Those who fail to learn from the past must repeat
it, we're told, and in 40 years working for marijuana legalization
(1) in four different states, I've seen certain problems over
and over. A rapid turnover of entry-level activists often
found in local work is perhaps due, not to the flighty nature
of marijuana users, but to the unsatisfactory state of a movement
which purports to represent them. Please, I'm not criticizing
people who work selflessly to end prohibition - perhaps those
most likely to read this journal! - so don't take my remarks
as unduly negative. There are important exceptions to my criticisms,
but I don't plan to describe them. I've been asked about lessons
from Alaska's 2004 legalization campaign, and since failure's
lessons are most costly, that's where I'll focus.
In mid-2004, largely due to misfortunes of other organizers,
I went from Texas to Alaska to work on the final run-up to
the vote on citizen-initiated Proposition 2 (Prop. 2), which
would mandate regulating marijuana as Alaska regulates tobacco
and alcohol, essentially legalizing cannabis commerce there.
I knew the task would be challenging, not least because I
would be a rank "Outsider" in a state where I had
no experience and no strong movement contacts, but marijuana's
unique status there convinced me to take on what quickly became
an untenable assignment. Prop. 2 drew 44.25% of the November
vote, in which 60% of Alaskans supported George W. Bush's
re-election. We were lucky if we didn't lose votes during
the three month "official" campaign.
My inability to function within the seemingly jinxed campaign
left me time to meet Alaskans of all ages and many walks of
life, on an informal, "normal" footing. Asked what
brought me to the Great State, I always said, "to help
legalize marijuana for grown-ups." While I occasionally
met with some surprise, in the six months I eventually spent
there, only three or four individuals disagreed with legalization;
everyone else, perhaps after a few questions about the initiative,
said they could support it. I formed the view that Alaska's
lengthy experience with semi-legal marijuana, protected by
a strong constitution and Supreme Court, had shown that the
herb is, at worst, "not as bad as alcohol". I believe
Prop. 2 could have passed, had support been consistent, principled,
and self-disciplined. However, few campaigners thought it
had much chance. This disconnection between the apparent support
of a wide voter base, and a pessimistic campaign, was striking
from the outset.
Ultimately, the problems I observed in Alaska were not unique,
but echoed observations heard from activists elsewhere; indicating
problems which seem endemic to the US legalization movement.
In no particular order, these include:
1. Disunity and Discontinuity.
Multiple organizations with competing agendas failed to work
cooperatively, much less democratically, on any important
aspect of Prop. 2. Funding decisions, media, and overall direction
were seldom mutually acceptable or on point. A brief unity
was achieved for a campaign kick-off event, but did not long
survive. Unity achieved by exclusion seldom unites. Only three
individuals were at first authorized to speak for the campaign,
and they seldom conferred with each other before doing so.
The only slogan approved by the supposedly unified campaign
was a "lowest common denominator" phrase (2); it
did not spark excitement.
Supporters of earlier marijuana-related initiatives were
arbitrarily and undemocratically excluded from Prop. 2 activities
and decision-making because of "personality issues".
For example, a decision not to emphasize hemp in 2004 prevented
its mention in campaign literature. People who asked if the
initiative would allow hemp cultivation were told that Prop.
2 had "nothing to do with hemp". Turning volunteers
and potential donors away is not a recipe for success, nor
is dismissing a support base built over many years. Medical
patients rallied to Prop. 2, becoming effective spokespersons
late in the campaign, but they were not included in campaign
There was serious discontinuity between previous campaign
experience in Alaska and the 2004 campaign, and little opinion
analysis. News reports of youth violence fueled by marijuana
were used with devastating effect against Prop. 2. Supporters
were caught totally off-guard by events. Yet a cursory review
of Alaskan media in the preceding year reveals this as a recurring
theme. (4) Unresolved issues from a 1988 legislative hearing
on marijuana's safety and effects might have been foreseen
as factors in 2004, but these were not reviewed before the
election. (5) Other problematic themes which might easily,
and correctly, have been predicted as important were ignored
by campaign planners, who consciously chose an "under
the radar" approach, in order not to stimulate what they
perceived as too-flamboyant support.
2. Political Isolation.
Despite overt support of three of Alaska's recognized political
parties (6) and of a major progressive coalition (7), campaign
organizers never asked them, or any others, for formal endorsements,
use of mailing/donor lists, mutual media efforts, speaking
opportunities, or other forms of assistance; nor were representatives
of any party or community organization offered planning or
decision-making roles in the campaign.(8) One Democratic nominee
for office, Thomas Higgens, actively supported Prop. 2, but
found little significant encouragement from the campaign's
leaders; running against Alaska's "unbeatable" senior
Republican US Senator, Ted Stevens (9), he was seen as an
expendable "loose cannon".
