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A Guide to the Drug Legalization Movement





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Getting to Legalization from Here
A Panel Discussion at the 2000 NORML Conference.

[Editor's Note: The following excerpts are from an audio tape of a panel presentation at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) 2000 Conference. Panel members describe the two basic strategies legalization proponents have advanced: go slow and legalize drugs incrementally ("the nose-in-the-camel's-tent" approach) vs. the "all-out approach." Our thanks to the Drug Free America Foundation for transcribing the tape. Underscores indicate unclear words on the tape. The full panel discussion will be posted at a later date.]

Dick Evans. Our panel today is entitled "Getting to Legalization from Here." And, what we hope to do in the next 90 minutes is to focus as sharply as we can on our collective task, NORML's collective task, of transforming what we know as marijuana prohibition to what will be known as cannabis legalization.

We have a splendid panel to do that today, all of whom will get a proper introduction in a few minutes. But, let me just say we have Bill Zimmerman from Americans for Medical Rights; Robert Lundy from the state of Washington, who's been very involved in initiative efforts there; Nancy Lord-Johnson, who many of you know [is a] former candidate for vice-president of the United States -- a doctor, a lawyer, and I'm recently informed she is a recent .. she just passed the patent bar. So if anybody has any high tech devices you want to [talk to] her about a patent, she's available; Jack Herer, who certainly needs no introduction but who is wearing a different hat today; and, a very special visitor to us, to all of us, Jerome Thorel, a free-lance journalist. He's not a marijuana reform advocate. He's here with his objective journalist's hat remaining in place. He has come all the way from Paris, France, to be with us here today, and we welcome him.

Thus, we come to the central issue upon which this entire discussion is premised. And, that is, "What Is This Thing Called Legalization?" What is exactly this thing called legalization. . . .

I want to say one more thing and that is, there's a peculiar phenomenon that's occurred in this discussion today. If you look back at previous NORML conferences, we used to bring in state representatives and state senators and talk about introducing legislation and moving the state legislatures in the directions we think they ought to be moved. You hardly hear it. No one talks about state legislatures any more. And what we're going to be talking about today is almost exclusively initiative efforts. State legislatures appear to have made themselves irrelevant in our cause and we are going over their heads now and reaching the people very effectively. . . .

And, then we're going to talk about two sort of extreme approaches to legalization. One you might call the gradualist or incremental approach. Bill Zimmerman, the architect of reform or architect of medical marijuana reform in seven states, will be talking about the incremental, or the nose-under-the-camel ['s tent] approach which, of course, he's not part of, you understand. . . .

Bill Zimmerman is a partner in the firm of Zimmerman and Markham out of Santa Monica. He is a professional political consultant. Has been involved with more than 200 campaigns. Only a half dozen or so have been medical marijuana campaigns. But all those he has touched, he has won. He is probably the sharpest political mind I've ever met and I'm delighted he's with us today.

Bill Zimmerman. Thank you Dick. I appreciate that. I'm probably going to say some things that most of you will disagree with in the next few minutes. So, I decided to start by saying something that we can all definitely agree on. When Dick posed the dichotomy between the incremental approach, which I'm to represent here on this podium, and the all-at-once approach, he was not describing two time intervals in which we get from where we are to where we want to go. He was describing two methodologies by which we get from where we are to where we want to go. I think we would all agree that whether the method is incremental or the method is all-at-once, we want to get to where we're going as fast as possible.

So, I'm going to argue that the incremental approach is the fastest way to get to the goal that we all want to reach. Now, figuring out how you get somewhere, you first have to recognize that what we're talking about is developing a political strategy. And, an understanding of the tactics that best serve that strategy. Before we can develop such a strategy, we have to make a clear, dispassionate, unbiased assessment of where we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, what our opponents' strengths and weaknesses are, what [are] the best messages we have against them, and they have against us, the best counters to those messages on both sides, and so forth.

When we begin that assessment, I think we run into something that some of us won't like. We're fond of attacking the government in this movement for being the impediment between us and our goal. And, certainly there is no doubt that this government at all levels enforces laws in overzealous, unrealistic, and stupid ways.

But, we also, at the same time, seem to think that there is an enormous contradiction between the government and the people. And, the fact is, there isn't. The people are not out there demanding what we in this room have come together the last couple of days to demand. Quite the contrary. And, it's only if we take into consideration what the people out there want that we can develop a credible political strategy.

So, one of the ways in which we begin that process and make that assessment is through public-opinion polls. And public-opinion polling has a very bad rap in this society, you know. And it has a bad rap because we have too many political leaders, from the very top of our political structure to the very bottom, who don't make a move without consulting a poll.

And we think that that's the bankruptcy of leadership. To some extent, it is because a real leader takes a society from someplace where it isn't now, and doesn't necessarily [want] go to, and he takes us there because he understands that it's in society's interest to take it there. That kind of leadership disappears in a society in which politics is driven by polling. But the other side of that coin, and I would argue there is another side, is that politics and polling are creating a kind of democracy that we didn't have in this country before, because leaders are constrained not to do anything that people don't want them to do. Now, most of the time, looking at that issue in the abstract, we would say, "well that makes sense," you know. We all believe in democracy, and the people have the right to decide where they want to go. But, when we look at the same phenomenon as a movement that's trying to achieve something that society doesn't agree with, then we have a different attitude.

The fact is this country is, to a very limited extent, a democracy. Leaders can't go too much farther than where people want to go. When they do, things happen to them. They get impeached. They get shot. They get voted out of office next time. Their party loses control of Congress, so that whoever is in the White House becomes more or less irrelevant. So, leaders are constrained by where the people are.

