How to Be an ACTivist – Advice from National Marijuana Reform Pros
In my dozen years of marijuana activist journalism, one of the questions I hear most often is “When do you think they’re going to legalize marijuana in my state?”
I always respond, “That’s the wrong question. When are you going to legalize marijuana in your state?”
If you’re waiting for them to legalize marijuana, you might be in for a long wait. The way marijuana reform happens is when ordinary people like you stand up, band together, and organize for change.
That means more than just logging on to Facebook and sharing information about cannabis and marijuana law reform with your friends. It’s somewhat helpful from an educational standpoint, but it’s not activism.
Activism means you must act. At the personal level, that means getting yourself educated (reading this Freedom Leaf is a fantastic start) and writing and calling your elected officials. To take things to the next activism level, though, you must join with others to engage in public meetings, rallies, protests, marches, festivals, conferences, fundraising, polling, media, initiatives, lobbying, and legislation.
But which method of group activism is right for your state and situation? What reforms in marijuana law are your voters ready to support? How do you achieve success with your activism?
Here at Freedom Leaf, we’ve spoken with long-time reformers across the United States and asked them for advice on the basics of marijuana activism. From the forefront of cannabis acceptance in California to the front lines of marijuana prohibition in Texas, from modest city-level decriminalization in Missouri to revolutionary state-level legalization in Oregon, this is the advice your group needs to start reforming marijuana laws your state.
Building Your Activism Engine – The Importance of Public Meetings
There are four elements involved in making social change: activists, supporters, voters, and laws. If legalization is your road trip destination, then your city/state is the car, activists are the engine, supporters are the fuel, voters are the countryside, and lawmakers/initiatives are the roads.
Like an eight-cylinder engine is more powerful than a four-cylinder, your reform engine is more powerful with more activists. You most likely cannot do this alone; you need a reform group. To build that group, you need to hold public meetings.
You can usually get yourself a room for little to no cost at your local library or community college. Or as the activists in Portland, Oregon, discovered, you can sometimes get a local bar or club excited to open their doors for a bunch of thirsty activists with the munchies. “It’s been amazing working with a venue like the Analog Cafe,” Scott Gordon, executive director of Portland NORML tells Freedom Leaf, “who understand and provide for our cause by contributing a venue for our monthly Portland NORML meetings!”
Don’t be worried if you have nothing to deliver at your first meeting. Use it to meet other like-minded people and ask what reforms they’d like to work on. Find out their reasons for wanting reform. Contact us here at Freedom Leaf and we can get you some magazines to hand out. Reach out to national organizations like NORML, SSDP, ASA, and LEAP to ask if they have a speaker who’d talk at your meeting. Maybe there is a sympathetic city councilman or state legislator who’d appear for a Q&A session.
From these public meetings, you’ll build a cadre of dedicated folks who are ready to help you take your public activism to the next level, with a rally, protest, march, or festival.
Filling the Gas Tank – Rallies, Protests, Marches, and Festivals
Your group could be the Cadillac of activists, but without enough fuel of supporters, you’re not going anywhere.
Getting enough fuel for your activism push is accomplished through public events. You may have started your group, held some meetings, and have a great website or Facebook page. But generally, your supporters won’t perceive you as “real” until they see your group has some organized public presence.
Rallies are generally when people gather in one place to support something. Protests are a fixed gathering to oppose something. Marches are a moving example of either. Festivals are day-long rallies that usually incorporate entertainment and vending.
Generally speaking, you can gather on public property, like parks, without a permit so long as you aren’t putting up stages and loudspeakers. For a larger gathering with such infrastructure, you may need to work with city officials to secure a permit. For marching, usually you can traverse the sidewalks without permits, but once you take to the streets, permits are required.
“It is easy to become intimidated by the process of organizing a festival, especially one that isn’t welcomed by some of the local officials in your community because of their anti-cannabis stance,” says Serra Frank, who organizes the annual Boise Hempfest in Idaho, one of the most prohibitionist states. “Regardless of whether they agree with the event, they cannot stop it from happening as long as you do your job correctly. The city has determined requirements and a specific process for putting on events, and the job duties of these officials are to walk you through the process, and ensure that you follow all the requirements. If you’ve fulfilled the requirements, there isn’t much they can do to deny the permits.”
