Advice For The Marijuana Movement And Industry From A Retiring Activist (Op-Ed) | Turn 420
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Advice For The Marijuana Movement And Industry From A Retiring Activist (Op-Ed)

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“I wish I could say I was leaving the policy space with more optimism about the future of federal policy reform. On the other hand, I know there are leaders out there, known and unknown to me, who can prove me wrong.”

By Justin Strekal, “Pot Smokers’ Lobbyist” Emeritus 

When I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, I was often accused of “metagaming” too much, meaning I too often try to think about all possible scenarios, attempt to look around every corner, etc.

In my opinion, it’s time for the cannabis reform community to do a better job of embracing active metagamers and, more importantly, discounting the opinions of those who speak with a high level of unearned authority or certainty.

Because truly, the history book of marijuana policy reform is being written one day at a time, meaning the best anyone can do is attempt to manifest what will be written on tomorrow’s page. Other than that, it’s just words and guesses. 

So as I depart the cannabis policy reform movement after nearly a decade of policy experience, both inside and outside of government, I wanted to share a few thoughts on where I see things are and where they could go.

For Federal Policymakers:

The most precious commodity in any level of government is attention and the most common way to get attention in the Capitol is money. That is why it is simultaneously possible for nearly all Americans to point to money as a corrupting influence, while the privatized campaign finance system and corporate lobbying is assumed to never change—nearly no one is regularly agitating for attention to reform.

Right now, monied interests in cannabis are hiring legions of lobbyists to capture the attention of policymakers and focus their legislative efforts on issues that prioritize legalizing the money before the people. This is predicated on the “very D.C.” mentality that it is all about money, which it often is.

One such example being pushed would allow access to stock markets for the larger operators on the fairytale that somehow it would be good for small business formation in the emerging legal market. It’s obviously fiction and should be treated as such. But these lobbyists are being paid to sell these positive-sounding narratives and, candidly, policymakers should not be buying them. After all, how does McDonald’s having access to the stock market help a mom and pop neighborhood hamburger shop?

This stock exchange example pales in comparison to the self-interested proposals that will come in the endgame of federal legislative reform. The deluge of influence from the entire American economic and political system will quickly descend on this issue and, if thoughtful policymakers are not metagaming it, then they will likely fail the impending test of their values, wisdom, and effectiveness. 

My advice to policymakers is simple: approach prohibition the same way it started in Congress, by focusing on the poor and minorities. 

While criminalization was enacted as a way to further marginalize and oppress these groups, if you approach the issue from a positive trajectory, by centering and uplifting these communities, it gives policymakers the best opportunity to acknowledge and undo the harm that has been inflicted and address the scars of the drug war in the neighborhoods they represent. 

By doing so, lawmakers might actually accomplish something that is often campaigned on: a stronger, more prosperous, and more free hometown. 

For Business, Big and Small:

Big business doesn’t need my advice, and I assume many of their government affairs people are happy I am leaving this space. 

So here is my biggest thought that I hope smaller operators consider: They cannot out-compete “the bigs” in a federal lobbying arms race, so they have to approach it more of a guerrilla campaign style. 

This means building relationships with willing federal offices, staying in regular contact with them to deepen the levels of trust, and getting creative about building networks of solidarity with both likely and unlikely actors. 

A good example of this is Supernova Women’s Social Impact Report. This report equipped Supernova Women’s supporters and allies with tangible data and perspectives allowing them to educate others as to the real-world impacts of their desired policy outcomes by showing a direct economic benefit on addressing root cause issues. They then partnered with allies (including myself) to shop the report around D.C. 

And you know what? A lot of people now remember that in Oakland, for every $1 invested, the economy generated $4.56 in return!

Another good example of this was the recent Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) Equity Workshop Tour. The tour was organized by one of MCBA’s newest board members and it made 11 stops across the country in just a few months. These events were reported back to the federal lawmakers representing the states hit—which, if continued, will create a virtuous feedback loop of effort and trust. 

One final example I’ll include is the Parabola Center’s recent Anti-Monopoly Toolkit. This toolkit is a great resource for both interested policymakers and good-trouble makers to prevent mega-corporations from taking over in the first place. Realistically, a small business landscape is much more attainable goal if we start from the beginning as opposed to trying to fix it after you see just a handful of massive companies dominate at the onset. The toolkit points to states that already have these regulations in place and, for the most part, are working well.

Putting together these types of resources is mostly unglamorous, painstakingly slow, and at times tedious to the point of mind-numbing. Organizers won’t have to metagame everything, but rather they’ll have to force themselves towards a table that is structurally opposed to them taking a seat. 

Success in Congress is often a game of endurance and, if you don’t lay sufficient groundwork for when lawmakers devote that valuable resource of attention, you may miss your window for victory. Trust me, I have seen it happen a handful of times already. 

But hey, the alternative is to lose to WalWeed, McMarijuana, and Cannazon without even trying. 

