From the Archives: The Steps to Legalization (1989)

By Ed Rosenthal

Activists have long waited for NORML to launch a political legalization campaign. Years ago, California NORML had a functional organization. However, it is currently in the hands of a board of directors that combines the worst qualities; uncreative laypeople who are only marginally interested in the topic. Activists like Dennis Peron, Jack Herer and Dr. Todd Mikuriya are consistently excluded from any political decision-making role. Local chapter president Dale Gerringer complains about the board but for the most part appreciates its relaxed approach to administration.

Several regressive legislation were proposed to the California State Senate and Assembly in March and April. A bill would have made possession of any quantity of marijuana in three separate salable packages a separate offense. For example, three joints or three containers of seeds. Any other bill would have made it a crime to buy pot.

The third bill, which had versions in both legislative houses, would limit the diversion to growers caught with ten plants or fewer. In California, diversion is a lawsuit for people caught possessing or growing marijuana for personal use. Instead of going through the court process, the charges are dropped as long as the person is out of trouble for two years. The court decides on the suitability on the basis of an assessment of the evidence. This law has saved California taxpayers millions of dollars since its passage and saved thousands of Californians the heartache of lawsuits and their consequences.

When the Senate bills came to a vote, Dale despaired. He was unable to come to the capital for medical reasons, and the board members eligible for legislation were either busy or disinterested. Dale then asked me to see what I could do.

First, I called the legislative analyst on the bill and spoke with him at length. (A legal expert describes a bill and estimates its impact on government and society.)

He asked me to write a statement on the proposals and let me know how to register to speak before the legislature. He also advised me on how to proceed.

The analyst asked me to write a statement about the measure and my opinion on its impact. I sent it to him immediately. Then I rummaged in the back of my closet for a usable suit, tie, white shirt, and shoes, and headed to Sacramento.

The bills were due to be presented to the committee at 1 p.m. I arrived at the hallowed halls at 9am and immediately began lobbying. I’ve never seen a legislature, but have spoken at length with a number of their associates. The first ones I went to were those I thought would oppose the bills. They were polite, concerned about the issues and very helpful in their comments.

Next I went to the Legislative Aides, who were probably pro-bills. They, too, were polite and engaged in open discussions about the bills and the marijuana issue in general. I was surprised by their willingness to engage in give and take conversations.

The discussions with the aides were good practice for addressing the senators. The proponents of the bill spoke first. Then came representatives of the police, the public prosecutor’s office and the CAMP people. Representatives from the California Criminal Lawyers Association and the ACLU opposed the bill. A concerned NORML attorney, Bob Cogan, also disagreed.

The bills were fatally flawed, and as speakers debated them, it became clear that they would not make it out of committee. All have been withdrawn. Three weeks later the same thing happened in the congregation.

For the most part, I found lawmakers abysmal ignorant of the marijuana issue. They are usually shown around by the Attorney General’s office, the police and “parent groups” because no one else speaks up on the issue. Once lawmakers are more informed, their stance will soften a bit. Through concerted work, their voices can be changed.

These experiences convinced me that continued lobbying in state legislatures could change marijuana laws very quickly. The ban is a model. In the spring of 1932, Roosevelt was against a “wet” plank because he thought it would cost him votes. Within a few months, public opinion had turned. The corruption, murders and lack of alcohol left the public disgusted. Roosevelt won not only because of the vote against the Hoover Depression, but also because of the promise to repeal the 18th Amendment. If this story is too old, remember that Reagan won partially on an anti-communism board in 1980. Now the Russians are our best friends.

The anti-pot groups have had a field day for years. They have faced no opposition from the government or the media and have been able to deal with hysteria. Now you can help shorten their non-joyrides. We need thousands of people talking until their throats go dry.

I envision an army of lobbyists falling first on the state governments and then on the federal government. And I mean YOU. Anyone can do it. Just by reading High Times, you can be an effective citizen lobbyist.

The most effective way to approach government is to somehow play along with their game. Here are some rules and guidelines for interviewing elected government officials and their supporters.

1) Everyone in the legislature wears business attire. In most legislatures, this means suits or work clothes. Attempting to approach these people in jeans glazes their eyes. I know this will put a lot of people off, but clothing and grooming are important. It’s a signal to them that you’re ready to speak the same language.

On the other hand, lawmakers usually have office days in their local offices. You can visit them there to voice your concerns. These meetings tend to be more informal than those in the capital. The walk to the capital, however, underlines the “importance” of the topic.

2) Practice your arguments so that you know them by heart and don’t have to think about them when you talk to the representatives.

3) Listen to what they have to say and don’t interrupt. Once they have made their argument or asked their question, answer or refute it.

4) Try to depolarize the issue by first talking about what you agree on. When speaking to conservatives, I started the discussion by raising some areas on which I knew we would agree: “There is an enormous drug problem that is out of control”; “Cocaine, especially crack, is the most dangerous drug for both society and the people who use it,” or “Government has limited resources and they should be used where they make the greatest difference.”

5) Speak in Tonbytes. Lawmakers have limited attention spans. Rather than hearing the whole build up of an argument, they’d rather hear a snippet, preferably no longer than 18 seconds.

6) Don’t make a fool of yourself by blowing up or getting angry when things don’t go your way. Marijuana laws weren’t made in a day, and they won’t go away in a day. Fighting marijuana laws is a long-term effort.

7) All comments about your style should be taken to heart if they are well-intentioned.

There are six main reasons why marijuana should be legalized – they are criminal, economic, sociological, constitutional, national security and health. We will cover them in detail in future issues of the magazine. We will also provide space for comments on your experiences fighting these unjust laws in the legislature.

So get ready and iron your suit and tie. We are going to the capital in September and October.

One Last Experience. I walked down the hall with the special assistant to the attorney general. He had just given a lecture on drugs. He had spoken about drug user rehabilitation and I said to him, “There is a difference between marijuana and almost every other drug, including the legal ones, alcohol and tobacco. If you asked a nicotine addict, alcoholic, junkie, crack freak, or just about any other drug user, “If you could wake up tomorrow with no addiction and no cravings, would you take that option?”, for the most part, those people would say yes. However, if you ask a marijuana user the same question, he/she will say no thanks because, for the most part, marijuana users do not believe the substance is harmful to them.”

He said, “I never thought of that, but most of my friends who smoke it think the same way.” At that moment, a little progress was made.

High Times Magazine, September 1989

Read the whole issue here.

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