Thousands of politically effective groups in the United States
address issues of peace, justice, public health, environmental
integrity, economic opportunity, and related social and economic
justice issues which interface readily with issues of marijuana
prohibition; yet legalizers build few bridges and connections
with them. Today, we should be connecting with peace activists,
educating people about hemp biomass fuels, and clearly saying
that war for oil is archaically unnecessary. The ongoing disinterest
of the legalization movement nationally in building such connections
is astonishing. In Anchorage, this Outsider's suggestion to
approach potentially sympathetic groups for support was dismissed
with the statement, "We don't do that up here."
(10) Well, maybe we don't, other people did, as the two weeks
preceding our defeat, when we were T-boned by a carefully-orchestrated
and symbiotic avalanche of lies, amply demonstrated!
The marijuana movement must have allies; we cannot win alone.
3. The Boys' Club.
With a few notable exceptions, where are women, and especially
minorities, at every level of leadership and participation
in the legalization movement? What argument is used most often
to defeat us? That marijuana harms children and families.
And who publicly carries this view? Too often, it is women
and/or minorities. Men cannot argue effectively against "Mother".
Only another mother can! Much of the success of medical marijuana
legislation has come with women's involvement; perhaps the
traditional roles of "Caregiver" or "Nurse"
allow women more impact in that arena.
As for minority involvement, given the extreme effects of
the drug war on minority communities in every state, legalization
advocates should have long ago made it a top priority to reach
out and share information with black churches, Native American
and Alaskan tribal councils, Mexican-American neighborhood
associations, and minority community leadership organizations.
Legalization proponents should consult with these natural
allies about how to end the vicious hoax of prohibition. "Drugs"
are to Black America as "weapons of mass destruction"
were to Iraq; a mythical and/or planted excuse for armed invasion
and the loss of one-third of each generation!
In Alaska I heard, as I've heard it in Texas, California,
and Oregon, that since most supporters of legalization (i.e.,
stereotypical High Times readers) are young white men, it
is logical that leadership of legalization groups is largely
made up of (not so young anymore) white men. This is a self-fulfilling
prophecy for defeat, an excuse for egotistical posturing and
the exercise of control by fellows who fancy themselves players
of some Great Game. More than one male colleague in Anchorage
tried - unsuccessfully - to explain to me why women are better
seen than heard! But I won't blame men. The Black liberation
movement saw some Black women refuse community leadership
roles in order not to emasculate Black men any more than white
society had done. The legalization movement, in contrast,
is permeated with a reactionary cultural norm of 1960's psuedo-hip
society which specifically opposed "chicks'" political
awakening. In Alaska, otherwise bright women told me "the
boys" needed to be allowed to make campaign decisions,
even when they were wrong. While there are some darn good
reasons for women's caution in openly opposing prohibition
(see Lack of Pride below), we need articulate, courageous
women to overcome them, not excuse and perpetuate them. Otherwise,
the fight is lost.
I would be very remiss not to state here that women activists
were responsible for almost all the high points of my Alaskan
experience. Extraordinary women, including a respected scientist,
Native Alaskan artists and writers, courageous medical patients,
attorneys, legislative candidates, journalists and others
worked hard for Prop. 2, and kept me from leaving too soon.
4. Lack of Local Control; Funding.
When funding for vital media efforts, mailings, travel, and
staff is controlled by a national or other non-local organization
without local input, errors are magnified by the miles in
between. Media decisions made in New York resulted in terrible
television in Alaska -- producing ugly, incomprehensible,
and unintentionally comic ads which baffled voters. Meanwhile,
Alaskan producers who offered imaginative, high-quality video
at no cost were dismissed; they reportedly had "personality
problems." The same lack of process gave us slick, costly
mailers that said little, and rejected substantive, locally-produced
pieces countering opposition claims.
If national or other non-local organizations help fund state
legalization efforts, they must let go the purse-strings and
trust local organizers at some point. And local forces must
show that they can use funds intelligently! Such relationships
are seldom forged in the final weeks of a campaign.
In addition, ways must be found to break the pattern of a
few large contributors making decisions by virtue of the funds
they control. Money cannot be the only standard for "sitting
at the table"; it is not the only thing needed for political
5. Ethics; Manners.
The legalization movement, having no other agreed-upon goals
or values, opens itself to an "ends justifies the means"
mentality which is at least overtly unacceptable in other
political formations. Agreement on a single issue is seldom
the basis for ongoing cooperation; other common values must
emerge in principled, long-term relationships. This is tied
to the lack of funding diversity mentioned above. Too, an
ongoing lack of responsible members for non-profit boards
and other governing entities, people who've done similar tasks
in other groups or have relevant life experience, can lead
to mismanagement, misrepresentation, undemocratic structures
and decision-making, and eventually, disillusionment. In Alaska,
to mention but one very minor example of the pervasive lack
of responsibility, no review process ensured that campaign
literature carried legally required language. Even without
serious financial malfeasance (11), or sexual predation -
and it is my belief that the Prop. 2 campaign avoided those
problems, at least - there is a pervasive lack of confidence
that malfeasance could not easily occur, and suspicions are
One easy way for manipulative people to gain power in organizations
is by being rude and offensive to others. Allowing such tactics
to succeed validates an amoral stance; ignoring office bullying
proclaims that "might makes right". Potential activists
may be turned off either by the bullying, or by the cowardice
which permits it to prevail; either way, the manipulator has
a clear field.
