The Challenge for the New Generation of Legalizers

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel April 6, 2015

    I was recently asked, following a lecture I had given, what the next generation of legalization advocates could do to move legalization forward, and to leave their mark on the legalization movement.

    The question was intriguing, and caused me to revisit in my mind the areas of public policy in which marijuana smokers continue to be treated unfairly, even in states that have legalized marijuana, and to consider why these problems remain so difficult for us to correct.

    I have discussed in previous columns the continuing problems we face as smokers dealing with employment discrimination, child custody and related issues, and charges of driving under the influence of marijuana. Simply put, marijuana smokers continue to be treated as people who, because of their marijuana smoking, can be fired from their job without the slightest indication they have ever gone to work in an impaired condition; continue to be presumed by the state child welfare agencies to be unfit parents, without any evidence to suggest that conclusion; and continue to face DUID charges without any showing of driving while impaired.

    Most Americans are decent, fair-minded people who would generally want to treat their fellow citizens in a fair manner, just as they would want to be treated. But because of the impact of decades of “reefer madness” propaganda and widespread misinformation about marijuana and marijuana smokers, once the factor of marijuana smoking enters the equation, these same Americans are largely willing to allow – or even encourage – policies that needlessly and unfairly harm the families, careers and lives of people who are good, hard-working individuals who happen to enjoy marijuana smoking when they relax in the evening, just as tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans enjoy a beer or a glass of wine when they relax in the evening.

    Two out of Three Americans Have an Unfavorable Impression of Marijuana Smokers

    This is true despite the fact that a majority of the American public now support full legalization. They 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-marijuana. This is an important distinction. These citizens were dubbed the “marijuana middle” by the Third Way, a Washington, DC think tank that recently released polling data showing, somewhat shockingly, that while a majority of the country now favor full legalization, 64 percent of those same people have a negative impression of recreational marijuana smokers!

    They believe that those of us who smoke marijuana are doing something wrong, and harmful, regardless of the legal status of marijuana. Thus in every policy area that arises, including especially employment, child custody and driving, they continue to presume the worst-case scenario, and, in their minds, to “err on the side of caution” to protect the non-smoking public from the perceived dangers of marijuana smoking and 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.

    And that brings me back to the question I was asked regarding what the new generation of legalization advocates could do to leave their mark on the legalization movement. My answer is that 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, productive citizen.

    It is only by demonstrating that marijuana smokers are hard-working, middle class individuals who raise families, pay taxes and contribute in a positive manner to our communities, that we can finally overcome those negative stereotypes that persist. And until we overcome those stereotypes, we cannot achieve full equality with our fellow citizens. We will continue to be treated unfairly both legally and culturally.

    In earlier decades, it took real courage to acknowledge your use of marijuana, as one might find yourself shunted by friends or colleagues, or even worse, targeted by law enforcement. And even today, the Third Way polling results clearly demonstrate there remains a stigma to marijuana smoking, and we must overcome that stigma if we are to avoid these unfair policies, even after legalization.

    It is the younger generation of smokers who must face this final challenge. We have, after decades of effort, begun the long process of redefining the responsible use of marijuana as a legal activity. Over the next several years, we should succeed in ending the practice of arresting marijuana smokers all throughout the country.

    But we will continue to be treated unfairly until we overcome this persistent cultural bias. So long as 65% of the public have an unfavorable view of those of us who smoke, we simply cannot achieve full equality. To do that we must convince the majority of the non-smokers that marijuana smokers are just average Americans – good people –who just happen to enjoy smoking marijuana. We need to move the “marijuana middle” to a place where they are emotionally more comfortable with those of us who smoke. This is a necessary cultural shift.

    That is the challenge for our younger colleagues in the legalization movement.

    23 responses to “The Challenge for the New Generation of Legalizers”

    1. Bob Constantine says:

      It seems like one challenge might be to get government out of the business of regulating and taxing what people do with their own bodies. Who gave them that authority to own anybody should ALWAYS be the primary question being asked.

