By Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel
Over the years, marijuana legalization advocates became effective at gradually building public support for our issue, even as we continued to lose votes when our elected officials focused on marijuana policy. We learned to lose creatively.
We became accustomed to years when it was difficult to identify any real political progress. For example, we won not a single statewide marijuana law reform proposal between 1978, when Nebraska became the last of 11 states to adopt a modified version of marijuana decriminalization, following the release of the first report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (which recommended the country decriminalize minor possession and personal use offenses), and 1996, when California approved Proposition 215, legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Eighteen years without a single significant victory is, by any definition, a long political winter.
But over those years, and continuing still today, we learned to hone the skill of making small gains, at least in public attitudes, even as we lost the immediate political vote, whether at the local level or at the state legislatures. At a minimum we learned to present a public image of marijuana smokers that was more professional and mainstream than our opponents were accustomed to confronting, which over time helped us turn around the exaggerated anti-marijuana biases common in the media, resulting in a more balanced public debate over marijuana policy. That, in turn, began causing many non-smokers to reassess their views on marijuana policy.
And even as we continued to lose reform proposals, we were also identifying more and more elected officials who has the political courage to stand-up to the "war-on-drugs," who would sponsor our reform legislation in the coming years. Out of necessity, our political misfortunes had forced us to learn how to lose creatively; to come out of a losing effort with more support than when we started.
What To Do With Majority Support
But then something incredible occurred. Beginning in 2010, for the first time we demonstrated sufficient public support to approve full legalization initiatives in two states, a step that only a few years ago had seemed unrealistic and out-of-reach. And beginning in 2012, a handful of national polls began to reflect the new reality that for the first time, a majority of Americans nationwide now oppose marijuana prohibition and favor legalization.
That growing public support made it possible for us to win legalization proposals in additional states, as we did in 2014 and expect to do again in 2016. So long as we are willing to make some concessions to satisfy the concerns of non-smokers, who comprise the vast majority of voters (86 percent), we can continue to win these precedent-setting laws to legalize and regulate the use of marijuana, and to stop the arrest of marijuana smokers, in more and more states.
It is important as we continue to move forward that we recognize the value of slow, steady change, and that we learn to accept and enjoy our victories as they occur, even though they will seldom be as complete as we might wish, and will require additional work in coming years to fix problems that remain. It is far easier to fine-tune these laws to make them work in a more equitable manner, once marijuana smoking has been legitimized and marijuana smokers are no longer considered criminals.
Learning To Accept Victory, and Build On It
I have been reminded of that fact recently when I observed colleagues who are allies in the legalization movement, but who were upset with political compromises that occurred as part of the implementation of legalization in Oregon, and were making allegations that all was lost, that some advocates had sold their souls, and that legalization in Oregon is not "real" legalization, since there are limits and regulations that apply. In fact, the version of legalization adopted in Oregon is the best to date, from the perspective of marijuana smokers.
Incidentally, there were a handful of voices, loud but not large, in both Colorado and Washington, who made those same claims when those states were passing and implementing legalization, and who continue today to file suits seeking to have the state legalization initiatives declared invalid and unconstitutional, leaving prohibition still in effect in those states, and in other ways seeking to undermine the new legalization systems currently in effect.
To some degree we should recognize that social movements attract "true believers," many of whom are purists who oppose compromise and insist on demands that would never be acceptable to a majority of the voters in the state. We should welcome their involvement and support when they join us in opposing prohibition, but separate ourselves from them politically when they insist that we should not adopt marijuana legalization because the version they are voting on is less than perfect.
Standing tall for a principle is a good thing, but knowing which principles are important, and which are self-defeating, is an essential skill for any advocate. Accepting reasonable compromises that assure a majority of the voters in a state will support an end to prohibition, and agree to a system of regulating the legal sale of marijuana to adults, is basic to winning this fight.
Most Americans are not marijuana smokers (only 14 percent are), nor are they "pro pot." In fact, one recent national survey found that while a majority of the public nationwide now support an end to marijuana prohibition, 54 percent of those same individuals had a negative impression of recreational marijuana smokers! They support ending prohibition because they now recognize prohibition causes far more problems than the use of the drug we were trying to prohibit; but they are not "pro pot" and they remain concerned that legalization may result in some unintended consequences that will harm society. Just this past week we learned from a new Gallup Poll, taken at the end of June 2015, that 47 percent of the public believe, for example, that legalization will make driving in those states less safe (30 percent believe it will make driving "a lot less safe"; 17 percent say "a little less safe")
Fortunately, the data from the first few states to legalize marijuana have not shown an increase in DUID cases or accidents blamed on pot intoxication, but we still must deal with that concern, and take reasonable steps to reassure those non-smokers that we too oppose impaired driving and support reasonable efforts to get them off the road. (Note: I am not talking about drivers with some THC in their system, but drivers who are actually impaired. There is an important distinction between those two categories.)
Those of us who work for legalization must occasionally stand back a step and take a realistic assessment of the enormous progress we have made over the last few years, especially the legalization victories we have achieved in four states and the District of Columbia. Of course, none of these first few state laws are perfect from the standpoint of those of us who smoke. Looking forward, we must find ways to treat responsible marijuana smokers fairly regarding employment issues, child custody issues, and in the definition of impaired driving.
But those are reasons for rededicating ourselves to continuing the political and education efforts necessary to come back and improve these laws, and to try to assure that each new law that is approved by the voters brings us a little closer to a model law. But most importantly, minor imperfections in these initial laws do not justify opposing or undermining their implementation.
We are ending a corrupt system that resulted in the unnecessary and unfair arrest of tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans, and the resulting damage caused to those individuals and their families. We are achieving what most Americans, only a few years ago, would have thought impossible. Let's enjoy and celebrate these victories, and stop focusing on what we have not yet accomplished.
These new legalization victories are changing the way the world looks at marijuana and marijuana smokers. It's a great time to be alive if you are a marijuana smoker. Let's enjoy it.