Green plant on a stem with buds at top

Like a flashback from a distant memory, an egg cracked into a frying pan. Ominous words followed, “This is your brain on drugs…” The replay of a bizarre commercial from the 1990s? No, it was the 21st Century iteration of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, once again smearing marijuana with “alternative facts”.

It is one of the ghosts of the past from which the present day resistance movement might take lessons.

The morning after the fall election, a host of progressive movements awoke in aftershock.  Climate Change. LTBTQ. Black Lives Matter. Water Protectors. And numerous others. Groups like Muslim Americans and even reporters felt a heightened sense of trepidation as they found themselves in unexpected crosshairs. Others, like the women’s and environmental movements, which have enjoyed decades of progress, now shared the same heartache as their mothers and fathers in the 1960s and 1970s.

One social cause that has traveled this same rocky road is marijuana reform. For all that is new and frightening about Trump, this movement has been living with daily, for decades.

Cannabis advocacy is unique among progressive causes. The plant is now and continues to be illegal federally, where mere possession can be accompanied by stiff fines and jail time. Can you say that about climate change? Further, while prochoice advocates blend into the fabric of America, a drug test can rout out a marijuana user, denying her a job, a profession, a place to live and even her children.

Over the last fifty years, the War on Drugs has been used as tool of repression by Republicans, corporatists, neocons and others bent on social control. And you thought Jeff Sessions was bad. For perspective, consider these ghosts of the past:

Edwin Meese, Attorney General under Ronald Reagan, viewed marijuana as a “gateway narcotic,” branding even occasional users as supporters of “terror, torture, and death.” There are no neutrals in this country’s war on drugs, he declared. In 1982, he re-launched the war with a dangerous new twist: poison marijuana and its users with the herbicide paraquat.

Next is Bill Bennett, former Secretary of Education and very first Drug Czar – who surprise, surprise is a big Trump fan. In 1989, when a caller into the Larry King Show queried Bennett about executing drug dealers the Saudi way – a machete to the neck – he replied, "Morally, I don't have a problem with it." He, too, considered cannabis users and even those who look the other way as “bad guys.” It was his idea to evict tenants from public housing upon mere suspicion of use.

How about John Ashcroft, George Bush II’s storied Attorney General, who put a drape over the exposed breast of the marblesque “Spirit of Justice” statue. In 2001, also on Larry King, Ashcroft boasted, "I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it... refresh it, re-launch it...!"  Then, as corny as it sounds, Ashcroft in 2003 unleashed a massive investigation dubbed Operation Headhunter. The headhunter snared what? Tommy Chong and bongs.

Drug war induced repression produced the desired results – marginalization of one class of people. During the days of Meese, Bennett and Ashcroft, arrests for marijuana alone soared to over 12 million. Over sixty-eight million Americans were branded with criminal records. Mass incarceration bloated the prison population to over two million. And, the “brain on drugs” ads? Those alternative facts were paid for by a government media campaign that didn’t work.

With all of this said, what issue won bigger than any presidential candidate on November 8th last year? Marijuana.

In California alone, 57% of the electorate approved Measure 64. A 53% margin decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in Newark, Ohio. On Election Day, voters accorded victories to four statewide adult use measures, four statewide medical cannabis initiatives and four local decrims. States where marijuana is legal in some form now number 28, up from zero during the Meese years. Fifty years ago, only 12% of Americans favored legalization. Today, that number tops 60%.

So, what happened? How did advocates for cannabis reform create this wave of change? And, what can they teach the new resistance movement about surviving and thriving in the wake of systemic repression?

Hopefully, a lot. Here are 10 hard earned lessons.

1.)    Not one way, but many. It takes ballot initiatives, legislation, litigation, lobbying, both local and national, to move policy and public opinion.  Each is important in its own right and each gains its own pieces of incremental ground.

2.)    Organize. Not just with a Facebook post or a tweet (although both are powerful tools). Find ways bringing people together, one-on-one, face-to-face. Strong bonds among advocates empower the entire group.

3.)    Diversity matters. It is the face of the future. There was a time when marijuana reform was an all-white male sport. No more. Advocates now come from all walks of life. Learn to work with those who are different than you.

4.)    Be social. As demonstrated time and again, real time video and social media root out fake news and discredit alternative facts as they happen. Imagine the tweets could have hammered Bill Bennett for his moral depravity.

5.)    Treasure the truth. Ghosts like Meese have maligned cannabis, harassed its users and stymied research into the plant’s abundant medicinal properties. Even so, as witnessed on Election Day, the truth cannot be suppressed. When it finally comes out, make sure it has a strong voice.

6.)    Befriend the media. With reporters now on the hot seat, too, the media – or at least true journalists – will be hungry for compelling stories that can move their audiences. They’ll want truth. Remember, their voices are still strong and loud.

7.)    Protest optically. The recent women’s march was the quintessential protest: millions, in one color (pink), all one day. The optics were so good the newly elected president protested! However, just a handful huddled in a cold rain will color the best cause as weak and ineffective.

8.)    Beware of provocateurs. An alphabet soup of agencies, many formed for the drug war, sow dissent among advocacy groups. Some can be identified … others, not so much. The best defense is awareness. Look for volunteers who are too eager, too divisive, too manipulative, or too defensive, with too much unfettered cash. Find distance. Don’t be afraid to say no.

9.)    Prepare to be poor. Our causes are bigger than any one of us. The work to advance them must be done now. Money can wait, but the planet cannot. Learn to do more with less, so that the difference can be put into the cause.

10.) Play the long game. The world may look bleak now, but as the saying goes, time wounds all heels. The ghosts of the past who suppressed cannabis serve as prime examples. Be persistent and be patient. Do what you can, the best you can in the present, for it’s the future – what may seem like decades away – where you’ll see the bountiful fruits of your labors.

Good Luck!

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