Advocates and supporters of marijuana’s legalization are feeling pretty confident these days. Marijuana has been legalized in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. Several states are voting on legalization in the fall. The prospects for continued reform at the state and local level look strong. It seems as if momentum is working against those who support prohibition.
What could possibly stop marijuana’s ongoing legalization in the United States?
Here is what could end the legalization boom—the same things that have supported prohibition for almost the last 100 years—persistence, money and hysteria.
Supporters of prohibition got over-confident and were unprepared to respond to the initiatives of drug policy reformers over the last 20 years. The prohibitionist movement was old, poorly organized and unprepared to keep up with changes in American society. More importantly, they could not match the onslaught of capital poured into the reform movement by a small group of wealthy supporters of marijuana legalization.
So, the prohibition movement has had to play catch-up for the last 20 years. They have a new squad of younger, more sophisticated leaders. They are beginning to ramp up their fundraising efforts. And they have a new program of carefully designed excuses to mobilize their natural constituency of cops, profiteers and concerned parents to reestablish the old barriers that have propped up prohibition since the early 20th century.
Prohibitionists would call their program a set of arguments.
Opponents would be less charitable and characterize these propositions as lies, especially given the body of research contradicting each one of them.
But strategically, supporters of legalization should realize that the purpose of anti-legalization arguments is to provide undecided voters (and it is all about voters) an excuse to be cautious, suspicious or otherwise reluctant to move ahead with marijuana’s legalization. It’s not a matter of whether or not such claims are supported by research. What matters is that such claims seem plausible enough to the undecided voter, plausible enough to win the battle over how the marijuana issue is framed in social mind of the nation.
This issue here is not science. It’s something else, something sociologists call social interaction theory—how the public creates widespread understanding, beliefs or context that establishes what is also known as conventional wisdom. In other words, it’s a battle of narratives, or, simple put, spin.
What is the new program being advanced by the anti-legalization movement?
Here are the 10 excuses advanced by its supporters, the modern intellectual foundation of the marijuana prohibition movement.
1. Marijuana legalization will result in massive increases in marijuana use, especially among teenagers.
2. Legalizing marijuana will reduce the perception that it is a dangerous drug, contributing to increases in use—even in areas where it remains illegal.
3. Marijuana use will remain lower if the drug is simply decriminalized, and criminal law is used to provide mandatory drug treatment for marijuana users instead of incarceration.
4. Marijuana legalization will result in an evil, manipulative and predatory commercial industry that will prosper by marketing its products to teenagers. In other words, Big Marijuana will be just like Big Tobacco.
5. The social costs of increased marijuana use will be greater than the fiscal benefits produced by taxing marijuana.
6. Legalized marijuana will increase traffic accidents and fatalities as more and more people use the drug and drive under the influence.
7. Legalized marijuana will threaten public safety through increases in on-the-job accidents, negligence and absenteeism.
8. The marijuana market, both legal and illegal, contributes to crime and increases in homicides as drug dealers fight over market share and profits.
9. While it’s true that marijuana may not have been as dangerous as claimed in the 1960s and 1970s, tremendous increases in marijuana potency in the last few decades have made it a much more dangerous drug.
10. Research is finally proving that marijuana use is dangerous, particularly with respect to inhibiting brain growth in teenagers, contributing to psychosis in long-term users and association with social accomplishment deficits.
It bears repeating: All of these anti-legalization arguments are contradicted by scientific research, and in many cases, common sense.
Certainly familiarity with such research and basic elements of critical thinking remain the best tools with which to respond to and counter these excuses. But that’s something relevant to debate.
There’s a bigger concern here, a strategic concern, that the legalization movement needs to understand. It’s not about persistence—reformers will win this battle in any time frame. It’s not really about the money, not because funding for reform is solid but because it is merely problematic (the emerging marijuana industry, as well as marijuana users, must realize they have a responsibility to increase their financial support for legalization).
No, it’s not about persistence or money, it’s about hysteria. It’s about the narrative, the social context, the spin used by both sides to shape public opinion.
The argument over legalization is mostly about the marijuana user and the future of the marijuana market. There is little attention paid to the current marijuana market. Yes, a critique of the current market is a staple in pro-legalization arguments, in terms of drug dealers selling to minors and not paying taxes. But notice how any reference to the current market is missing from the anti-legalization argument. This is their biggest weakness, indeed their entire argument is based on an assumption that the current market it better, and more desirable, than a regulated legalized market.
This weakness in the argument of prohibitionists must be exploited, aggressively, and much more thoroughly, in order to protect the gains of legalization and spread its benefits throughout the rest of the country.