It is a wonderful time to be a marijuana smoker. Marijuana prohibition is coming to an end, and with it, the practice of treating marijuana smokers as criminals. Prohibition is being replaced with a legally regulated market, where consumers can buy their marijuana in a safe environment and know the product they are buying is safe. We still have a lot of work to do, but the tide of public support is clearly on our side.
At NORML, we started working to legalize marijuana in late 1970, when only 12% of the public supported marijuana legalization. For several decades, as we gradually built public support for our position, the political progress was modest at best. We decriminalized minor marijuana offenses in 11 states in the mid-1970s, following the release of the report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. But then the mood of the country turned more conservative (think Nancy Reagan, “Just Say NO,’ and the emergence of the parents’ movement) and we made no further statewide progress for 18 years, when CA became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996. A total of 25 states now enjoy a version of legal medical marijuana.
Our first dramatic breakthrough with full legalization for all adults, regardless of why they smoke, came in 2012 when Colorado and Washington both legalized marijuana via voter initiative. Those initial successes were followed in 2014 by the approval of legalization initiatives in Alaska and Oregon (and the District of Columbia). And this fall, legalization initiatives are expected to qualify for the ballot, and be approved by the voters, in a number of states, including Maine; Massachusetts; Michigan, Nevada, Arizona and California.
What Marijuana Consumers Want
NORML is a marijuana smokers’ lobby; we represent the interests of consumers. Marijuana smokers want a high quality product that is safe, convenient and affordable. We want to know that the marijuana we buy legally has been tested by a state-certified lab for molds and pesticides, and is accurately labeled as to the THC and CBD content. And we don’t expect to pay black market prices for legal pot, or to drive half-way across the state to find a legal retail outlet.
And importantly, we need the option to grow our own marijuana. Most consumers will not likely exercise this option, just as most beer drinkers do not make beer in their basement, although they are legally permitted to do so. By keeping the option of growing our own marijuana, and boycotting those retailers who sell an inferior product or over-charge for their product, we can assure the industry remains responsive to the needs of consumers.
Majority Now Support Full Legalization – But They are Not Pro-Pot
After years of struggle with few victories, legalizers are now winning these political battles not because we have come up with better arguments, or a better strategy; but because we have finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the American public. They realize prohibition is a failed public policy. But even this crucial point requires further clarification.
Roughly 14% of the American public are marijuana smokers, and of course most of us favor ending prohibition, which continues to result in the arrest of more than 600,000 of our fellow marijuana smokers each year in this country. But 86% of the public are not smokers. So the first point any effective advocate needs to understand is that those of us who smoke simply cannot achieve full legalization by ourselves; we must have the support of a majority of the non-smokers. We must be sensitive to their concerns as we move forward politically.
A recent survey by a DC-based group called the Third Way identified what they called “the marijuana middle.” That is, people who have concluded that prohibition is a failed public policy that causes far more harm than the use of marijuana itself; but they are certainly not pro-pot. This is an important distinction. Even as they agree that we should legalize and regulate marijuana, they nonetheless still have a negative impression of those of us who smoke. Specifically, 64% of those non-smokers have a negative impression of recreational marijuana smokers.
This is largely the result of the “stupid stoner” stereotypes that too many Americans continue to embrace for recreational users. While many of us who smoke have learned to laugh at those stereotypes when they appear in the popular culture, apparently too many of our fellow citizens fail to see the humor, and take them seriously. They see us as slackers who fail to live-up to our potential, and whose primary interest in life is getting stoned. And until we correct this misimpression, it will be impossible to put in place policies that treat responsible marijuana smokers fairly.
In every policy area that arises, including especially employment discrimination, child custody issues and impaired driving, we need the support of the non-smokers to overcome discriminatory policies that continue to unfairly impact marijuana smokers, even under legalization.
It is only by demonstrating that marijuana smokers are just average Americans who work hard, raise families, pay taxes and contribute in a positive manner to our communities, that we can finally overcome those negative stereotypes that persist. And the best way to accomplish this is to come out of the closet.
The Challenge for the New Generation of Activists
This is the real challenge facing new activists who are just getting involved in the legalization movement. They must convince their non-smoking peers that there is nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana.
The latest generation of advocates must come out of the closet in far greater numbers – to stand-up tall and proudly announce that you are a responsible marijuana smoker, as well as a good neighbor and a productive citizen. We must convince the majority of the non-smokers that marijuana smokers are just average Americans – good people – who happen to enjoy smoking marijuana, just as tens of millions of Americans enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the end of the day, when they relax.
We need to move the “marijuana middle” to a place where they are emotionally more comfortable with those of us who smoke.
The 2016 NORML Congressional Lobby Day
And there is no better place to prepare to effectively make this argument than the 2016 NORML Congressional Lobby Day on May 23rd and 24th. We will focus on the specific arguments that are most effective when dealing with non-smokers and elected officials, and on the most effective ways to respond to their principal areas of concern. We know from exit polling that those who vote against legalization are generally concerned about the potential danger of more impaired drivers on the road, and on the fear that legalization might result in elevated usage rates among adolescents. Neither concern is valid, but they are real concerns, and we must provide answers to those concerns. We will provide those answers during the lobby training sessions on Monday, May 23.
The following day we will meet on Capitol Hill and hear from a number of our strongest supporters in Congress, before spreading out across the Capitol to lobby our individual members of Congress. For those who may not have done this before, I can assure you it is an exhilarating experience. The act of exercising this most basic democratic right – to petition your elected officials to support your position on marijuana policy – reminds us all that democracies work best when average citizens get involved. And if you join us, it will almost certainly not be your last effort to lobby members of Congress.
The National Cannabis Festival
And I would encourage everyone in the DC area to come out to RFK and join us on Saturday for the National Cannabis Festival, a day-long celebration of all things cannabis, including live entertainment, an educational pavilion, representatives from the various marijuana law reform groups, and more. It’s an excellent opportunity for those new to the issue to meet those with more experience, and to identify those groups they feel comfortable working with in the future.
It’s time to get involved in the legalization movement.
This blog post first appeared on the National Cannabis Festival website: