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Out of the Closet: A New Tool for the Cannabis Activist

A black and white image of protestors using a tried and true was of protesting, holding signs demanding legalization and making sure people obey state laws.

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Out of the Closet: A New Tool for the Cannabis Activist

Out of the Closet: A New Tool for the Cannabis Activist

Suppose you really want to legalize marijuana. What do you do?

You’ve tried all the usual tactics. You called your representatives and urged them to support reform. Perhaps you voted for a ballot measure in your state. You’ve probably talked to your friends and family, in an effort to convince them that most of what they heard about marijuana in their childhood has been proven false, time and time again. But it doesn’t seem to be working.

If you live in the United States, odds are very poor that your representatives in Congress support legalization. After all, they’re beholden to their coalitions and special interests; they won’t go out on a limb without a lot of pressure. If you live in California, you know the sting of defeat at the ballot box; Prop. 19 failed by 4 points. Convinced that you need to change people’s minds, you present all sorts of rational arguments to prove the intransigent wrong; but have you noticed how opponents to marijuana reform seldom listen to reason, or statistics, or study results?

It’s time to try a new approach. Fortunately, recent history has provided us with inspiring examples of unfair institutions being overturned with dizzying speed, and with lessons about what tactics actually did the most good in effecting the change. Surprisingly, the most effective tools in the activist’s toolbox have not been appeals to better judgment, but appeals to the human heart.

The Power of Fear

I don’t need to tell you how paralyzing fear can be. One of its most insidious forms is the creeping fear, the existential threat to a cherished way of life, of beloved institutions fading away never to return. This fear has been manipulated to great effect by a great many concerns with an interest in resisting change.

Consider our country’s historic and ongoing struggle for equal rights. The cannabis community is only one example of unjust persecution in the U.S.; institutional racism still exists, youths still face hazing and violence for their sexual identities, women as a group still do not receive pay equal to their male counterparts’. But while the list of inequalities is long, the success stories have been inspiring.

Take, for just one example, the campaigns of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. What made them so successful? I can tell you most assuredly it’s not because he published pamphlets full of facts and figures explaining why the nation’s economy would be improved if segregation ended. While he was certainly intelligent enough to make convincing logical arguments, he was also wise enough to understand that the greatest hindrance to equal rights was not a lack of thoughtful discourse, but a heavy prevalence of fear.

You’ve all heard the ugly stereotypes. (If you haven’t, God bless you and stop reading immediately!) In the 1960s, there were millions of white Americans who had been raised to believe that African Americans, especially men, were predisposed to violence, especially against women. This image had been reinforced through movies, cartoons, and novels. As a white man, I can only imagine how such ideas and images hurt Dr. King. But rather than reacting in anger, he realized that such beliefs were the products of fear, and that the source of that fear was the unknown.

So he brought the African American community out in the open, to show America what it was afraid of. Contrary to white fears, King’s marches on Montgomery and Washington were peaceful affairs, emphasizing non-violence and understanding. Knowing that many of his opponents were Christian, the Reverend made appeals based on Biblical principles of love and acceptance. In short, many fearful Americans came face to face with their neighbors and fellow citizens and, seeing that their fears had not come to pass, could finally begin to see other human beings instead of a threat. Emotional intervention worked where rational discourse had failed.

Another example is even more salient: the gay rights movement, which really began to take off in the United States after New York City’s famous Stonewall riots in 1969. For decades, the American queer community had been targeted by law enforcement, criminalized, and imprisoned. They, too, were the subject of vicious stereotypes: as most Americans came to believe that homosexuals were degenerates wholly incapable of controlling their perverse urges, they began to fear for their children and the “American way of life.” Yet, in the past three decades, the percentage of Americans who consider homosexuality to be deviant and wrong has steadily declined, and over 76% of gay men and lesbians report feeling safer and less threatened than in the past. Now, over half of all Americans support federal recognition of same-sex marriages, a figure which seemed unthinkable even ten years ago.

What made the difference? I don’t believe it was the results of studies which showed economic benefits to states legalizing gay marriage. The difference was made primarily because millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Americans took the courageous step of living openly; because they were not afraid to tell their families, friends, and co-workers; because they took the risk of opening up to others who already knew them and explained, “I’m still me, I’m just like you, I don’t have to constantly fight any urges to promiscuity;” because they let their fellow Americans know that there was nothing to fear. Because they came out of the closet.

Out of the Grow Closet

This is the greatest lesson the cannabis community can take away from the civil rights era, because just like gays and lesbians, we who use cannabis have the ability to hide who we are and what we do. To further that end, we have taken our plants out of the sun and moved them, literally, to the closet. And that reaction is entirely understandable: in the wake of the federal-state partnership known as the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (“CAMP”) and similar programs, indoor grow operations are, for many in the community, the only way to produce our beloved buds without attracting arrest and prosecution (if only it were that easy!). Yet, as amazing as lighting and hydroponic technologies have become, they are far from foolproof, and some indoor operations are destructive to the environment and downright dangerous to the surrounding communities.

