After a decade of trolling prohibitionists for a living, I’ve come to recognize some of their most common arguments. Through the clever misuse of statistics and weasel words, they’ve mastered the arts of fear, obfuscation and doubt better than a middle school Sean Spicer delivering an oral report on a book he didn’t read.
They’ve been quite successful at the propaganda game. Yes, we’ve rolled up (sorry) a few adult marijuana legalization victories over the past five years and cemented this nation’s support for medical uses of cannabis.
But they’ve managed to keep cannabis prohibited with the same ferocity as heroin, nationally and in forty[*] states, for eighty years this October. Even industrial hemp, a crop harvested by our forefathers’ enslaved African workforce centuries ago, is treated under the law like a deadly narcotic.
Marijuana reform is kind of like the Chicago Cubs. We’re pretty good these past few years, but there were a whole lot of losing seasons before that. And we go really well with a deep dish pizza.
Since Keith Stroup first formed NORML and put pressure on states to decriminalize marijuana in the wake of the Shafer Commission report’s recommendation in 1972, we could attack the prohibition of marijuana as the failed policy it so obviously is. Our opponents had nothing to attack but the uncertainty of what marijuana legalization might bring. We could fight them with arrest statistics, criminal justice costs, patients suffering and the best rock’n’roll ever recorded. All they could fight back with were imaginary scares about the gateway theory, stoned drivers, what about the children and disco fever.
Now, however, with legalization in its infancy, for the first time our prohibitionist opponents get to play some offense. They have results from state legalization programs they can attack. And with Attorney General and Slingblade Hobbit Jeff Sessions just a-hankerin’ to Make America Great Again by transporting us back to the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” 1980s, they’re going to push these critiques of legalization hard.
How we respond could shape whether legalization unfolds quickly and thoroughly across the nation in a way that benefits everyone, like smartphones, or whether it gets as full of junk, over-taxed and hyper-regulated as cable TV.
In our hectic media landscape, I counsel activists to heed a six-second soundbite rule.
If you get a chance to be interviewed on TV, the best you can hope for is them using about six seconds of whatever it is you are telling them. So, don’t belabor the point; find a way to say what you want with impact in just six seconds.
Twitter is a great resource for practicing this, because its limit of 140 characters forces you to compose your responses in those short effective bursts.
One benefit the prohibitionists get is the default frame that Drugs ‘R’ Bad, Mmmkay? So, when a statistic about marijuana goes up, they can just point at it and grunt, “After legalization, this went up, bad!”
For instance, prohibitionist group and rejected title for a sitcom about an android boy Project SAM offered a tweet today about Washington State’s poison control stats that stated, “Since WA legalized marijuana in 2012, they’ve seen a 90% uptick in pot-related calls to state poison control centers.”
To which I responded from my parody @SmartApproaches account, “Since WA legalized #marijuana, people are more honest with doctors about what made them/kids sick.”
The key to beating back any claim by prohibitionists about what marijuana legalization has done is to note how marijuana’s prohibition artificially skewed the statistics. It’s like comparing the steroid-enhanced, surgically-repaired 21st century baseball pitchers to early 20th century pitchers who only had to throw against white guys—the statistics aren’t comparable in a fair context.
So, yes, it is true there are more calls to poison control centers for marijuana ingestion since legalization, but that’s because telling the doctor your kid got into the stash or you ate too many pot cookies no longer earns you a visit from the cops and child protective services. We can never know how many cases of alleged food poisoning under prohibition were really people who’d overdosed on marijuana.
There’s a similar response when a prohibitionist notes that “the teen perception of risk from marijuana smoking has declined!” No, “the teen understanding of the truth about marijuana has increased.”
Under prohibition, the teens were fed with lies that marijuana was your brain in a frying pan making you a lazy, sterile heroin junkie with man boobs. When the teens found out that marijuana is a medicine that helps their grandma’s glaucoma, their cousin’s cancer and Michael Phelps win the most gold medals ever, they were bound to think it was less risky than McGruff the Crime Dog said it was.
Another prohibitionist favorite these days is “since legalization, the number of victims of marijuana-related fatal car crashes has increased!” The key here is attacking the thin premise of what marijuana-related means; merely the presence of THC in a victim, not whether they were impaired or even at fault in the crash.
I’ve responded with “on St. Patrick’s Day, the number of victims of green clothing-related fatal car crashes triples!” Or sometimes I’ll use “since marriage equality, the number of victims of gay marriage-related fatal car crashes has increased!”
The big talking point being pushed these days is the one about Big Marijuana. “Like Big Tobacco,” they’ll warn, “the marijuana industry is pushing addiction for profit with lies and marketing to kids.” Fighting this guilt by association attack is done by breaking the association.
“Big Tobacco had to lie and entice kids because its product is toxic and addictive,” is how I begin. “Adults won’t take up something that makes them choke, but kids trying to be popular might.” Then I can pivot to the fact that, “In the past decade, we’ve gone from 3 teen tokers for every 2 senior tokers to the same 3 teens for 6 seniors.” Then I conclude with “Legalization doesn’t boost teen use; they already had a hook up. But senior use has tripled because now they have a store.”
Activists, get your six-second soundbites ready and practice them in front of a mirror. You never know what event you may attend where suddenly there’s a reporter there asking you to comment on legalization. Trust me, our opponents are practicing every day.
[*] Wait… eight legal states, forty states with prohibition for eighty years? What happened to the other two? Well, Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states in 1937. Their prohibition of marijuana as states began in 1959 when they joined the Union.