    2. bongstar420 says:

      Where is there discrimination law that allows people to fire based on anything but actual performance metrics? Currently, they just assume that you are reduced in performance without evidence.

    3. Elisabeth Ashby says:

      Excellent article. I came out last year with my family and a childhood friend I was trying to reconnect with. It was fine with the family but not the old friend. At my age I rather have honesty anyday.

    4. Alex says:

      As a person who would be defined as a non-smoker, I wholeheartedly agree. The only reason alot of us working class non-smokers do not smoke on weekends and whatnot is because of policies that allow our jobs to randomly collect samples from us to be used against us if anything shows up. These policies will not change with any amount of legalization. Everything boils down to research and public opinion. With better public opinion comes more research. I am glad for the states that have legalized, but in truth all it benifits are the people who would have smoked regardless of legality. Peraonally I refuse to support any “stoner” films or references to pop culture, because all it does it hurt the image of what Marijuana really is and what the prolegalization politics and Lawyers are fighting for.

    5. kadyn lilley says:

      Im A native american living on the ft peck indian reservation and my tribe is supposed to go green on June 1st 2015 and there are not to many activists i know who care as much as i do im trying to start up my own chapter and business but what could i do or who could i talk to or meet that would help me take action?

    6. Miles says:

      “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, productive citizen”

      Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do so without fear of severe consequences! I’ve known a great many cannabis consumers in my life and not a single one of them is willing to come out of the closet. They fear joining NORML or any other organization that is attempting to end prohibition because of possible repercussions. But, every single one of them would vote to legalize if they had the opportunity!

    7. Wounded says:

      Removing the stigma of cannabis use will be a major challenge after the brainwashing of Americans for so many years.Its fortunate information is just a click away to point out the men with long noses that continue this misinformation campaign.This may be the next gold mine for the psychobabble industry. The unlearning of prohibition phobias.

    8. mexweed says:

      @Keith, in this article I hurriedly counted 25 uses of “smoke”, “smoker(s)”, “smoking” etc. Yet in the same article you emphasize that there is a stigma… don’t you think that majority out there is really at least as afraid of the carbon monoxide (and its “stoned” behavior impact blamed on the herb) as of the cannabis? Give this a try: promote Vaporization and see if that doesn’t help move attitudes in a more favorable direction!

    9. TheOracle says:

      I keep reading about how Colorado is using some of its cannabis revenues to fund public education, such as $15 million quoted in this article from CannabisCulture.com.

      Pennsylvania is one of the swing states you mentioned in your article, but it has a larger population than Colorado. The state really needs a couple of billion dollars in the next few years to dig its way out of the dearth of funding for public education and the state employee pension system, which it plans on getting from an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale. How much money could the swing states like Pennsylvania expect to rake in from legal cannabis revenues for public education?

      Also, the Philadelphia mayoral primary is just 6 weeks away, and Jim Kenney, the guy who is known for getting the city to decriminalize cannabis, is supposedly one of the frontrunners. Can you help get him elected? He looks most likely to legalize cannabis.

      It’d be nice if deBlasio would just up and legalize cannabis in The Big Apple. Heard that Hillary Clinton was hanging out with Bill deBlasio’s wife, so I’m hoping they partook of the sacred herb, and are inclined to let legalization happen. President I Legalized Weed Hillary Clinton? Obama implemented HillaryCare what she initiated, so she can implement cannabis legalization that Barry started to let happen–after laughing it off at first. Inhale deeply, Barry, and enjoy!


    10. YearofAction says:

      “Marihuana” should never be legalized, but there is a two-step way that marijuana smokers, non-smokers, and parents could voice this year to legalize marijuana.

      Reform the definition of “marihuana” so that it actually shows respect for our Constitution by explicitly making it a single thing which is distinct from cannabis:

      The term “marijuana” means all parts of the smoke produced by the combustion of the plant Cannabis sativa L.

      When cannabis is de-scheduled per the reformed definition, put marijuana in Schedule 3 to legalize it, so that it can be restricted like other types of smoke per the anti-smoking laws.

      Good laws, good health, and good times. What’s not to like?