At some point in the evolution of every social movement, questions arise about the value of various forms of civil disobedience (CD) as a tool for achieving change. In the U.S. over the past thirty years, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmental movement and the AIDS movement have all made use, with varying degrees of success, of civil disobedience.

But perhaps no American movement has had as ambivalent a relationship with civil disobedience as the drug policy reform movement. This is true not because those who are involved in it doubt the effectiveness of CD as a concept, but rather it is due to the nature of the most widely employed method of those advocating drug law -- or more accurately marijuana law -- reform: the large-scale smokeout.

This week, the week of April 20th, is generally considered by marijuana activists to be the "proper" time to hold a smokeout. And so on that date, across the country, large numbers of marijuana users come together to listen to speakers rail against the status quo, to thumb their collective noses at prohibition, to protest a set of laws that are as universally ignored as they are unevenly enforced, and to celebrate communally the mellow high of their favorite intoxicant. Oh... and to listen to cool bands.

The activists who organize these events are quick to point out their value to the cause. Smokeouts tend to bring together large crowds, sometimes 50,000 people or more (depending on the bands, of course). They are a great place for organizing, collecting names and addresses, handing out literature, and providing a forum for other groups and organizations who set up tables and gain access to the (admittedly only marginally attentive) masses. Organizers of the largest smokeouts point out that by bringing that many people together, they are sending a message to politicians. Further, they argue, since these events are noteworthy for the lack of violence (due mainly to the virtual absence of alcohol) or other disturbances, they are a good way to show the public that marijuana is not the demon drug that the prohibitionists would have people believe. Finally, they say, the sheer empowerment of coming together, in public, to share some bud and proclaim their God-given right to partake in the ingestion of their favorite plant on a sunny spring day, is a boost to the morale of a population that is generally forced into the shadows, lest they be picked off by local police and become one of the statistics rattled off from the stage at next year's event.

Other drug policy reformers hold a far different opinion of smokeouts. They will tell you that while they have no problem with the argument that there is a God-given right to naturally occurring plants, or to do with those plants as the individual sees fit, that this is not an argument which is likely to sway the uninitiated. The smokeouts, they say, present the image of drug policy reform as something out of the 1960's -- a self-indulgent group of long-hairs who simply want to be left alone to get stoned without being hassled. (Not, they will reassure you, that they have anything against long-hairs.) That image, they say, devalues the message of reform, for which there is a real moral, economic and social imperative. And not only marijuana reform, but, by association, all drug policy reform issues, from methadone maintenance to needle exchange, from asset forfeiture to mandatory minimums, and from pain control to the war in Colombia.

But by far the biggest problem that the anti-smokeout reformers have with the tactics of their pro-smokeout bretheren is the reaction of the media to the events. Hold a smokeout, they say, any smokeout in any public space, and do you know what happens? Some reporter with camera crew in tow will head directly -- like a heat-seeking missile -- for the single youngest smoker in the crowd. They'll snap pictures of the grinning red-eyed kid and ask him some tough questions, like: "Do you like smoking marijuana? Do you wish it were legal?" And unless a nuclear holocaust happens to erupt on the same day (and only if it happens somewhere really important), guess what will be on the cover of the next day's papers, or, if it was a video camera, leading off the local news.

It is that image, of course, the image of the drug-taking thirteen year-old, upon which the drug war survives. Never mind that the kid with the joint in his mouth bought his weed under a prohibitionist system that makes rational age restrictions impossible. Never mind that rather than licensed vendors, marijuana, along with heroin, cocaine and LSD is available from the girl who sits next to this kid in science class. And never mind that the organizers of the protest may have done all that they could to discourage underage people from smoking at the rally. That kid, and his joint, will lead. Because the image of a pubescent doing drugs has done more for drug war budgets than the image of Joe Camel ever did for the sales of RJ Reynolds.

And don't expect the news story accompanying that image to mention that the same anti-prohibitionist views being preached from the stage have also been preached by such noted hippies as William F. Buckley, George Schultz or Milton Friedman. Nope. Here are your legalizers... and here is the product of their message. And in the eyes of reformers who argue against the use of smokeouts as mass civil disobedience, that picture is worth a thousand words.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

-- END --
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Issue #38, 4/17/98 Week Online Reprint Policy | UN Ambassador Richardson heads to Afghanistan... Narcotics Tops Agenda | "Global Days Against the Drug War" United Nations Protest Takes Shape | Press Release: Dutch Study Finds Marijuana Use Lower than Previously Thought | Commerce Department Report: Over 100 Million People Online... but most of them not on DRCNet | College Student Suspended for Two Semesters for Protesting Zero-Tolerance Policy | Special Report: Medical Marijuana in Canada, and its Potential Impact on the US | Events Coming Up | Editorial: The 20-Apr Debate
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