But as damaging as it may be when a member of the community burns down his block with a DIY grow, the worst consequence of the cannabis movement remaining hidden is the space it allows for the worst of people’s fears to thrive. When our neighbors and friends don’t know that it is we who are the face of the movement, they are more likely to believe that everyone who enjoys cannabis is a “gangster” or a “thug” (is this the reason why racial minorities are many times more likely to be imprisoned for cannabis possession than whites?). When our coworkers and supervisors remain unaware that we, too, use cannabis in between productive shifts, it is easier for them to believe that everyone who uses pot is a lazy, unmotivated “stoner”. If no one knows that we have used marijuana to help spur our creativity, to find new solutions, to engage thoughts we would never have had otherwise, everyone might be forgiven for thinking weed makes you stupid.

So then we, the cannabis community, are faced with a choice. Do we continue to allow such lies, perpetuated by fear, to thrive? Or do we have the courage to step up, as demonstrative counterexamples to such ugly beliefs? It’s high time we, as a movement, came out of the closet. Here’s how to do it:

1. Empathize

First, remember that most people who are opposed to marijuana are opposed to it because they are afraid of it. Before you say anything else, acknowledge their fears, and validate them. Tell them that you understand that their opposition probably comes from a place of valid concern, such as wanting to make sure that minor children don’t fall prey to unscrupulous drug dealers.

2. Contradict Their Fears

After validating their concerns, it will be helpful for you to let the other person know that you probably share some concerns in common. For example, you don’t want children falling prey to predatory dealers either, right? That kind of stuff really gives the movement a bad name. Assure them that, at least on some of the issues, the two of you are actually on the same side. This will help to assuage their first and foremost fear, that you’re here just to argue with them.

3. Get Them On Your Side

After establishing that you and the opposition share some goals in common, ask them to brainstorm with you about possible ways to accomplish those goals. For example, ask them: what are the most effective ways to protect those children from those unscrupulous dealers? If they respond that they favor stiffer penalties and more raids, that may be a good opportunity to point out that since the Drug War began, marijuana use among youth has actually gone up. Encourage them to explore alternatives, but don’t try to insert your own opinion unless they ask you to.

4. Review Their Concerns

It never fails to amaze me how powerful this next technique is. Most people, I think, have been hard-wired to expect argumentation, and go immediately on the defensive any time they discuss a matter with someone who disagrees. In this context, the last thing they ever expect is to hear the “opposition” take the time to make sure s/he has fully heard and understood their concerns. When you hold off on responding, but instead say, “Let me make sure I heard and understood your concerns correctly,” their defenses will instantly come down. Repeat what you heard back to them, then ask, “did I get that right?” If they respond with clarifications or new ideas, take the time to review them, too. This will get them primed to empathize with you and your concerns, every time.

5. Come Out

Now that you have disarmed their defenses and shown them empathy, it’s time for them to return the favor: ask them to empathize with you. Remind them that the two of you share important concerns in common. Then proudly tell them who you are: “You may not know, but I use marijuana on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to manage my pain/help my anxiety/increase creativity/deepen my spiritual practice/etc. I agree that your concerns are important, but as a marijuana user, I am greatly concerned that criminalization will ruin my life. Am I the kind of person who belongs in prison?” It is much more difficult for a person to answer “yes” to another human being who has shown empathy and sensitivity than to demand that politicians get “tough on crime” for abstract reasons. In this context, you just might see people’s prejudices begin to disappear, and their mind begin to open.

Not Without Cost

I won’t lie to you: coming out of the closet can blow up in your face. I have queer friends who had a wonderfully supportive experience of it, who were astonished at how well their families received them, who felt silly that they waited so long. I have other queer friends who have been ostracized for life, who can never again speak to their parents because their parents treat them as if they were dead. Coming out as a cannabis user can get you fired from your job; it can cause you to lose friends; those who formerly respected you may not respect you anymore.

The only thing I can say in response is this: we are a movement, and every movement has its martyrs – including Martin Luther King, lest we forget. That fact does not mean that the fight isn’t worth fighting. While far too many activists have taken more than their fair share of personal cost because of their political actions, it is through the humanizing face of a movement that a movement moves most forward.
Before I conclude, there is one thing you should definitely NOT do, and that is to get yourself arrested. That, I assure you, will not help the cause. If you have it in your mind to start growing your plants on your front lawn, or lighting up in front of the police station, or any other politically-minded action in direct contravention of your local laws, please don’t. If we’re to free our brothers and sisters inside prison walls, we need all the help we can get on the outside, and exfelons can’t vote. Besides, if you get yourself arrested, that only reinforces the idea that cannabis users are criminals. So be smart. Change minds with your words; be a living anti-stereotype. This, more than anything, will change minds.

Written by Patrick Baker for Issue 3 of Cannabis Now Magazine.

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