“I always stick to talking about ‘green plants,’” the man in cowboy hat said, as he hustled through the Rayburn House Office Building. “I don’t go to that ‘marijuana is safer than alcohol’ because then you’re just talking about alcohol minus one.”
The man was Howard Wooldridge, and he was one of the co-founders of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He’s now head of COP—Citizens Opposing Prohibition—and he was explaining how to deliver a short, punchy statement to a legislative assistant or a member of Congress.
“They’ll really only remember one or two things, if you’re lucky,” he stated. “So I always stick to Tenth Amendment and green plants.”
I’ve been studying framing ever since I began fighting for re-legalization of cannabis, framing in the concepts and contexts around the ideas we discuss. It’s more than “the idea”; it is all that “the idea” conjures.
For instance, factually speaking, Barack Obama is the president of the United States. But depending on your political frames, he may either be a champion of or a destroyer of American values.
It’s not just politics, though; it is how our brains are configured to see the world.
An elephant is objectively the largest animal on land. But when I say “elephant” to an American, she may conjure “memory,” “circus” and “Republicans” in her imagination—things her experience associates with “elephant.” But if I said “elephant” to an African, he may conjure “strength,” “stampede” and “nuisance.”
In our world, “marijuana” has a frame—“medicine,” “enjoyment” and “prohibition.” But to the mainstream, the frames are “drug,” “hippies” and “illegal.” This leads some to prefer using the term “cannabis,” which in America is almost a blank slate.
The problem is that without knowing what “cannabis” is, we have to explain it to the audience.
For a minute, I’d like you to not think of a clown. What just happened? Did your mind just conjure a clown and perhaps some frames for “clown”—“circus,” “creepy” or “McDonald’s”?
The point is that you cannot negate a frame without activating a frame. The classic example was Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” What did most Americans end up thinking Nixon was? As soon as we say “cannabis is the scientific word for ‘marijuana’” or “’marijuana’ was a racist slang term; it’s properly called cannabis,” we’ve activated the “marijuana” frames we were aiming to avoid.
Worse, we’ve added what I call “fig-leafing” to the frame.
That’s when your audience detects that you’re hiding something you’re ashamed to defend. Like when your local janitor calls himself a “custodial engineer.” On top of it, we’ve subtly insulted the audience by insinuating they’re either dumb for not knowing a proper scientific term or they’re racist for using Mexican slang.
In our history, we’ve tried to re-frame marijuana with some helpful analogies. Our first big success was “medical marijuana.” We got people to think of marijuana as a medicine and for sick and disabled people, at least, marijuana use became acceptable.
The problem, though, is that “medicine” brings with it certain frames.
“Medicine” requires doctors and prescriptions. Medicine is tightly controlled and inventoried in pharmacies. Medicine is used to alleviate a temporary condition and then no longer used. People who use medicine for the rest of their lives suffer from terrible permanent afflictions. People who use medicine without the proper controls are addicts in search of a high. Medicine is something made in factories, not back yards and closets. As medical marijuana in the Pacific Northwest becomes more restrictive and the latest medical marijuana states allow no home grow and only non-smokable forms of cannabinoids, I sometimes wonder, “What did we expect? We asked society to treat marijuana like medicine, didn’t we?”
Our latest success with framing has been “marijuana is safer than alcohol.” This re-framing began as polls in the 2000’s showed that knowing marijuana is a safer substance was the greatest predictor of someone’s support for marijuana legalization. But the problem is that we bring all the alcohol frames into the mix—“out of control,” “drunk driving” and “party,” among others—and now the public wants to know where the marijuana breathalyzer is to stop all the out-of-control stoned drivers leaving the party.
“Treat it like tomatoes” is another attempt at re-framing marijuana. The idea to return marijuana to its status as a plant is noble, but the framing is awful. “Tomatoes” are a ubiquitous fruit found as an ingredient or garnish in many foods, and anyone who’s planted them in a backyard garden knows you quickly have far more than you could possibly eat.
What tomatoes don’t do is get you high. You use “treat marijuana like tomatoes” in the mainstream, and they envision a world so overrun with marijuana that it’s found in every grocery store and farmer’s market and their kids can hop any neighbor’s backyard fence, pluck some buds and get high at school.
Maybe it is time we start asking people to treat marijuana like marijuana. It’s not medicine; it’s not so potentially harmful to the consumer that it needs such strict controls. It’s not alcohol; it’s not so dangerous to society that it needs vigilant policing. It’s not tomatoes; it’s not so innocuous to consumers and society that it requires no controls and no policing.