This is the point where it behooves you to have a lawyer as part of your activism engine. Your city officials and law enforcement may not like the content of your speech and may try to derail your activism. They may be banking on you not knowing your free speech rights. They’ll back down quickly once the magic “lawyer” word is uttered. It’s also good to have your lawyer present to explain to participants how to assert their rights if police start making possession arrests.
Also, while you can’t dictate that everyone dress well and bring decent signs, you can strongly encourage it. Remember that any news media will focus on the most outrageous and counter-culture images they can find to represent your event.
Instead, make it your priority to find the journalists before and during your event and put your organization’s best foot forward by giving them useful sound-bites and newsworthy interviewees. Deliver a provocative statistic or powerful anecdote in just six-to-ten seconds. Have your most sympathetic patient or conventional soccer mom or clean-cut student ready to talk to reporters. Make sure to explain not just why your proposed reform is important to you, but why it is vitally necessary for everyone else, too.
“Look at it like you’re just trying to help journalists do their jobs instead of trying to convince them to help you,” says Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority and Senior Political Correspondent for MassRoots. “They’re looking for interesting stories, and if you have one to tell they’re likely to want to hear what you have to say.”
Mapping Your Destination – Fundraising, Conferences, Polling, and Media
Your activist engine could have a full tank of support behind it, but if you don’t know which roads lead to your destination, you’re just wasting gas.
Focusing your organization on defining its goals can be facilitated through a reform conference. Such regional conferences are taking place in Missouri, Texas, Georgia, and Virginia through local NORML chapters there. Activists from areas of the state that vary in support for reform gather to learn from each other and from national experts brought in to deliver informative presentations on reform successes elsewhere.
“University and college campuses are good locations for conferences, especially if there is a student group willing to sponsor them,” says Dan Viets, executive director of Missouri NORML. “Usually, these venues are free to recognized student organizations. Progressive churches, like Unitarian-Universalists, are also good options.”
Never forget, however, that the reforms you and your supporters want aren’t always the reforms your voters will approve. That’s where polling comes into play. You may have the best engine and a full tank, but if your destination is across an ocean of “no” voters, your car is going to sink. You must have a destination it’s possible to reach and a vehicle that can get there.
You also need to have the funds to get there. You can generate money through selling organization merchandise, collecting membership dues, and accepting donations, but your biggest fundraising can happen within your festivals and conferences. At first, you may struggle just to break even on these events, but if they are successful, that plus media exposure plus legislative progress can begin to attract bigger investments in your activism.
“The majority of our festival funding comes from vendor fees and board member personal contributions,” says Ms. Frank, “so determining the important aspects to fund first can be helpful in sticking to the budget with which you are working. Most of the funding comes in just weeks before the festival, so remaining patient and focused on the end goal is definitely a big part of fundraising.”
This is where the politics can be difficult. Your supporters may want to go further than possible. They may want legalization when only decriminalization is attainable. They may want medical marijuana when only CBD-oil has the votes needed to pass. They may withhold support and funding for lesser goals or they may split from your group to follow greater goals.
With polling, though, you can at least make the case that your goal is the achievable one. Polling is the GPS for your reform road trip. Serious supporters will respond to polling and you can position your group as the sensible activists willing to accept reality and make reasonable compromises to achieve reform. Sometimes the group that splits away from you provides a counter-example that makes you look even more professional by contrast.
Most local polling on marijuana issues isn’t done as a separate poll, but rather as a question or two included in more general polling already being conducted. Local polls are usually conducted by local news stations, colleges and universities, and private pollsters. Your group can usually pay to get your question inserted into their poll.
When you have the results of your poll or other news to announce, you’ll need to hold a press conference. While your public events have helped build your legitimacy to your supporters, becoming a recognized group in your local media is what builds your legitimacy to the public, especially those undecided voters you need to win elections and those legislators you need to help pass laws.
But be careful about abusing the media or you’ll lose their interest. “Don’t ask journalists to come out to a press conference unless you actually have some news to announce,” explains Mr. Angell. “Release a report with new data, announce a surprising endorsement, reveal a petition with an impressive number of signatures. Don’t just stand up there and deliver talking points that everyone has heard before. That’s not news.”
