John Zwerling

I am saddened to report that one of the most prominent pillars of NORML, going back to the earliest days of our organization, has died. John Kenneth Zwerling, known as “JZ” to his friends, was a nationally respected criminal defense attorney based in Alexandria, VA. He was committed to progressive political causes and always willing to step-up to assist the less fortunate.

As New Orleans attorney Bill Rittenberg recalls, JZ was one of the people responsible for organizing the NORML Legal Committee  during the early years. “Starting in 1972, NORML held an annual political conference and the lawyers who were attracted to the legalization movement at the time began to form a community, and we would meet informally to discuss legal cases in the back of the room. This group evolved into the NORML Legal Committee (NLC) and JZ was the heart of the group. For decades he helped organize and speak at the NORML Key West Seminar.” He continued in that role until his death, attending the 2021 NORML Key West Legal Seminar in early December.

Texas-based attorney Gerry Goldstein offered his recollections of first meeting Zwerling. “I first met JZ in the early 70s. We had a case together in DC District Court. In those days we had little funds to cover lodging and transportation. My client spent the night in one of the bunk beds at NORML headquarters and I had the pleasure of spending the night on Zwerling’s porch, sleeping on a swing sofa with their cuddly St. Bernard. At the courthouse the next morning I was surprised when JZ got consummate respect in his camo fatigues and combat boots, while I had difficulty being noticed in my sincere blue suit and starched white dress shirt.

John Zwerling
John Zwerling at the Key West Legal Seminar in December 2021

“Over the next half-century John became a trusted friend and close ally. He was a one-of-a-kind free spirit with an incredible grasp of the law. JZ always spoke in quiet, but extraordinarily powerful tones and could always be counted on to give wise counsel. This gentle giant will be with us in spirit as we continue our journey together.”

Zwerling, the 1998 recipient of NORML’s most prestigious legal award, the Al Horn Award, was elected to the NORML Board of Directors, serving as board chair for several years during the 1980s and early 90s.

He is survived by his wife Pat West.

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