By Paul Armentano
February 12, 2008.
Changing public opinion about pot isn't easy. Changing America's
anti-pot laws is even harder -- here's a blueprint to get it done.
This month marks my 13th year working for marijuana law reform.
During this time I've witnessed many successes and many more signs of
progress. Nevertheless, it remains frustratingly clear that despite
sincere efforts and millions poured into campaigns, very little
headway has been made toward attaining the larger, essential goals of
the movement -- specifically, abolishing the criminal laws that
result in the arrest and prosecution of more than half a million
Americans every year for possessing even small amounts of herb and
establishing a framework for regulating legal access to marijuana to adults.
Is either one of these goals achievable? Certainly. Is either goal
realistic? Not until we as a movement instigate significant shifts in
both public attitude and political opinion.
Identifying the problems
For several decades, various organizations have pushed for the
establishment of a legal and regulated market for adult cannabis use
in the United States. Yet, despite extensive educational efforts and
millions poured into various legislative campaigns, it's consistently
been shown in opinion polls and at the voting booth that only between
a third to 46 percent of Americans endorse legalizing the personal
use of cannabis for adults.
As a result, the marijuana law reforms that have been enacted over
the past several decades have been limited in scope. Specifically,
these legal reforms fall into two distinct categories:
"decriminalization" (exempting adult cannabis users from
incarceration, but not necessarily arrest, under specified
circumstances) and "medicalization" (exempting certain
state-authorized medical marijuana patients from state-specific
criminal sanctions). To date, 12 states -- almost one-third of the
U.S. population -- have enacted limited versions of
"decriminalization." Twelve states have also adopted various versions
Both of these concepts -- unlike legalization -- enjoy majority
support from the public, with national polls consistently finding
that roughly 60 percent of Americans back "decriminalization" and
nearly eight out of ten support the medical use of pot under a
physician's supervision. But political support for these reforms has
been historically weak, limiting the extent of their implementation.
In order to effectively move the debate forward, there has to be a
clear sense of why -- despite years of public outreach -- we have
failed to persuade a majority of the public that broader pot law
reforms are needed. In addition, we must also identify why -- despite
years of lobbying -- we have failed to persuade a majority of
politicians that even incremental reforms are needed.
Changing the political landscape
All hot-button political issues -- most notably the struggle for "gay
rights," immigration reform, and reproductive autonomy -- have faced
significant political opposition, particularly from "conservative" or
"right-wing" legislators. Similar political antipathy (e.g.,
opposition from religious or so-called "pro-family" organizations)
has obstructed sensible federal marijuana law reforms. Why are
political leaders typically unwilling to embrace marijuana law reform
as a core, civil rights issue, and what must be done to change this?
Below are four suggestions.
Mainstream media coverage of the cannabis issue is often inaccurate
and rarely criticizes government policy. Alarmist stories about the
alleged dangers of pot often get widespread coverage while evidence
that refutes these claims is minimized or ignored. Finally, news
reporters typically give greater credence and coverage to government
officials espousing the need to maintain the "status quo" while
granting far less weight to experts who disagree.
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.
Law enforcement opposition
The law enforcement community is a multifaceted and persuasive lobby
group that holds tremendous sway with politicians. More than any
single interest group, cops are the most vocal opponents -- in the
media and as witnesses at government hearings -- of all aspects of
marijuana law reform. In addition, law enforcement typically
continues to oppose pot liberalization policies even after such
policies have become law -- thus making their implementation that
much more difficult (and, often times, less effective). For example,
legislation passed last year in Texas allowing police to ticket,
rather than arrest, minor marijuana offenders has thus far been
implemented in only one county -- despite having been passed nearly
unanimously by state politicians.
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.
Victims of pot prohibition lack a public face
While there are countless victims of marijuana prohibition -- over 10
million Americans have been arrested for violating U.S. pot laws
since 1990 and an estimated 45,000 of them now sit in state or
federal prison -- there are few if any publicly recognized "poster
children" that embody the excesses of the government's war on weed.
Without parading the images and stories of sympathetic victims of
various ages, races, and economic strata before the public, most
Americans are unlikely to be convinced that the country should amend
its pot laws.
Marijuana law reform is often presented by the activist community as
a broad political concept (e.g., "Hemp can save the planet!"). It is
not. At its core level, it is an effort to bring civil justice to
millions of Americans who have been targeted, persecuted, and in many
cases, have had their lives ruined for no other reason than the fact
that they chose cannabis rather than alcohol to relax.
The harsh penalties associated with a minor marijuana arrest are
rarely attacked as extreme or counterproductive. These sanctions
include probation and mandatory drug testing, loss of employment,
loss of child custody, removal from subsidized housing, asset
forfeiture, loss of student aid, loss of voting privileges, loss of
adoption rights and the loss of certain federal welfare benefits such
as food stamps.
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.
Victims of pot prohibition lack sufficient political or financial resources
Criminal marijuana enforcement disproportionately impacts citizens by
age. According to a 2005 study commissioned by the NORML Foundation,
74 percent of all Americans busted for pot are under age 30, and one
out of four are age 18 or younger. Though these young people suffer
the most under our current laws, they lack the financial means and
political capital to effectively influence politicians to challenge
them. Young people also lack the money to adequately fund the drug
law reform movement at a level necessary to adequately represent and
protect their interests.
Marijuana enforcement also disproportionately impacts citizens by
race. According to NORML's 2005 report, adult African-Americans
account for only 12 percent of annual marijuana users, but comprise
23 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the United States.
In some jurisdictions, such as New York City, minorities comprise
more than 80 percent of all individuals arrested for pot offenses.