We have to change where the people are in this country, because all of the political polling that we've done in my organization, that other organizations have done, that the mass media has done, all indicate that only a small minority of America wants to significantly change drug policy such that nobody would be arrested for smoking marijuana or using any of the other prohibited drugs. Maybe a third at most. Usually a third when you confine the legalization to marijuana. Twenty percent at best when you talk about legalizing all drugs. Some geographic differences: the Southeastern states are more conservative on these questions then the Western states and the so called rust-belt states. But, generally speaking, you're talking about a fifth to a third of the people who will take your position, with at least half the people adamantly opposed and the remainder undecided.

So when you're -- when you face that kind of situation, you have to say the first element of my political strategy is to educate people, is to help people understand that the position they're taking is wrong, ill-informed, misguided, whatever. Because only when you change the minds of enough of those people will leadership respond, because leadership isn't really leadership. Leadership is follower-ship when leadership is run by political polling. So, if political public opinion is the fulcrum around which policy revolves, you've got to change people's attitudes. So, that's an educational strategy.

The question then becomes how do you educate people? How do you educate them on a mass level? Because we're talking about the need to communicate significantly with a number of people that's almost unimaginable. I mean, in California, where I do a lot of elections, I get often into discussions with people about the relative importance of grass-roots versus media politics, and I'm always on the media side. And, the reason I am is that I tell them if you set up a grass-roots organization -- and I said this to the activists at the beginning of the [California Proposition] 215 campaign in January '96, you set up a grass-roots organization in California that has the capacity to speak to a thousand people every night of the week, every week of the year, how long will it take you to speak to the electorate one time? And, the answer is 33 years.

So, how can you do that? You can't. So you have to communicate with people through the media. And, when you communicate with people through the media, you don't get a chance to say very much. It sounds like they're increasingly short. Commercials are only 30 or 60 seconds long. So, you need to develop mediated messages that go out to people in understandable chunks that resonate with something that's already inside them, if you're going to move their opinion.

So in order to do that, the social engineering that Dick referred to before, begins with complex opinion polls, which test not only how people feel on issues, but which messages they're most responsive to, which arguments work differentially well against those arguments on both sides of the issue, so that you can get an understanding not only of how people think and feel about an issue, but where the leverage points are for changing their minds, for moving them a little.

So, we've done all this polling, what have we found? Very interesting. Eighty/twenty people think the drug war is a failure. Seventy/thirty they think it can never work, no matter how many resources you put -- the society puts into enforcing it.

How many are for total drug legalization in the face of this inevitable failure? Twenty percent. That's a complete flip. So, you can't work at that level. You have to go down and look at what makes up that opinion at lower levels. Well, there are a lot of positive leverage points we have. People feel very differently about [drug] dealers than they do about [drug] users. It would be much easier to pass legislation that focused on that. People feel very differently about jail and treatment for users. You get 80/20 splits on what's the most appropriate way to deal with a drug user, jail or treatment.

Asset forfeiture. People go bonkers when they find out that it exists. Everyone understands that marijuana is a soft drug in their minds, not the equivalent of heroin or cocaine. So, all these are leverage points.

But underneath all of that, why is it that if they agree with this and they think the policy is inept, why -- well they're afraid. The other side has sold them on the equation of drugs and crime or drugs and violence. And, nobody wants to shake up the status quo, take a chance on doing something different, unless they're fairly secure in knowing that that choice is going to lead to safety, and they don't feel that way about drugs. So, that's where we have to educate them. That's one of the critical things.

How do we do that? At the tactical level. Well, we all know that, whether you do press work, you do demonstrations, you do community organizing, you do research, you do scientific research, policy research, lobbying and, also, initiatives. We're going to do five initiatives beyond two on medical marijuana, and five more this year. Several on ending civil asset forfeiture and several on substituting treatment for incarceration for all drug users. Not just marijuana users.

Each one of these initiatives has been drafted by public-opinion polling and focus-group research, so that we know exactly how far people are willing to go, what arguments will work to support our position, what arguments will work to attack our position, how we can counter those in each of these five states. And, in each state a different initiative, and it was a different process, a local research process that led to it.

Now, chances are very good we're going to win all these initiatives and on top of two other medical marijuana initiatives, hopefully in November we're going to have seven victories. And, we think it's very important to project that kind of "we win every time on this issue." Because that puts increasing pressure on the Federal Government. That's what got Al Gore to talk about medical marijuana when Dick [Evans] and his friends put it to him in New Hampshire.

So, that leads me to an unpleasant conclusion. What is the impact of another kind of initiative that didn't go through this process and that is going to lose overwhelmingly in November on the same day that all these carefully crafted initiatives win? And I'm unfortunately referring to an initiative that Jack's going to talk about in a couple of minutes. It's on the ballot in Alaska. That initiative is not strategic, because that initiative can't possibly win, based on public-opinion polling that's been available there for some time.

So, what's going to happen? The government's going to say, "well, people are split on drug reform. You know they might want a few initiatives over here, but then they lost that other one up there." And, if we continue to put initiatives on the ballot that are unpopular and lose, if we continue to have demonstrations that occur in Boston Commons every year in which fifty to seventy thousand people get together and smoke dope in a public park -- and everybody else in Massachusetts who might be thinking of coming over to our side on an initiative vote that will occur six weeks after the next demonstration thinks to themselves, well this is just a bunch of junkies in the park - that's not going to help any of us get to a goal as fast as we want to get to it.

So, I'm going to take a position here and I know a lot of people will want to ask questions about this later, but the fastest way to get that we can get to where we're going is as fast as the American people are willing to go there with us. And, that if we try to get too far out ahead of people, we lose our connection to them and our relation to them and our credibility, and we make it more difficult to move them where we want to go, because that's the only way we're going to get to where we want to go. Thank you.


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