How to Make Pot Legal

A while back, I linked to Paul Armentano’s piece: Making Pot Legal: We Can Do It — Here’s How. At the time, I merely linked without commenting, promising to do so later. That post ended up with an incredible extended discussion in comments.

These are important discussions. But they’re also tricky.

In my theatre management life, I have often cautioned people against having a committee decide what to do to market shows. The reason is that everyone has excellent marketing ideas and there are infinite options, but the staff time and resources for implementation are finite. So a committee finds it very hard to create an effective targeted strategy.

The drug policy reform movement has it even harder, since we are like a loose conglomeration of committees, each with different goals, and each with the infinite options of approach. And unless we can somehow create a centralized world dictatorship of drug policy reform, we’re probably going to have to live with fragmentation of appraoch and ideas.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Just means we have to do a good job of building cases for effective strategy, while at the same time understanding the strongly-held beliefs of others in the movement. And I’ve seen significant things in the past few years that lead me to believe that it’s possible.

So I thank Paul for his contribution to the discussion. There’s much within that I support. There are also areas where I have a different idea. That’s natural. We’re all at slightly different places. My focus is on overall drug policy reform, with recreational marijuana legalization as one significant part of the equation.

What’s even more critical is that I realize that my views are not going to be held by the majority of the people in this country. I have to remind myself that I have had years of intensive education about the drug war — something they have not. Things that seem obvious to me may not be to them. (And everyone who reads this site is in the same boat to at least some degree.)

So, to end the long-winded intro and get on with it…

Paul starts by identifying four suggestions as to why political leaders have failed to get on board with marijuana law reforms.

1. Media complacency

…To combat this media bias, pot reformers must do a better job providing consistent and resonant messages to reporters, as well as establishing long-lasting, personal relationships with key journalists and opinion makers. Advocates could consider dedicating resources for print and media advertising campaigns to offset the federal government’s anti-drug advertising budget, which annually spends some hundred million dollars in taxpayers’ dollars and matching funds to buy television and radio commercials warning about the alleged dangers of pot.

I fully agree with this point. Particularly that every reform organization needs a strong media relations effort, and that personal relationships with journalists are incredibly important. If you have a strong relationship with and you’re always straight with the journalist, It gives them a secure place to turn for comment when they get one-sided info from the government, and a source for reform-oriented stories. The media simply does not have the time and resources to fully investigate everything — a typical journalist is reporting on a multitude of subjects of which they are ignorant. We have to be there for them.

What individuals can do is to politely thank or admonish journalists as appropriate, and also develop relationships with local media (even the student newspaper on campus).

2. Law enforcement opposition

…The drug law reform movement must engage in greater and more active outreach within the law enforcement community. While some groups are already engaging in such efforts, these actions too often rely on the recruitment of retired members of law enforcement and the criminal justice community. Only by recruiting active members of law enforcement can we begin to build necessary credibility and support among politicians, and provide a persuasive counter to the lobbying activities of various state and federal criminal justice associations.

I like the idea, but I’m skeptical that we can have an active reform presence inside active law enforcement, as long as marijuana is illegal. I think that LEAP is one of the best things that has happened to the drug policy reform movement in recent years, and that they serve to counter the adamant prohibitionists within active law enforcement (with the added fact that in such comparisons, it is the prohibitionists that look like they have personal gain in their argument.) I think that engaging active outreach within the law enforcement community is good, but I think the ultimate goal of such efforts is not to gain support, but to reduce opposition.

3. Victims of pot prohibition lack a public face

Thousands of Americans suffer such sanctions every day — at a rate of one person every 38 seconds. Our movement must do a better job of humanizing this issue to the public by emphasizing the personal stories and tragedies endured by the millions of individual Americans who have suffered unduly and egregiously under criminal prohibition. We must also do a better job of recruiting high-profile celebrities and human rights advocates to publicly speak out on these victims’ behalf.

Personally, I think the pot prohibition victim-population approach is a loser. Now this may be partly because I have so much invested in the more specific drug war victim issue. In my mind, you can never humanize thousands. You have to focus on the individual cases of drug war excess — the Kathryn Johnstons and Tarika Wilsons, for example. Sure, it’s important to bring up the loss of financial aid, opportunities for the future, etc. of groups of people, but when it comes to the thousands of pot prisoners, it’s just too easy for people to glaze over and think “Well, they knew it was illegal…”

4. Victims of pot prohibition lack sufficient political or financial resources

The marijuana law reform movement must do a better job of engaging with organizations working toward racial equality to properly convey to politicians and the public that this issue is about racial justice and fundamental fairness. Additionally, reformers must do a better job allying with organizations that speak on behalf of youth, particularly urban youth — who are most at risk of suffering from the lifetime hardships associated with a marijuana conviction. Finally, reformers must reach out to the parents of young people and urge them to become active members of the cannabis law reform movement, which needs the majority of parents to join its ranks as both financial contributors and as political advocates in order to gain the political support necessary to bring about a change in the country’s pot laws.

This is an ongoing problem. It is always those with less political power who are targeted by drug prohibition. While I think that we’ve come a long way in spreading the word about the racial inequities of drug prohibition, we’re going to have an extremely hard time getting targeted groups to join us (despite their logical self-interest in doing so). Marginalized groups are not going to lead in drug policy reform for fear of appearing to be encouraging irresponsible behavior among their own and thus seeming to be at fault for their hardships. (Note: we may be able to turn this around partially — more on that later in this post, and in terms of the larger category of youth in general, it’s important to note the incredible work of SSDP.)

