Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.

It’s Okay to Like Pot.

Ask advocates why they want marijuana legalized and they will provide a variety of answers but rarely will they admit the obvious: they like marijuana.

It’s not that marijuana legalization advocates are ashamed of cannabis but that they’ve been trained to discuss the issue in the abstract by public interest groups who operate in constant fear of being labeled “pro-marijuana” or otherwise being tagged as promoting marijuana use instead of political reform.

Most of the public understand that many people use or have used marijuana without serious consequences for personal or public health. The public also understands that many marijuana users favor legalization because they like pot and don’t want to be arrested for it. It’s pretty obvious, and the public is skeptical of advocates who try to pretend otherwise.

When asked the question most advocates attempt to address the issue in terms of the public interest. The usual answers to the legalization question are in the 2nd person or 3rd person, as in here’s why you should want it legalized (2nd person) and here’s why society should want it legalized (3rd person). These answers, reasonable as they are, avoid the question. They are evasive, they avoid the 1st person response, as in why do I want marijuana legalized.

Here is an example of a direct, first person, answer: I want to be able to grow and use marijuana legally as an alternative to alcohol, and to do so I am willing to pay taxes, cooperate with a regulated market, support other drug control efforts, and promote socially responsible conduct.

People use marijuana for different reasons, and answers to the question will vary considerably. What’s important, though, is not so much the reason for wanting legalization but instead what one is willing to offer society in order to get it.

The legalization of marijuana will not be achieved through cleverness; it is not a matter of refining an argument or implementing a shrewd public relations campaign. Legalization is a political objective, and political objectives are accomplished through making deals, through an agreed upon exchange of actions. Deals, though, ultimately require trust ­ something marijuana users are quite familiar with. Honesty builds trust, and more honesty about marijuana use in the United States can only advance the cause of legalization.

Honesty about marijuana use reassures the public that marijuana does not have a high potential for abuse ­ indeed one of the symptoms of long-term use of a drug with a high potential for abuse is to avoid honest discussion about it. Honesty about the personal interest of advocates in legalization also builds credibility when it comes to the more important issue of socially responsible conduct. Politics is not only primarily a local phenomenon; it’s a personal one as well. This is as much a matter between ‘we the people’ as it is a matter between the people and their government. The latter struggle is often a matter of rights, but when it comes to deriving a social compact that provides the basis for a political consensus producing the legalization of marijuana it is a matter of discussing responsibilities and obligations rather than rights and entitlements.

Marijuana users are responsible individuals, and avoiding discussion of their interest in using marijuana also avoids opportunities to discuss their interest in being responsible citizens. The public is a lot more interested in responsible conduct than they are responsible use. Using drugs responsibly is a matter of self-interest far most of the public, they believe that if someone is careless enough to use drugs irresponsibly they deserve whatever trouble it causes.

Responsible conduct, though, is a different matter than responsible use. Certainly the public is interested in hearing about the impact of legalization on personal conduct involving such matters safety (driving under the influence) and restricted availability (not providing marijuana to teenagers and children). Many parents are just as concerned, though, about marijuana use in public ­ whether it is otherwise responsible use or not. The attitude of many parents can be generally summarized as “please, not in front of the kids” ­ underscoring their concern over the conduct of marijuana users over any concern for the effects on the users themselves. Most marijuana users view it as a private matter anyway, just as most marijuana users engage in responsible conduct whether they are stoned or not.

So, it’s okay to like pot, and if you want to argue in favor of marijuana’s legalization it’s okay to talk about your personal interest in this issue. Just remember there is a difference between one’s personal interest, the personal interest of others, and the overall public interest. Sounds complicated, but it’s not. It’s just a matter of offering the same respect for others that marijuana users should demand for themselves.

Arguments for legalizing marijuana should consist of two parts, why the advocate is in favor of it and why the audience should be. Advocates of marijuana legalization need to state both their personal interest in the issue and what actions they will take, personally, to address the audience’s interests. This serves the public interest because consensus is one of the results of this sort of compact-building approach.

You can’t begin work on a social compact, though, without first making it an issue for discussion. The best way to begin that process is for marijuana users to begin to address the issue in the first person, to claim a personal stake in the outcome of public debate over the marijuana laws, and to directly contradict the widespread misimpression that marijuana users are not socially responsible citizens.

Being direct about a personal interest in marijuana’s legalization, though, does not require an admission of past or present violations of the law. Note that the example above does not state “I use marijuana” or that “I have used marijuana illegally” but, rather, asserts that “I want to use marijuana legally.” Again, one has to look at it as a proposal, as a prospective deal ­ in the future I want to do this and I am willing to do this in return.

Everyone understands that many people now use marijuana illegally. That’s the point. Legalizing marijuana is not about validating that use; it’s not about saying it was okay for people to break the marijuana laws because it turns out there’s a better way to regulate it. Legalizing marijuana is simply about society adopting the better way, and what makes it a better way of regulation is the one thing that marijuana users have to offer in exchange for it ­ their cooperation in making regulation a more successful policy than the current prohibition.

The public is a lot more receptive to legalizing marijuana than ever before. It’s time for marijuana users to address the issue in the first person, it’s time for advocates of legalization to explain their personal stake in the issue, and it’s time to use honesty about marijuana use and social responsibility as a way to achieve legalization through building consensus rather than through inciting confrontation and divisiveness. It’s okay to like pot, but ultimately marijuana use is about consciousness, consciousness is about responsibility, and responsibility requires an honest compact between marijuana users and the rest of society.