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From the Archives: The Steps to Legalization (1989)

Ed Rosenthal

NORML’s decision to launch a legalization campaign has been awaited by activists for a while. California NORML was able to establish a functioning organization many years ago. However, currently it’s in the hands of a Board of Directors who combine the worst qualities; uncreative amateurs who have only a marginal interest in the issue. Dennis Peron and Jack Herer, as well as Dr. Todd Mikuriya, are regularly barred from policy-making roles. Dale Gerringer is the president of his local but complains about their inflexibility.

Numerous pieces of retrogressive legislation were introduced to the California State Senate in March and April. A single bill would have made possessing any quantity of marijuana in any three packages that are suitable for sale a distinct criminal offense. Three joints, or three seeds in a single package. A different bill would have made it illegal to solicit the purchase of pot.

A third bill was introduced in both houses. It would have restricted diversion for growers who were caught with less than ten plants. Diversion in California is the legal process used to prosecute people who are caught with marijuana plants or possessing them. If the defendant does not commit to two-years of non-violent behavior, they are exonerated from the criminal proceedings. Eligibility is determined by the court based upon a preponderance. This law has saved California’s taxpayers millions of dollars since its enactment, and has saved thousands of Californians the heartache of judicial proceedings and their aftermath.

Dale was desperate when the Senate bills started coming up for vote. Because of his medical issues, he was unable travel to the capital. Board members qualified for legislative duty were also busy. Dale asked me what I could do.

First, I phoned the bill’s legislative analyst and talked with him for a while. (A legislative analyst describes and predicts the effects of a bill on government and society.

He wanted me to prepare a statement regarding the proposals. Also, he gave me the steps to take to register for the legislative session. I also received advice from him on procedures.

An analyst requested that I write an opinion about the effect of the measure. This was sent to him quickly. After searching my closet for a suitable suit, tie and white shirt and shoes I made the trip to Sacramento.

At 1 P.M., the bills would be brought to committee. The hallowed halls were open at 9:00 AM. I immediately began lobbying. While I didn’t get the chance to speak with any legislators personally, I was able to talk for hours with many of their staff. The ones who opposed the bill were the first I saw. They were kind, helpful, knowledgeable, and concerned about all the issues.

Next, I visited the legislative aides. They were likely to support the bills. The aides were also friendly and open to having candid discussions about the bill and marijuana in general. It was surprising to see their willingness and ability to engage in giving-and-taking conversations.

It was good practice to speak before senators during the discussions with the aides. The proponent of this bill was first to speak. Then came representatives of the police, attorney general’s office, and the CAMP people. The bill was opposed by representatives of both the ACLU and California Criminal Lawyers Association. Bob Cogan, a concerned NORML lawyer, opposed them.

They were all fatally flawed, and the speakers began to discuss them. It became clear that none of them would make it past committee. They were all withdrawn. It was the same in Assembly three weeks later.

Most of the time, the legislators I encountered were abysmally clueless about marijuana. Usually they’re led around by the state attorney general, the police, and “parent’s groups” because nobody else speaks up on the issue. Their attitudes will change once they are more educated. Their votes can be altered by concerted effort.

These past experiences convinced me that persistent lobbying at the state legislative level could quickly change marijuana laws. Prohibition was a good example. In the spring of 1932, Roosevelt was opposed to a “wet” plank because he thought it would lose him votes. After a couple of months, people’s opinions had changed. Public disillusionment was caused by the corruption and killings as well as a lack of alcohol. Roosevelt won the election not only because of his anti-Hoover Depression votes but also because Roosevelt promised to repeal the 18th Amendment. It is not too recent to recall that Reagan won in part on an anticommie plank. We now consider the Russians our greatest friends.

For years, the anti-pot group have enjoyed a field day. Their anti-pot groups have had no resistance from the government or media, and they have managed to deal with hysterics. Your help can cut down on their joyride. There are thousands of people who can talk till their throats dry.

Imagine a army of lobbyists descending first on the states and then onto the federal government. Yes, you. It is possible for anyone to do this. Just by reading Chronic NewsYou can become a citizen-lobbyist.

You must play your part in order to best approach the government. Below are some guidelines and tips for speaking with elected officials of the government and their assistants.

1) Everybody at the legislature must be dressed in business clothing. Most legislatures have business attire. This includes suits and work clothes. These people will glaze their eyes if you try to get in touch with them wearing jeans. This is likely to make a lot people turn their noses at you, but it’s important that they dress appropriately and are groomed. It’s a signal to them that you are ready to talk the same language.

However, lawmakers often have open office days at their local office. To voice your grievances, you can visit the local office. Meetings in these areas are often more informal than those held in the capital. However, going up to the capital emphasizes the “importance” of the issue.

2) Practice your arguments in advance so you can recall them and not be distracted by them while you talk with representatives.

Listen carefully to their words and don’t interrupt. Answer their questions or present your arguments once they are done.

You can depolarize the topic by discussing what you both agree on first. When I was talking to conservatives, I started the discussion by bringing up some areas on which I knew we’d see eye to eye: “There is a tremendous drug problem that is out of control”; “Cocaine, especially crack, is the most dangerous drug around to both society and the people who use it,” or “The government has limited resources, and they should be used where they will do the most good.”

5) Speak in soundbytes Legislators only have limited attention spans. They prefer to hear a short chunk of the argument instead of listening to it all.

6) Don’t make an ass out of yourself by blowing up or getting mad if things don’t go your way. The marijuana laws were not made in a day, and they won’t go away in a day. It takes a long time to fight marijuana laws.

If they’re well-intentioned, any comments you receive about your style are to be taken into consideration.

There are six major reasons why marijuana should be legalized—they are criminal, economic, sociological, constitutional, national security and health. We will detail each one in the future issues. Your experiences in fighting unjust legislations will be welcome.

Get your tie and suit ready. We’re going to the capital in September and October.

One last experience. As I was going down the hall, the Special Assistant of the Attorney General was also there. I was walking down the hall with him after he had given a talk regarding drugs. He had been talking about rehabilitating drug users and I said to him, “There is one difference between marijuana and almost any other drug, including the legal ones, alcohol and tobacco. If you ask a nicotine addict, alcoholic, junkie, crack freak, or almost any other drug user, ‘If you could wake up tomorrow unaddicted and without cravings, would you take the option?’, for the most part these people would say yes. However, if you ask a marijuana user the same question, s/he will say no thanks, because marijuana users, for the most part, do not think the substance is hurting them.”

He said, “I never thought of that, but most of my friends who smoke it do feel the same way.” A little bit of progress was made at that moment.

Chronic News MagazineSeptember 1989

You can read the entire issue by clicking here.

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