5. Changing the public’s mindset

A strong majority of Americans — nearly 75 percent — say that they oppose jailing pot offenders, yet fewer than 50 percent support regulating cannabis so that adults no longer face arrest or incarceration for engaging in the drug’s use. Why this apparent paradox? In large part, this ambivalence may be a result of the shortcomings of the drug law reform movement.

This is the absolute key to the problem, and our most important challenge. It is not the legislators who need to be convinced (although that’s part of the job). It is the people who must be shaken out of this ambivalence. Let’s take a look at the myths that Paul says we must counter (read his article for his specific comments):

  1. Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will increase teens’ access and use of pot
  2. Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will send a public a message that pot is “OK”
  3. Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will lead to an increase in incidences of drugged driving

Regarding (A), I agree with Paul’s approach. We have to continually harp on the fact that legalization is the only way to actually control something. (B) — responding by getting across the fact that pot really is OK — is quite limited in effect for reasons I’ll explore in a moment, and (C) — pushing for better testing cannabis-impaired driving is problemmatic.

Regarding cannabis-impaired driving: I understand where Paul is coming from regarding public opinion and am aware of the studies he’s mentioned, but I agree with Jackl that I’m not thoroughly convinced of the significance of the danger. And I’m hesitant to agree to the contradiction of a solution that could further demonize marijuana use, just to improve public relations for legalization. While I am fully in favor of true impairment-based testing (as opposed to the mere presence of metabolites), I think we’ll perversely face huge resistance in implementing such testing until after marijuana is legalized.

Here’s the problem: developing a test to determine the level of marijuana intoxication at which one is impaired will be seen to imply that there is a level of marijuana intoxication that is OK. Prohibitionists (the very ones we’d have to have on our side to implement such testing) will find that “message” anathema.

My analysis

Going back to the issue of paradox of public ambivalence, it boils down to the fact that the people simply don’t consider legalization to be an important issue to them.

All you have to do is spend some time on messageboards (yes, I know that can be painful), and you’ll see the same reaction over and over:

“I know someone who smokes pot and just isn’t making anything of his life. We don’t need this legalized.”

“We have enough problems with alcohol, we don’t need another legal substance out there.”

These are extremely weak arguments, yet they are pervasive — clear evidence that people have not thought through actual ramifications of prohibition and legalization. The majority of people unfortunately see legalization as an unimportant issue. Here’s what’s going on in their heads:

“People can smoke pot anyway or they can drink alcohol, so it isn’t important to invest any effort in leglizing pot, and besides, there’s that guy in his basement throwing away his future getting stoned, so I’m not going to support legalization.

“I smoked pot in college, but I don’t anymore, so it doesn’t affect me.”

“We’ve got important problems in the world. There’s no point investing political capital in something as frivolous as pot legalization.” [see Democrats]

Telling people that pot isn’t so bad isn’t going to solve this problem. People generally know that. They just don’t think that it’s worth going to the effort of legalizing.

Now, it would be nice if the people would recognize that laws against marijuana use are in contradiction to the principles of our country. But as Cliff notes in comments, the people as a whole are not, unfortunately, interested in looking after the Constitution. They want others to do it for them, and may even find the content of it a bit of an annoyance.

So where does that leave us? Self-interest.

We need to take a page from the SAFER campaign. No, I’m not suggesting a national campaign to show that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

What we need to do is show the people that legalization is safer than prohibition.

We need to convince people that marijuana prohibition is endangering their children, robbing their checkbooks, hurting their property values and causing moral decay. We need them to understand that legalizing pot will make their streets safer and eliminate poverty.

You get the idea. Self-interest.

Now that’s not so critical to you or I. We understand what’s at stake. But we forget that the rest of the population doesn’t have our knowledge. We have to shake them out of their drug policy illiteracy.

Wrong approach:

Pot isn’t very harmful. We can protect against drugged drivers. It’s not a proper law. We should legalize marijuana.

Right approach:

Pot prohibition is causing criminals to prey on your children. We must legalize and regulate it NOW to cut back on damage to our cities and our families.

The only way to motivate people enough so that they’ll go past what the government tells them they should think is to make it personal.

Now I happen to believe that one of the best ways to help pot legalization is to push for the larger drug legalization agenda for two reasons:

  1. Prohibitionists have used the trick for years when opposing marijuana legalization by lumping it in with all other illegal drugs. We can do the same against them by talking about all the direct and identifiable harms of prohibition in the larger drug war.
  2. I believe that marijuana legalization can be helped by pushing for full drug legalization (ie “They make good points about the total drug war, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to support legalizing all drugs, so let’s start with marijuana.”)

[Please note that this doesn’t mean that I advocate lying to people to get them to support us. It’s about telling the truth about the things that matter to them.]
A little plug for my own efforts… The work I’ve been doing with the so-called “Elevator Arguments” works well with this analysis. It’s all about identifying those interests that specific groups of people have and targeting a drug policy reform message towards those interests. And since the drug war negatively impacts so many aspects of society, it’s not hard to do.

Again, I thank Paul for the article, and I remind people that all this is just my opinion. I’m interested in all your reactions. And let’s keep the conversation going.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to Make Pot Legal

  1. Tom Erwin says:

    Why not just SUE the goverment and Make them Prove in a Court of Law that pot is as bad as all the lies they tell about it ?

Comments are closed.