Again, this is said with great respect for responsible, honest
activists who fill vital positions and take on necessary tasks;
but we need many more well-formed new activists, and instead
it seems that everywhere, the same people do the same things,
over and over. How do we grow our movement to be as potent
as Alaska's famous Matanuska Valley strains? Until we can
clone our best activists, another approach is needed!
6. Lack of Pride.
Because marijuana is illegal, because it is stigmatized,
because a lot of people who smoked cannabis 40 years ago gave
it up for so-called maturity and clean urine, because marijuana
prohibition can't exist without informers, because too many
good people have lost everything when they've gotten careless
or cocky or trusted the wrong person, because we don't band
together to defend every run-of-the mill pot bust, and because
secrecy is necessary to safe consumption, too many marijuana
consumers are cowed and silent. Our values, and even our symbols
- important for group identity, especially groups perceived
as minorities - have been commercialized, ridiculed, stigmatized
and marginalized, rendering many potential supporters socially
invisible. Of Prop. 2's official spokespersons, the most consistently
effective was a Republican attorney whose religious views
prohibit ingestion of any stimulants or drugs; the two who
were clearly, in the parlance, "experienced", often
seemed sheepishly embarrassed to be speaking for legalization.
Successful public advocacy of marijuana legalization requires
a strong, proud self-image in each person who stands up to
be counted, and working to move those who can't quite stand
up yet. Legalization organizations must represent all of us,
or will never represent enough of us. Acceptance of sloppy
analysis, undemocratic processes, self-aggrandizing attitudes
(12) and autocratic, back-room decisions must end. Grassroots
activists must demand and model rigorous thinking, transparent
accountability, broad inclusion in decision-making at all
levels, coalition building, and a reconnection to the "roots"
values which flow from informed use of cannabis, one of what
ayahuasca researcher Dennis McKenna calls "the great
plant teachers". Marijuana users and legalization advocates
are not space cadets, ne'er-do-wells, or irrelevant relics.
We are not couch potatoes, criminals, or victims. We are not
neglectful parents. Having the right to teach one's maturing
children about responsible, educated use of cannabis is a
rite we must claim and define! Are we capable of organizing
for success? The next two years, offering an opportunity for
effective national anti-prohibition work, may provide an answer.
Three analytical reports on Alaska's Prop. 2 - examining
what victory might have brought economically, the media climate
as it influenced and reflected the campaign, and how scientific
information may be perceived and presented in a legislative
forum - are available online. (13) I hope that they may be
useful to the activists who will end prohibition.
(1) "Legalization" here means the complete dismantling
of prohibition. Cannabis is one plant with a thousand uses,
and only one policy, legalization, can safeguard human beings'
access to its benefits.
(2) "Yes on 2!"
(3) Prop. 2 wouldn't have afforded any particular benefit
to Alaska's medical marijuana users, already protected by
(4) See http://awizardslife.com/AKMediaAnalysis.pdf.
(5) See http://awizardslife.com/88AKHouseReport%20Analysis.pdf
(6) Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Moderate Republican
(7) Alaskans for Peace.
(8) At least three employees of campaign organizations were
identified with specific political parties, as was the campaign's
legal counsel. However, none of these individuals were associated
with Prop. 2 as members of political parties, but as individuals.
Similarly, the campaign had excellent contacts among Native
American activists,who were nonetheless seriously underutilized.
Thus, no coalition politics was advanced.
(9) Stevens has since been implicated in major scandals involving
misuse of his considerable Senatorial powers, some of which
were raised in Higgens' state-stumping grassroots campaign..
(10) On my own, I approached several groups with whom I could
muster some friend-of-a-friend connection, but found such
efforts less than fruitful. Marijuana activism does not always
enjoy a good reputation among other social activists, and
coalitions are not built in six weeks.
(11) As distinct from poor decisions, lack of planning, and
some kind of weird mojo curse which dogged us mercilessly.
(12) It is annoying to see credit for a strong showing claimed
by a national organization whose participation was late and
limited; the more so when no credit is given to the local
forces who succeeded in putting Prop. 2 on the ballot, and
nearly carried it, against the prevailing wisdom -- and stated
wishes -- of the larger movement.
(13) See http://awizardslife.com/ARREconomicReport1004.pdf,
as well as the reports cited in (3) and (4) above.