On the Road Again – Initiatives, Lobbying, and Legislation
Now that you’ve got your polling and built your support, it’s time to start changing the laws. But where you live can make a big difference in how you do that.
Statewide initiative petitions are how the first eight states have legalized marijuana. That power, however, is limited to just 24 states, mostly in the West. The remaining states rely solely on the power of legislators to make the laws. Initiatives can reach further on reform, since they depend on the votes of the public, which is more strongly in support of marijuana than elected officials.
But too often in the initiative states, activists will want to bite off statewide legalization as a first reform. In the eight states that have legalized, though, it took many smaller bites to get to legalization. They all went through local reforms, decriminalization, medical marijuana, and failed legalization attempts before succeeding at statewide legalization.
On the local level, some states allow their cities and counties great latitude in regulating themselves. It’s a concept called “home rule” and it means that activists there can circulate petitions to change local ordinances. If you have this power, consider passing a reform for your locality before jumping up to the statewide level. With local successes behind you, you’ll have more standing to build support and funding for your statewide gambit.
Otherwise, if you’re in a state without initiative power, you’re going to have to pass laws the old-fashioned way, through legislators. That’s where activist lobby days come in to play. This is when you gather your activists on one particular day to visit with your representatives in person.
“Lobby days can often be done in collaboration with ACLU or other allies who are already planning such events,” says Mr. Viets. “It’s always good to wear a pin or some item of clothing that identifies your group members visually, so that, when they are seen in the halls of the Capitol, people automatically know why you are there.”
While the idea of meeting senators and representatives can be intimidating, remember that these are your public servants and their job is to listen to you. “The name of the game is networking, making relationships, and starting conversations,” says Sharon Ravert, the founding executive director of Peachtree NORML who is by now a familiar face at the Georgia Statehouse.
Always “dress for success” when you’re going to your statehouse or city hall. Most people understand this and will present accordingly, but there always seems to be a few people who want to “let their freak flag fly” when visiting their elected officials. You may have to have an unpleasant conversation about your expectations for representing your group. Explain that yes, our elected officials should be able to separate the message from the messenger, but they often do not, and our important message shouldn’t be lost because we selfishly wish to express our personal fashion.
Sometimes lobby days will include an opportunity to present testimony in a hearing. Public comments are welcomed, but you usually must show up before the hearing begins to register. Bring with you photocopies of your written testimony and any exhibits, enough for each member of the committee and their staff. Those materials can go into lengthy detail, but for your spoken testimony, you may only have two or three minutes, so stick to the basics.
“Speak from passion, but deliver content,” says Amanda Reiman, formerly the California Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance. “Too often people either get up and unleash a sermon onto the crowd, or they try and fill the space with a diatribe of facts. Make sure your testimony hits a few key educational points, but let your passion shine through, because that is what they remember.”
Lobby days are best organized around a bill or amendment that will be voted on by your representatives. Some states allow citizens to directly submit bills to the legislature, but usually the process begins by cultivating a relationship with a supportive lawmaker who will introduce the bill for you.
Sam Chapman, an SSDP alum who now heads New Economy Consulting in Oregon, explains that once you’ve found your legislator to sponsor a bill, that “then allows you to work with legislative counsel (the people who physically draft the law) on creating a legislative concept (LC) for the specific subject you are wanting to write a law on. Eventually, if the legislator likes the bill and generally believes that it has a chance at passing, it will become a bill and will be assigned to a committee that focuses on the subject at hand.”
Keep in mind that once you’ve gotten your bill submitted and you’re in the halls of the statehouse lobbying for it, you’re going to run into legislators who oppose you. The key is in convincing them you’re not here to cause problems, but to solve them. “Legislators are constantly hearing from people who show up to complain and place blame without any solutions,” Mr. Chapman warns. “Even if they deserve it, showing up with pitchforks and flames is not an effective strategy to convincing legislators to support your bill and will often get you labeled as someone who is not worthy of their time out of the gate.”
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to take your reform road trip. Learn from the activists who have done it all and seen it all before. Most of them are very excited to pass on their knowledge to the next wave of reformers.