by Aaron Neumann
Recently (see Pulse 11/26/03), I reported on an effort by a
group called COHR— Citizens Organized for Harm Reduction (primarily students
at the University of Minnesota Law School) —that has started gathering
signatures to put a medical marijuana amendment to Minneapolis voters in the
November 2004 election.
If passed, the amendment will not immediately start a medical
marijuana program in the city. Instead, it would set up a framework for a medical
marijuana system in Minneapolis where private distributors would be licensed
and monitored by the city to distribute marijuana to certified patients. The
system would only take effect upon passage of a state law permitting medical
marijuana. This means medical marijuana legislation would have to pass the Republican-controlled
legislature and signed into law by Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty. As reported,
this is self-described as a “statement of positive change.” Yet
once again, the drug law reform movement must wait for the action of others
for real positive change.
The Anti-Drug War movement
suffers, and suffers badly, from a blanket of opposition. For more than 30 years
there have been efforts to reform drug laws, but they have actually gotten worse,
and more people are arrested and incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than
ever before. In fact, according to a 1999 report by the Justice Policy Institute,
there are almost as many inmates imprisoned for drug offenses today (458,131)
as the entire US prisoner population of 1980 (474,368). According to Federal
Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report of 2001, 723,627
persons were arrested for marijuana violations in 2001.
So the movement is desperate for “wins,” and understandably
so. The majority of positive reform on this issue has come from the eight states
that have passed medical marijuana ballot initiatives. So why not work for one
here in Minneapolis, too? It’s sure to be an easy “win.”
However, this begs the question: Who wins, and what do they
(we) win? When (if) the Minneapolis initiative passes, what immediate, concrete
improvements in people’s lives will this facilitate? Sadly, the answer
This strategy also feeds into the opposition’s argument
that medical marijuana is just a “smoke screen” (excuse the pun)
to legalize marijuana for recreational use. And they’re right. Who primarily
advocated for the women’s suffrage movement in the ‘20s and ‘30s?
Women. Who primarily advocated for the civil rights movement in the ‘50s
and ‘60s? Black people. Who primarily advocated for the equal rights of
GLBT people in the ‘80s, ‘90s and today? GLBT people. Who primarily
advocates for medical marijuana in Mpls/Minnesota? Law students, “legalizers”
and intellectual elitists (the “respectables”) that exclusively
lobby for this issue at the Legislature and advocate for even less change (i.e.
lobbying for funding for more research studies).
There is good news nationally of real reform for those who
get arrested. Oakland voters will be asked to tax and regulate marijuana this
November thanks to the Oakland Civil Rights Alliance (OCLA). Frustrated at failed
state and federal laws, the local coalition filed a proposed local ballot
measure on February 19 to take cannabis off the streets by putting it into a
controlled environment. Should Oakland voters pass the measure, the City would
tax and regulate sales of cannabis to adults as soon as possible under state
law, in order to keep it off the streets, away from children and to fund vital
city services Until that time, the initiative would make private adult cannabis
offenses the city’s lowest law enforcement priority, so as to focus on
Although the measure is somewhat dependent on a California
state law, it will have an immediate impact on the number of marijuana arrests
in Oakland when passed. Granted, California has led the way in medical marijuana
reform as far back as the mid-90s, when the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (aka
Prop 215) was the first statewide medical marijuana voter initiative adopted
in the United States, organized by medical marijuana advocates (patients). Some
may say it might have paved the way for wider acceptance of marijuana reform
for non-patients/personal use in the state, but the reality is the state of
California has stymied numerous non-medical marijuana reforms (hence the current
municipal initiative). Those actually paving the way for the majority of people
who enjoy marijuana responsibly are those whose civil liberties have been eroded
by our nation’s and state’s draconian drug laws, and they’re
doing something substan tive about today.
Additionally, Americans support decriminalization and reprioritization
efforts and reject the notion that recreational users of the drug should face
arrest or criminal prosecution, according to a national poll of 1,024 likely
voters by Zogby International and commissioned by the NORML Foundation. Sixty-one
percent of respondents said that in light of the increased attention to the
threat of terrorism since September 11, they oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent
marijuana smokers. Of those, 39 percent “strongly oppose” arresting
smokers, 22 percent “somewhat oppose” and 6 percent are undecided.
Only 33 percent of those polled say they support arresting and jailing marijuana
offenders, and fewer than one in five (18 percent) voiced strong support.
Incrementalism can be a good tactic, but is a bad strategy.
Safe access to medicinal marijuana must be one tactic of many (and one initiated
by those who utilize marijuana as medicine) to get to the larger goal—ending
marijuana prohibition and developing a legal market for marijuana. Only when
we build a broad-based support among those who use marijuana responsibly (recreationally
and medicinally), will we effect change. Thousands of Minnesotans, and millions
of Americans, enjoy marijuana responsibly; few abuse it. We are not a part of
the crime problem. Yet, in the eyes of our own government, we’re viewed
as a threat to society and treated like criminals. Marijuana-policy reform can
and should be a powerful populist movement. When will those who put in precious
time, energy and money for mere “statements of positive change”
take heed to Margaret Mead’s timeless and rightful statement “Never
doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed
it is the only thing that ever has.”?
Aaron Neumann is the Co-Founder and former Chair of NORML
MN (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, Minnesota) (1999-2002)
and a freelance writer for Pulse. For comments, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Citizens Organized for Harm
Reduction (COHR), visit www.cohr.org.