We recently had the chance to chat with Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that has been at the forefront of the country's marijuana legalization and decriminalization efforts.
Here are the most important things he told us about the movement to reform the country's marijuana laws:
Marijuana legalization activists are not making the same mistakes they did in the 1970s, when they assumed victory was certain but support dropped off unexpectedly:
"Part of what’s important is to remember the lessons of the past. Marijuana is not going to legalize itself. Our opposition is not going to take its current defeats laying down [...]
People believe that a generational shift makes marijuana legalization inevitable [just like] back in the late 1970s. Notice that support dropped by the late 1980s.
It would be a mistake for the people who advocate for legalizing marijuana to be overconfident, let’s not take success for granted, let’s keep being strategic about how we proceed."
Right now ballot initiatives are the most important strategy. The first victories are always through ballot initiatives, then subsequent victories can come through legislatures:
"As with medical marijuana, the first seven states to legalize medical marijuana [...] were done through the initiative process. Then the next ten states since that time, half were more or less through the initiative process and half were through the legislative process."
California and Oregon are probably next, then start watching the polls:
"So it means California in 2016, it means Oregon probably 2016 and maybe sooner. The way to look at this is to look at two things.
First, what were the first states to legalize medical marijuana, because that will give you a good idea of what’s next with full legalization. Those are generally the western states plus Maine.
The second thing to look at is where you see majority support for legalizing marijuana. Keep in mind, you never run a ballot initiative to educate the public. You only run a ballot initiative where a majority agrees with the objective and where the legislature or the governor aren’t willing to take public opinion into public law."
The success of the movement depends on their success in keeping pot away from kids:
"We need to be attentive issue of young people using marijuana — the issue of young people waking and baking and smoking daily is something that nobody wants. I
That’s why at Drug Policy Alliance we have a major emphasis on young people, the parents, the schools and marijuana use. If you look, we put out these documents called "Safety First." We allied with the California [Parent Teacher Association] around this issue so it’s important that the advocacy for ending marijuana prohibition be combined with a responsible approach toward marijuana use and especially towards issues of irresponsible use of marijuana by young people."
If tying safety to advocacy sounds a lot like what the NRA does, that's not accidental.
"You see the alcohol industry doing the same thing. Obviously for us, our role models are the most successful advocacy organizations regardless of their issue. It may be Planned Parenthood, it may be the NRA, it may be Human Rights Watch. They all have success in influencing public opinion and legislation.
What’s important is not the politics of these organizations but their success. We're using their methodology even though we have dramatically fewer resources."
Finally, the similar trajectory between marijuana legalization and the gay marriage movement should be very encouraging for advocates of drug policy reform.
"With the marijuana reform movement, we really feel like our big brother is the gay rights movement. The issues are so similar. First of all, if you look at the public opinion polls Look at the Gallup poll on gay marriage legalization and look at the public opinion poll for marijuana legalization. They line up almost exactly between 2006 and 2011."
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