However, despite the law's disproportionate impact on minorities,
marijuana law reform is seldom portrayed as a racial equality issue.
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.
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.
Though historically reformers have been effective at presenting
persuasive arguments critical of prohibition's failings, we as a
movement have devoted far less time and resources educating the
public to the numerous societal benefits offered by the alternative:
allowing states the option to restrict, tax and regulate the use and
sale of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. The focus must
change. It is time for the drug law reform movement to move beyond
offering criticism and begin providing solutions. If our solution is
a model of legalization -- with state-mandated age controls and pot
sales restricted to state-licensed stores -- then we must begin to
consistently and repeatedly articulate the details and advantages of
this alternative to the public.
Finally, in order to move public support for such a regulated system
above 50 percent, the marijuana law reform movement must adequately
identify those demographic groups -- such as parents of teenage
children and/or women -- that tend to voice lower support for
legalization as compared to other populations, such as
"twenty-somethings" or college educated males. (Notably, a 2006 poll
by NORML found that, among all age groups polled, the least amount of
support for regulating pot was among those aged 30 to 49!) Once these
groups are properly identified, reformers must create distinctly
tailored messages and talking points to effectively target their
unique concerns. I've listed three of these concerns, as well as
suggestions for how best to respond to them, below.
Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will increase teens' access and use of pot
One of the great ironies of prohibition is that criminalization's
proponents allege that the existing policy is one of drug "control."
In fact, prohibition is just the opposite.
Cannabis prohibition is responsible for driving the production, sale
and use of marijuana underground. Under the current system,
clandestine marijuana suppliers produce pot of unknown quantity and
sell it in an unrestricted market to customers of any age. By
contrast, a regulated and restricted system would limit the supply of
cannabis to young people, while bringing the production and sale of
pot for adults within the framework of an above ground, readily
accountable marketplace. As reformers, we need to stress to parents
that it is only through the implementation of marijuana legalization
that they can begin to regain the sense of control that they have
lost under the existing anarchic regime.
Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will send a public a message that pot is "OK"
Of all the concerns commonly expressed by the public, fears that
marijuana regulation will imply that pot is "OK" may be the easiest
to respond to. Why? Because compared to the use and abuse of other
legal intoxicants -- most notably alcohol and tobacco -- the
responsible use of marijuana is, by typical societal standards, "OK."
Pot lacks the dependence liability of tobacco or booze and, unlike
alcohol -- or even aspirin -- marijuana consumption is incapable of
causing a fatal overdose. According to government survey data, the
majority of Americans who use pot do so intermittently -- not daily
-- and most voluntarily cease their habit by time they reach their
early 30s. (Compare this use pattern to most people's use of
cigarettes, a habit that often continues unabated throughout one's
lifetime.) Of course, inhaling marijuana smoke over time may be
associated with certain pulmonary risks, such as wheezing and chest
tightness. However, most of these adverse effects can be mitigated by
vaporizing cannabis -- a practice that heats marijuana to a
temperature where active cannabis vapors form, but below the point of
It is time for marijuana law reformers to embrace rather than dispute
the notion that the responsible use of cannabis by adults falls well
within the ambit of choice we permit individuals in a free society.
Reformers shouldn't be afraid to educate the public as to the
relative safety of cannabis, particularly when compared to the use of
other common intoxicants. Recently, a regional education campaign
comparing and contrasting pot use with alcohol launched by the group
SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation) resulted in a
majority of Denver voters electing to do away with minor marijuana
law enforcement within the city's limits. The enactment of a similar
marijuana "image enhancement" campaign by reformers on a national
level would arguably result in a significant increase in public
support for broader legalization.
Legalizing cannabis like alcohol will lead to an increase in
incidences of drugged driving
According to a 2007 Zogby poll of over 1,000 registered voters, only
36 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Should
marijuana be legally taxed and regulated like liquor, tobacco or
gambling?" By contrast, 44 percent of these same respondents voiced
support for legalization "if police had a roadside impairment test
for marijuana like they have for alcohol." In other words, the
public's concern about traffic safety significantly impedes their
support for broader cannabis legalization. Reformers need to address
this public concern by offering potential solutions to mitigate
incidences of driving while impaired by cannabis.
For example, the marijuana law reform movement should encourage the
development of educational or public service campaigns targeting
drugged driving behavior. Such campaigns should particularly be aimed
toward the younger driving population age 16 to 25 -- as this group
is most likely use cannabis and report having operated a motor
vehicle shortly after consuming pot. Reformers should also encourage
additional funding and training for DREs (drug recognition experts)
to better identify drivers who may be operating a vehicle while
impaired by marijuana. Finally, the development of cannabis-sensitive
technology to rapidly identify the presence of THC in drivers, such
as a roadside saliva test, would provide utility to law enforcement
in their efforts to better identify potentially intoxicated drivers.
Reformers' endorsement of these and other traffic-safety specific
campaigns will increase support among the public (and arguably law
enforcement) in favor of regulating cannabis by assuaging their
concerns that such a policy would potentially lead to an increase in
drugged driving activity.
The long-expressed goals of the marijuana law reform movement to end
the arrests of responsible adult pot smokers and enact a regulated
system of cannabis access and sales are achievable. However, these
goals will continue to remain unattainable unless this movement
begins to better address the political and public hurdles that have
plagued it for more than 30 years.
Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, D.C. Armentano is an expert in the field of marijuana
policy, health and pharmacokinetics. He has spoken at numerous
national conferences and legal seminars, testified before several
state legislatures and federal bodies, and assisted dozens of
criminal defense attorneys in cases pertaining to the use of
medicinal cannabis and drugged driving.