So You Want to Have a Marijuana Rally?

For a rally to be truly successful, organizers and participants have the responsibility to ensure that more is achieved than mass euphoria.

The following questions must be considered:

Ready to Rally?

This article is from the March '94 NORML Ongoing Briefing

As winter ends and spring draws near, rally time will soon be here. A glance at the Upcoming Events reveals several well-known national marijuana legalization rallies in the near future, including the April 2 1994 Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the 25th annual rally and concert on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on July 4. Scores of less prominent local rallies are sure to take place on college campuses and in communities throughout the nation. As serious NORML contributor or chapter member, it is important to take some time to think about this phenomenon before rushing to action.

Like marijuana itself, rallies are neither inherently good nor bad; one must be cautious, however, because both have the potential for misuse or abuse if careful consideration and analysis are not undertaken. Rallies are fun, exciting, and provide the direct reinforcement of a visable solidarity among participants. Speeches can be invigorating, inspiring, and instructive. Signs held and slogans chanted by participants vent anger and frustration at the forces of oppression. Good bands keep the energy level high(as do burning joints, which somehow, despite their illegality, seem to be a staple at such events). In sum, like marijuana, rallies feel good.

What is the purpose of the rally?
A successful rally must have meaning and focus. A rally "for the hell of it" is likely to be a waste of of everyone's time. Demonstrations with a specific target-protesting (pickets, sit-ins) at the office of a legislator who is planning on introducing a horrendous anti-marijuana bill; distributing Fully Informed Jury Association(FIJA) information in front of a courthouse where a significant trial is taking place; picketing for or against a particular candidate or politician are the most cost- effective and influential. With only a few dozen people, an event can garner adequate media coverage, and the point is clearly made.

The typical 'spring rallies', however, are annual, large(or at least intended to be), and amorphous in purpose. Incredibly, most participants - and even many organizers - are ofter stumped when asked, "What is the purpose of point of this rally?" The answer is usally vague: -To legalize pot.

This does not necessarily mean that the rally is pointless. Rallies can accomplish a great deal: They can be used to register voters, get signatures on petitions, raise money, distribute information, demonstrate to the public(usually through media coverage) that marijuana law reform is a widely supported issue, and inspire individuals to increase their levels of activism. (Indeed, this author was inspired to start a NORML chapter after attending a Cannabis Action rally several years ago.)

However, it is imperative that organizers first consider, discuss and write down what the intended functions are; only by doing so can the next question be adequately deliverated.

Is it the best expenditure of our time, energy, and money to attend or organize a rally?
Most of the aforementioned benefits of holding a rally can be attained through some other course of action, such as writing letters to legislators and letters-to-the-editor, meeting with public officials or local opinion leaders, holding debates or public hearings, conducting teach-ins, networking with other organizations, doing research and compiling data, and so on. Regular reading of the Activist Projects and the Movement Update reveals the multitude of things that must be done regurlarly to effect positive reform.

Because most of these activities are conducted behind the scenes, most new activists are not aware of their POTential. They see rallies on the TV news, so they think that rallies are the entirety of political activism. In actuality, they are only a small part. Conversely, rallies take the most time to implement properly. Instead of thinking tactically: "What can I do: hold a rally, write letters, get arrested, or have a benefit concert?", it is important to become accustomed to thinking strategically: "What do we need to accomplish, and what is the shortest, most cost-effective path to that goal?"

Unfortunately, many rally participants apparently do not think much at all. They invest hundreds of hours each spring and fall driving to every rally they hear about and do nothing else for the movement all year. In fact, many don't even do anything at the rallies, except stand there and smoke pot(or sell "love beads" to cover the gas money). It is disheartening to see a thousand people at a rally, then later discover that only 30 registered to vote, and the organizers lost money on the event.

If - after carefully determining the need for a rally, considering all other alternatives, and weighing the costs and benefits - the decision has been made to attend or host a rally, it's time to consider the next question.

How can we ensure the best media coverage possible?
NORML can provide information on maximizing the effectiveness of media coverage. In a nutshell, organizers must first determine the function and focus of the event, that is, why the rally is taking place. Press releases must then be distributed to all local, and some state and national media explaining the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the event, including the sponsoring organization's contact numbers.

Most importantly, the tone of the event must match the intended purpose, which hopefully includes the message that marijuana law reform supporters are rational, intelligent, clean, nice, moral, 'norml' citizens. Therein lies the most difficult part of the rally organization. Even if all of the organizers and 95% of the participants are decent, upstanding citizens, the 5% who are "wingnuts" usually steal the media attention. Moreover, for some bizarre reason, a majority of the participants usually decide to dress in their freakiest, most outlandish "hippie" garb. One long-time activist has described the typical rally crowd as "rock concert refugees."

Even the most carefully orchestrated rally can be unintentionally subverted, netting negative coverage. This author has been to rallies where speakers included medical marijuana users, NORML National Director Richard Cowan, and conservatively attired professors, lawyers, and health care professionals. News reports instead showed hippies braiding each other's hair, punk musicians shouting profantities from the stage, sloppy signs with misspelled words about vaguely related issues, barely-clothed dancers with dreadlocks flapping in the breeze, and even an individual taking a long drag on a joint and proclaiming, "I'm just here to get high, man."

Because many marijuana smokers are rugged individualists, there is very little that can be done to persuade them to dress and act in a media-savvy manner. When organizing or attending a rally, often the most that can be done is to set a good example, greet the media, and try to steer them to the important elements - and perhaps distribute signs and palm cards with appropriate chants to participants.

Have we carefully considered and planned every detail?
It has been said that time spent thinking is the best time-saver. It's imperative to brainstorm, write down, and delegate every possible detail: Did we get the necessary permits? Who should speak? What bands should play, and who will do the sound? What should the signs say? Who should make them? How will we advertise? Do we have enough voter registration forms and good quality flyers? Do we have enough merchandise to sell, is the message appropriate, and do we have trustworthy people scheduled to sell it? If sponsored by a NORML chapter, are we sure we aren't violating any laws or NORML policies? [Remember: NORML does not sponsor "smoke-ins."] What about security, refreshments, media patrol, and cleanup?

If these details are unmanageable, then a rally should not be held. Rallies often require hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars up front, with no guarantee of the quantity or quality of the return. One early spring snowstorm can ruin everything, while one well written letter-to-the-editor can raise nearly as much public awareness at a cost of an hour of time and a 29¢ stamp.

For more information about rallies and the many alternatives, order Organizing for Social Change: A manual for activists in the 1990s, by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max; Seven Locks Press: Cabin John, MD, 1991. Call 301-320-2130.
For information on the laws that govern protest activities, order the American Civil Liberties Union handbook The Right to Protest, by Joel Gora, et. al.;Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL. Call 618-453-2121.