Are you Satisficed? – Building a more capable reform movement.


By Jon Gettman


As the summer of 2010 draws to a close the future of marijuana law reform looks bright. It’s easy to make a list of reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for reform, and Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in California, would be at the top of the list followed closely by continuing advances in the area of increasing medical access to cannabis in many states.


But obstacles remain in the path of reform, obscured by the bright days of summer and the optimism about the future. Some argue that one of these obstacles is the failure of many marijuana users to participate in the reform process, but this claim is nonsense. Blaming people for not following is a characteristic of failed and incompetent leadership, pure and simple. Another argument, also somewhat self-serving, is that reform organizations hurt the movement by being too dependent on rich and generous donors at the expense of broader public support. This is more nonsense, usually from people who lack such financial backing and who would cash the checks from such donors in a heartbeat. Another bogus claim often heard is that too many Americans oppose marijuana reform, but this just begs the question: Why hasn’t more been done to convince them?


Let’s be clear. The more public support for reform there is the faster reform will be achieved. Reform organizations benefit from having broad financial and participatory support. People who do not favor marijuana’s legalization need to be persuaded that it is good public policy. However, these are challenges for reform leaders and organizations and not for supporters of reform. In other words, they are poor excuses for poor performance.


Most of the organizations working in support of marijuana reform do a pretty good job. They often compete for financial support, though they don’t like to acknowledge this. The competition is fierce, often acrimonious, and occasionally bitter. There are many people in this movement who believe that they deserve financial support because their cause is just. They believe that if the overall issue is making advances it means that their own work has been successful. Conversely, if things aren’t going well, or if they don’t have the financial and public support they think they deserve, it must be someone else’s fault.


And this, for many organizations, is pretty much their approach to crafting organizational strategy and evaluating organizational performance. They have some programs, they view implementing them as a positive accomplishment, and they view success in terms of the overall issue. It’s a reasonable approach, one taken by many non-profit organizations and small businesses. But there is a better way, one, for example, taught in most business schools around the country.


One of the biggest obstacles to reform is the tendency of reform groups to pursue an agenda that is a satisfactory program rather than an optimal plan for success. They are often concerned about immediate problems and short-term solutions. Non-profits are often run by small coalitions of financial supporters and key operatives. The agenda is determined by what is satisfactory to these coalition members rather than by the best way to address a problem. This is at the heart of the accusation that too many organizations rely on large contributors. It misses the mark, though, because usually the large contributor is keenly interested in an optimal plan to address an issue and is swayed by an organization’s leadership to support their particular plan to achieve it. In other words, many organizations get distracted from the social problem they are trying to address by the more immediate challenge of staying in business.


This decision-making approach is rampant in the business community, and it has a name: satisficing. The term was coined by economist Herbert Simon in 1982. In general, it means the objective is to achieve satisfactory results because this is familiar, hassle-free and secure. It’s also easier than going for the best or optimal solution because of the costs, risks, and effort required. It’s often the result of decision-making because of lack of information, limited processing ability, and time to consider all the possible alternatives.


When it comes to the marijuana’s legalization, are you satisficed? If not, the problem may be the tendency of reform groups to satisfice their decisions about programs, strategy, and evaluation.


It would help current and prospective supporters of reform groups to have access to annual reports detailing organizational budgets, programs, and activities. Some groups provide these, others do not. There are other common business practices that would make a positive contribution to advancing reform. Organizations should publish mission statements that explain their current activities and vision statements indicating what they hope to accomplish in the near future. They should declare their values and allow people to judge them on their ability to adhere to these principles. They should present clear objectives and then allow supporters to evaluate their progress or lack thereof in achieving these goals. They should reveal their strategy to the public, both for their organization and more generally for achieving the goal of legalization.


These are all standard business practices. They are crucial elements of organizational success as well as successful programs of building and maintain public and financial support. They are characteristics of successful businesses which have high standards for corporate social responsibility.


When it comes to marijuana law reform such practices would provide supporters with valuable information that will allow them to make informed judgments. There are three key factors to determining how reform is progressing. There is the overall political environment, the strategies of various advocacy groups which seek to impact public opinion, and the abilities of each of these groups to implement their strategies in a competent manner. Supporters need to evaluate each of these factors individually.


The success of failure of the reform movement depends on the ability of its advocates to build and/or manage capable organizations and implement effective strategies. These practices and these alone, should determine whether or not they deserve financial support from donors large and small.




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.