father “a workaholic” and recalled accompanying him to a friend’s house on a weekend morning so that the adults could work on identifying medical marijuana. But his father also had a soft spot for Alex Zeese, a producer for a podcast devoted to the Washington Football Team, and his younger brother Daniel, an artist and designer.

“Even if he didn’t get home until 8:30 or 9 at night, I would always want to stay up until he got home and see him for about a half-hour,” Alex Zeese said. “And he would always read us a story at bedtime. He always tried to find a balance.”

Alex Zeese — whose mother, the former Dina Smith, married Mr. Zeese in 1976 and divorced him in 1993 — said his father’s beliefs filtered down to his sons, who questioned whether the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program truly discouraged drug use and gang membership.

“I think we were the only kids who had ever failed D.A.R.E. and were rewarded by their parents,” he said. “I remember going into one class where the police officer was there, and I brought with me this booklet that he had written, and it was a short thing called ‘Drug War Facts.’ So every time she said something, I was looking it up in the booklet and countering all of the misinformation. So the school wasn’t happy about that, but my dad was very happy about that.”

Mr. Zeese was cremated. An online tribute is scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m.

In addition to his partner and son, Mr. Zeese is survived by another son, Daniel Zeese of Hague, New York; three stepchildren, Jack Flowers of Ulm, Germany, Claire Flowers of Oswego, New York, and Braden Flowers of Baltimore; his mother, Barbara Zeese of Queens, New York; and a sister, Eve Zeese of Larchmont, New York.

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