The Cannabis Column

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Recently, marijuana has received a great deal of media attention. Three stories are currently in the national spotlight – Pat Robertson, Joe Biden, and the California legalization issue. Reformers are excited about Robertson, critical about Biden, and frustrated with recent events in California. Taken together, all three highlight the significant challenges marijuana legalization faces in the future by exposing long-standing faults in the reform movement.

Pat Robertson is a successful, influential, and old fundamentalist televangelist preacher who recently aired his opinion that marijuana should be legalized. Robertson has received a lot of attention for this, eliciting a great deal of newspaper coverage and criticism from such stalwart supporters of prohibition such as Joe Biden and Joe Califano

Is this significant? Not really. Though many in the movement find this exciting and will undoubtedly continue to celebrate this as another sign of progress. The problem, though, is that Robertson is not nearly as influential as he once was, being in the twilight of his career, and this sly publicity grabbing comment is of little real consequence.   

The National Review, one of the most respected conservative journals in America, has long endorsed marijuana reform. The problem is that the reform movement has never been capable of utilizing such support in any effective and meaningful way. Such support, which includes libertarian stalwarts such as Ron Paul and his followers, has never had much impact on conservative voters or the politicians who represent them in legislatures.

While the Robertson issue highlights an age-old problem, the Biden and California matters point to more pressing and disturbing issues. The modern reform movement, for all its accomplishments, lacks leadership and strategy.

Joe Biden commented during his recent visit to Mexico that a debate over legalization (such as that among Central American leaders) is understandable “in societies that don’t have the institutional framework and the structure to deal with organized, illicit operations,” but that “there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.” 

Reports in the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets note that Biden continues to believe that legalization is a simplistic reaction that would only make drug abuse problems worse. Commentators also noted that, based on his remarks, Biden seems to believe that the US has an appropriate institutional framework to address illegal drug distribution and use.

And why shouldn’t the Vice-President believe this? As an influential member of the Senate and its Judiciary Committee Joe Biden is one of the architects of the framework. Biden is against overly harsh penalties for drug use. However he is also the guy who is effectively responsible for creating the Office of National Drug Control Strategy (the Drug Czar’s office). Biden has a long-standing relationship with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He believes in The Gateway Theory – that marijuana use leads to the use of more dangerous drugs. Biden, if he could have his way, would ban cigarette use altogether. When it comes to medical marijuana, Biden told a forum of New Hampshire voters that “There’s got to be a better answer than marijuana. There’s got to be a better answer than that.” Biden tends to agree with Califano that, “Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous.”

It doesn’t take a lot of investigative work to realize that Joe Biden is the Obama Administration’s point man on illegal drug related issues, or to conclude that many of the Administration’s officials in this area owe their jobs in some way to Biden’s influence. If you want to change the Obama Administration’s drug policy, you’re going to have to persuade Joe Biden to change his views and embrace reform. 

What’s the strategy for this? The painful reality is, there isn’t one, or at least, there isn’t an effective one.

At a national level the strategy, if there is one, is one of opportunism, the belief that state-level reform will eventually spur national action. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. State-level reform, it may surprise many to learn, is completely compatible with national prohibition. In the grand scheme of things most state-level reform is one version or another of the vice-model, the de facto policy of the United States for the last generation. Criminalize the business, go easy on the consumers – just like the way we handle gambling and prostitution. A little legalized commerce here and there can be tolerated; the overall model still dominates federal and overall public policy.

There are lots of arguments, studies, and opinion-leaders that can be deployed in opposition to Joe Biden’s opinions about drug policy reform. Did you hear? Pat Robertson endorsed legalization. But having arguments, studies, and Pat Robertson is one thing, convincing Joe Biden is another. Having a response means you have sufficient conditions for change, but these are not the necessary conditions for change. Convincing Joe Biden, literally and figuratively, is a necessary condition.

The modern reform movement needs a better strategy with respect to the gathering and/or use of information to gain an advantage over their adversaries. This is a national concern and a national responsibility. It’s not enough to collect arguments, studies, and opinion leaders. They have to be used effectively to influence key oppositional figures.

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One step in the right direction involves writing and publishing persuasive articles in mainstream media outlets. Maintaining an active presence in the new media, the blogosphere, is no substitute for this. National marijuana reform groups need to get past doing what they can and start doing what needs to be done.

Joe Biden is a good man who cares about social justice and civil liberty. His values are compatible with marijuana law reform. He can be persuaded because of his values, because he is no ideologue. If national marijuana reform groups had effective strategies about these sorts of challenges, they might be making some progress in this area.

The Los Angeles Times reports that in California the “effort to put marijuana legalization measure on ballot is in disarray.” Four different groups each have their own pet project, they can’t agree on what should go on the ballot, and it looks like none of them will get sufficient funding and signatures to place a new legalization measure before voters any time soon. 

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One of the problems is that marijuana dispensaries in California are making so much money under current conditions they don’t want to see anything change. Comparisons have been made to the demise of Proposition 19 in 2010, when many growers and their local communities opposed a legalization initiative because it would reduce their own profits.

This sort of problem is more evidence that the national effort to legalize marijuana lacks a coherent strategy, and also that it lacks the effective leadership required to organize and motivate people around common objectives. A coherent strategy involves, among other facets, a mission that describes current activity, a vision that provides direction, objectives that mark progress from one to the other, and an overall sense about how the various parts of a national movement fit together to accomplish that vision. It provides a sense of unity and common purpose to a movement, one that both forms and is forged out of consensus. Leadership creates a strategy, and then uses it to animate organizational activity in ways that create specific goals.

When a movement has strategy and leadership you get results rather than excuses. These issues may highlight longstanding problems or merely be the result of growing pains – the price and new challenges of success. It doesn’t matter. These issues need to be addressed for the reform movement to continue to succeed.



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Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES.  A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues.  On October 8, 2002,  along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law.  This column will track that petition’s progress.