It’s been a good couple of years for advocates of marijuana’s legalization, but it would be a costly mistake to assume that marijuana’s complete legalization is an inevitable result of recent events, such as the new state-level laws in Colorado and Washington.
In the past there was a tendency among activists and supporters of legalization to reason that if marijuana was not yet legal it was proof that advocacy groups were incompetent. The reasoning was flawed, as is the modern version: because legalization is underway advocacy groups must be on the right track. This is not to suggest that reform activity is not heading in the right direction. It is. And it is because of the good, successful and historical work of many individuals and organizations. This is just a caution that a lot more work needs to be done. It’s one thing to make marijuana legalization a viable and popular option for the public and for state government. Closing the deal, however, is a separate challenge. Ask anyone whose profession is sales about closing the sale. It’s tricky.
There are some obvious points that need to be addressed about this issue. The public remains concerned about teenage marijuana access as well as public-safety issues such as driving under the influence and the health effects of heavy marijuana use. There are also questions regarding what sort of regulations are required for a legal market, and appropriate levels of taxation. One of the most profound issues is whether there will be national regulatory framework or a patchwork of state laws in which marijuana is legal is some places and remains prohibited in others. These issues suggest the complexity of the political challenges that must be addressed for reform to continue.
Here are three significant areas in which reform advocates can enhance their capacity to close the sale and make marijuana legalization a national policy achievement:
The first area concerns the intellectual aspect of public debate. This is no time to stand down with respect to arguments, research and education. Advocates need to understand that the battle over legalization is first and foremost a battle of ideas and over the relevance of research, opinion and how information is communicated to the public and policy makers. A strong connection needs to be made and continually reinforced between reform proposals and the public interest. Explain it. Prove it. Communicate it. The same goes for addressing concerns about marijuana and health. A lot more people are paying attention to the issue these days, and they need an education about many aspects of marijuana.
The second area of concern is the training of advocates, who need to learn more about the intellectual side of this struggle as well as about the skills, tactics and strategies of public advocacy in the information age. Online courses need to be developed and delivered, more advocates need to be recruited; organizations need to continue to unleash the power of individual advocacy regardless of network or financial benefit. There is more to this than establishing a presence in social media, accumulating followers and communicating content. Online education is one of the most important and influential developments in higher education. This is a powerful resource for social change that has yet to be adequately utilized by reform groups.
The third area of development concerns visual media. In part because of the digital communication media that have proliferated in the past decades, this is the age of visual presentations of data and information. The reform movement needs to produce and distribute more charts, animated power point displays with narration, animated shockwave videos, video presentations on YouTube and other public commons. The public spends much more time getting information by looking rather than reading. Visual presentations are what go viral, not articles. Visual presentations are crucial to unlocking the benefits of a greater intellectual war and online education.
The reform movement needs to continually develop to meet the challenges of making legalization happen. What will be achieved depends on entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurship is a matter of creating new combinations of goods and services. Innovation, or at least getting people to adopt innovation, is a matter of communicating along social networks. Intellectual development, training advocates, and communication are how the marijuana reform movement has prospered. These are the strengths that have produced success in turning the tide of public opinion against prohibition. Sharpening the tools of debate, utilizing online education, and communicating with visual media are powerful tools that will help reformers close the sale with the public and get them to enact marijuana’s legalization in the United States.
By Jon Gettman
Jon Gettman has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to HIGH TIMES, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law, and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.