For Consumers and Advocates: 

After nearly a decade of experience on the policy, including more than five years as the “pot smokers’ lobbyist” and political director for NORML, I could go on for hours about both the absurdity and the inspiration that I took from those who carried the badge of activist, advocate, or just a person who like pot and would reach out to talk about freedom, liberation, and that “good-good policy.” 

I want to be careful with what I write, as I hope that my words are not meant to disparage the amazing individuals who volunteer their time, effort, and energy carrying the NORML banner or those who organize under other logos. 

There are so many aspects of marijuana policy reform that only its diverse and passionate consumer base and/or those impacted by criminalization deserve to set the terms for. From expungements and employment protections, to evidence-based DUID policies or what the tax revenue gets spent on—these are all issues that will continue to affect real people, hundreds of thousands of them. 

Consumers also need a seat at the table to argue that it is not the responsibility of those who smoke weed to pay for these broader social programs in the first place. Increasingly it is important to fight for consumer choice: Do consumers deserve only one or two options of legal access in an arbitrarily controlled manner? Or should a free market be established to let the consumers choose who has the quality products and whose product is skunk, instead of wealthy investors and lobbyists? 

Unfortunately, today I am not aware of any organizations that have earned my confidence to point to as consumer-focused organizers who are effectively working to empower individuals to connect with their federal policymakers from a holistically national perspective. 

NORML has not had a full-time volunteer coordinator since 2018 when the previous one left, largely due to burnout, as it should have been a full department rather than just one person. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) does not organize D.C. lobby days for regular cannabis consumer supporters. Neither the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) nor Americans for Safe Access (ASA) have even had a full-time federal lobbyist in years, let alone teams that connect the dots for grassroots and grasstops to Congress.

This means that if consumer or patient issues are going to be front-and-center moving forward, it will likely take an even more intense internalization of the metagame ethos of “think global, act local” among consumers around the country to build power and relationships with staff and elected officials in their communities. 

This also means thinking in months and years—around legislative calendars and election cycles—not minutes and days or around stock tickers and social media clicks.

Focus your time and efforts wisely. As one of my mentors and most trusted advisors in cannabis reform, Mike Liszewski told me: “If the second-wealthiest policy failure in the world can’t tweet his company into profitability, what hope do grassroots advocates have at tweeting sufficiently for marijuana to be decriminalized?”

This really means people coming together and showing up at town hall meetings, district offices, inboxes, and call sheets again and again and again. This means meeting policymakers and potential allies where they are and that your version of victory is not moving them from A to B, but A to double-Z. It also might mean that you’re only going to get them to move a letter or two a year—and that is acceptable progress compared to no progress if you didn’t try. 

Perhaps smaller organizations will have strong, charismatic, and inspirational leaders who can get funding to be able to grow and fill the void. Perhaps one of the larger legacy organizations will invest in both lobbying as well as grassroots and grasstops organizing. Perhaps both or neither of these things will happen. Anything is possible. 

But unlike Lord of the Rings, there is no “one meeting to rule them, one organization to bind them.”

Ultimately, these issues at hand will truly put the theory of our decentralized constitutional republic to the test, and it is up to the public to collectively pass. When it comes to weed, we have proved we are good at failing, as demonstrated by the existence of prohibition since 1937. 

In Closing: 

I have very mixed feelings about retiring from this issue and likely will always feel at least some nagging pain about my choice. But life comes at the speed of life and we all have to make tough choices. I explained why in a LinkedIn post if you are curious. 

During my time working on cannabis policy, I have seen amazing leaders step up and accomplish herculean tasks, many of which have gone unnoticed and certainly won’t be recorded in history books or even acknowledged by anyone other than those who work alongside them.

From the person who masterfully ran the spreadsheet scheduling lobby meetings in Austin, Texas for their fellow reform supporters to the person who bravely stepped up to a microphone at a public meeting in Pennsylvania to decriminalize a township. From the person who took the time to put together a simple factsheet to send to their city council member in upstate New York to the supportive friend who out of solidarity counseled another advocate going through a personal situation so that they can recharge to fight another day in California. 

All of these efforts are puzzle pieces large and small which get factored into the table that is being set with each passing day.

I will be forever grateful to all of those who for decades fought and organized to build power before I joined the movement. 

I hope that my efforts as part of the movement will not be looked upon by history as harmful. 

I hope that those whom I have organized shoulder-to-shoulder with will continue the fight, do well, and win.

I hope that more individuals will feel empowered and be resourced to join the cause and fight for good policy which I was too afraid of or under-resourced to take on or win.

I wish I could say I was leaving the policy space with more optimism about the future of federal policy reform. On the other hand, I know there are leaders out there, known and unknown to me, who can prove me wrong. 

As the fictional warrior-philosopher Cassian Andor said, “Rebellions are built on hope.”

Justin Strekal is a former political director for NORML and founder of Better Organizing to Win Legalization. (Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work with a monthly Patreon pledge.)

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.



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