America is one of the greatest democracies on Earth. Without a doubt, and despite any single federal administration’s efforts, we, the people, run this joint.
The legalization of cannabis in different states would never have been possible without people making their opinions heard. Yet even now, despite the latest Gallup Poll showing that two out of three Americans support legalization, no congress has implemented any lasting changes to federal cannabis laws. Reform advocates learned long ago that succeeding meant bypassing wishy-washy lawmakers, who were more worried about looking soft on drugs than on righting obvious wrongs, like mass incarceration and the stalemate on medical marijuana research.
That might be (finally) changing. The power of the people ended cannabis prohibition (for medical purposes, at least) in 33 states, and, as a result, lawmakers are finally catching up with the general population. It’s certainly a big topic of conversation among the presidential candidates, who, one-by-one, start to court our votes with statements about record expungement, equity and proposed changes to federal law. It’s not hard to imagine President Donald Trump speaking up for federal legalization at some point, if only to retain the significant voting power of cannabis advocates among his base of supporters.
Everything you learned in high school civics class is true: Voters, in many places, can write and pass their own laws using the initiative process.
I joined the effort to end cannabis prohibition in 1986 and have been a grateful participant in this historic effort for 33 years. I feel born to this kind of civic involvement; one of my earliest memories is joining hundreds of protesters at my grade school in 1972, supporting students at a local high school after they rioted in response to administration and police attacks on black students. I watched my mom force our middle school to add a girls’ sports program to their boys-only slate; I supported her as she fought and won a state case for equal pay, and helped her campaign for an officer position in the state nurse’s union. I learned to lobby early on, and was knocking on Capitol Hill doors as a teenager.
It’s been thrilling to apply longstanding principles of democracy to the cannabis reform issue, starting with the fact that “Reefer Madness” has always violated the law. Our government is expected to make laws based on the truth, and it is easily proven that cannabis has more than 2,800 years of documented human use as a food, fiber and medicine. (A recent study shows cannabis evolved 28 million years ago; it’s even been found in the Denisovan Cave in Siberia.) Cannabis advocates have always been on the path to victory.
How can we get engaged?
Everything you learned in high school civics class is true: Voters, in many places, can write and pass their own laws using the initiative process. This is how many modern cannabis laws were created, at both state and local levels. State legislatures only recently started passing their own reform laws, often to avoid the enormous cost of placing initiatives on the ballot.
We can support pro-marijuana candidates, or run for office ourselves, especially in places where the voices of reform are not being heard by those currently in power. Citizens can demand a recount if the vote count is close or if something about it seems wrong. If people think the government made a bad law, it can be repealed using the referendum process. Dispensary owners in San Jose petitioned for a referendum in 2011 and quashed a law that would have closed all dispensary businesses.
Advocates can work directly with regulators and elected officials to help craft state and local laws and regulations. We can join the regulatory boards responsible for creating industry rules, or attend meetings, testify and write in comments about proposed regulations. We are the experts, after all, and regulators generally do listen, want to know more, and welcome help creating workable rules. In fact, longtime cannabis reform advocate Ean Seeb became Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ special adviser on cannabis on May 17, proving that any of us could hold a similar position in the future.
Advocates can work directly with regulators and elected officials to help craft state and local laws and regulations.
Citizens and advocacy groups can help create police training curriculum, and then provide the essential community oversight to make sure it gets implemented; people can sue police departments and individual officers for refusing to follow legalization laws. That’s what finally forced the California Highway Patrol to follow medical marijuana laws; they could not afford to keep violating patient’s rights to medical marijuana. We can learn to talk to law enforcement in ways that matter, showing we are respectful and know our rights, and we can operate in protective and responsible ways that shield us from enforcement problems.
Citizens can be heard in courtrooms, where judges, prosecutors and juries listen and make key decisions based on what you say. We can appeal cases all the way to the Supreme Court, as did medical marijuana patient Angel Galvan-Raich and dispensary operator Jeff Jones in two separate cases. We can use our voices as jurors, making sure people are not unjustly jailed for marijuana. Jury nullification helped get cannabis author Ed Rosenthal’s cannabis-related federal felony conviction overturned on appeal.
And, we can educate others by spreading the word about how we’re ending cannabis prohibition through employing the basic tools of democracy to change laws and create regulations. During these past 30 years, it’s been an honor to use all of these tools, some more than once, and to see them work, sometimes in the face of the roughest opposition. People ultimately do control this democracy, and our power goes far beyond just the right to vote. It’s important that we exercise those rights as dispensary owners. By doing so, we can control our own futures, making sure that laws and regulations are fact-based and reasonable, and that their implementation is fair, all because our voices were heard.