The Cannabis Column

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It’s the end of the year, when the media focuses on recalling all the great and important developments of the past 12 months. It’s also the time when public interest groups cast about for end-of-year donations, usually by touting their accomplishments. When it comes to the movement to legalize marijuana it’s all about what great progress has been made and how all the activists, interest groups, and leaders have had a real impact on events. It’s about how the drug war is in decline and that success is just around the corner, how great it is that everything is going so well. It’s a time for accolades and self-congratulatory celebration.

That also makes this a good time for a reality check.

There has been good work, there has been progress, and this is reason for optimism. Some of this has been due to hard work by activists and interest groups, to leadership and commitment, and to the long-term dedication and involvement of the reform movement. No question.

Some of it has also come from poor decisions, indecisiveness, and lack of leadership on the part of the opponents of legalization. In other words, the marijuana legalization movement has benefited from some extraordinarily good luck over the past few years. A case can be made that this is the result of the hard work mentioned above and/or the general righteousness of being on the correct side of history.

The marijuana reform movement is doing well these days for five reasons. First and foremost public support for state medical marijuana laws has shattered the old consensus about prohibition. Second, efforts by advocacy groups have renewed interest in the decriminalization of marijuana possession in many state legislatures. Third, a growing and diverse activist movement has produced talent, funding, and energy to create inertia for change. Fourth, government at all levels is experiencing a funding crisis that makes marijuana prohibition an unaffordable luxury. Fifth, and perhaps the most influential, the generations that supported prohibition are handing power and influence over to younger generations that have grown up with marijuana and support new approaches. This inescapable demographic trend intensifies the impact of the prior four forces; it’s the real game changer that explains everything else.

So, things are going well for various reasons, but progress is progress. Support for legalization is spreading and that’s a good thing regardless of the cause. But is the current level of activity enough to achieve the ultimate goal? More importantly, what more can be done?

Here’s a list of ten areas the marijuana law reform movement should focus on to accelerate the cause of reform. 

1. The core issue behind most public support for marijuana’s prohibition is teenage marijuana use. The movement must make a credible effort to convince the public that legalization can and will reduce teenage marijuana use.

2. The movement must address public concerns that legalization of marijuana will lead to the increased availability of other illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

3. The effort to legalize marijuana must become less radical and more mainstream.

4. Straightforward and honest arguments must be presented to the public as to why adult marijuana use should not be restricted to medical cases.

5. Critiques of marijuana prohibition need to be published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

6. The movement needs to make a better intellectual case for legalization and reform; reform groups need to recruit and make better use of individuals with advanced college degrees.

7. The movement needs to devote a greater priority to appealing to the public’s concerns rather than validating its own longstanding beliefs.

8. There needs to greater outreach and dialogue with unions, teachers, doctors, religious leaders, and community leaders about the failure of marijuana prohibition and the opportunities for reform.

9. The movement needs to engage in greater discussion of how to expedite marijuana’s legalization through crafting and implementing a specific strategy to accomplish this goal.

10. Reform groups need to learn more about and apply conventional strategic practices, such as publicizing clear statements of their mission, vision, and specific short-term objectives that mark progress from one endeavor to the other.

These recommendations fall into the general categories of core message, outreach, and strategy. They have been long recognized by movement leaders as key issues; everyone involved in the movement has a position of one sort or another on each of these points. There’s nothing new here. The progress the movement has made in the last several years is valuable and encouraging. But there remains the basic challenge of getting from here to there, from a time when many states have opted out of federal policy to a time when federal laws have been changed. No matter what state-level reforms have been enacted we live in a time of prohibition. There is still a lot of work to be done in order to fundamentally change that reality.


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.