Editorial: What People Are Thinking 7/12/02

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 7/12/02

My job running a nonprofit advocacy group falls into the category often referred to by Human Resources types as "sedentary." I spend most of the time sitting down. I send e-mail, I write articles and grant proposals, I talk to people on the phone, I hold meetings. Sometimes I have to lean over to adjust a computer cable, or walk across the room to re-shelve a book. Sometimes I hop on a plane or get in a car to get to a conference. Occasionally I even go out in public to give a speech. Most of the time, though, I am what is sometimes known as a "keyboard warrior." And in an information age, for most of us at the center of activist networks, that is logical.

Ultimately, though, politics is about much more than can be seen from the front of a computer monitor in a downtown office. Politics is about the thoughts, emotions and attitudes of hundreds of millions of people around the country, in fact billions around the world. Their politics is local; it is shaped by their communities and their families, their economic outlook, their interactions with neighbors and friends and adversaries. And ultimately, politics is a real-time phenomenon. If you're not ready, things will happen with or without you, not necessarily the way you want.

So when I heard two weeks ago that the local medical marijuana initiative needed some help to get the needed number of petition signatures on time to qualify for this November's ballot, I decided to put on my Washington, DC citizen hat, go out and talk to people on a hot summer day, and hopefully get enough of them to sign on the line to make a difference.

As I expected, the personal interactions were revealing. First of all, it served as a healthy reminder that most people don't spend nearly as much time thinking about medical marijuana, nor larger drug policy, as I do. Most people didn't want to take the time to stop and put their signature down. They might have agreed with us (statistically I know that most of them do), but they were on their way to do other things, maybe they assumed we'd find enough other people to get the thing on the ballot, or maybe they just don't like being stopped randomly on the street (which isn't hard to understand). One way or another, it wasn't their priority.

Some people did stop, though. Those who did often wanted to know whatever happened to our medical marijuana vote last time. The most informed wanted to know if there was any chance Congress would let it go through this time. Most of our supporters are reliant on us to get them the information.

The most interesting were the people who didn't agree or agreed only with hesitancy. We don't need their support to pass medical marijuana, a modest reform for which many more people already approve than don't. But we do need to understand where they are coming from, if we are to get past that level and successfully win the hearts and minds of the public on larger drug policy issues.

One woman told me she had signed the petition already, and was okay with medical use, but wasn't sure anymore because she's had friends screw up their lives with hard drugs and she didn't want medical marijuana to lead to legalization. She made a good choice this time, but in a different moment might not have. We need to recognize that many Americans tend to lump all different types of drugs and drug use together to end up with poorly thought out policy conclusions -- for example, some people are strung out on heroin or methamphetamine, therefore marijuana shouldn't be legally available to sick people. We need to recognize that many Americans uncritically accept the idea of "legalization by stealth," ridiculous as that concept is -- obviously medical marijuana is just medical marijuana, drugs won't be legalized if people don't change their minds about that, and the most that partial reforms can possibly do is get people to think more about other changes.

One elderly woman told me that she would never vote for medical marijuana, because she used to have a neighbor who used marijuana, the smoke constantly traveled over to her apartment, and her landlord wouldn't do anything about it. We need to recognize that some people will react out of simple annoyance, not thinking through the obvious conclusion that arrest and incarceration and wildly extreme ways of dealing with annoying situations. We need to recognize that some people will fail to acknowledge the instances where they themselves share the responsibility for their situation -- for example, by choosing to go the apartment route, where there is obviously a risk of being exposed to the sounds, visitors, and legal or illegal smoke of not always considerate neighbors. Indeed, many drug laws are in reality driven by such annoyance.

One passerby told me he wouldn't sign the petition because he's in drug testing, and medical marijuana would put him out of business. We need to recognize that there are financially vested interests that will oppose us on any level out of selfishness, and people whose identities as drug warriors have been formed over years and who will be emotionally unable to let go of their crusade.

I urge everyone interested in fostering social change to leave your computers now and then and take the cause to your communities. Get out and talk to people. Hand out leaflets or stickers, find some framework that you're comfortable with, educate some people, and just as importantly, become educated by them. Find out what people are thinking; learn from experience what will bring them a little or a lot closer to us.

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Issue #245, 7/12/02 Editorial: What People Are Thinking | British Cannabis Decrim: One Step Forward, One Step Sideways, One Step Back | US Drug War: Trouble Down South America Way | Motorist Flexing Rights Doesn't Sit Well With NC Cops -- Man Arrested, Lawsuit Pending | DC Medical Marijuana Initiative Will Be on November Ballot -- Unless Congress Quashes It Again | Newsbrief: Nevada Marijuana Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot | Newsbrief: Federal Jury Convicts in California Medical Marijuana Case | Newsbrief: New Jersey Weedman Strikes Again | Newsbrief: Kid Turned in Dad's Pot Grow, Did "Right Thing" -- or Did He? | Newsbrief: Canada Just Says No to Workplace Drug Testing | The Reformer's Calendar
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