Politics, as Bauman suggests, consists of the capacity to decide which things need to be done, and how we ought to do them. This is far from the first, or arguably most important, occasions in our collective American consciousness where we have stood at a such a political crossroad. But it is important to think about marijuana with respect to what ‘needs to be done’ and how we ‘should do it’.

For instance, how do organizations operate in an environment where what people ‘think’ about and ‘do’ with marijuana is undergoing significant transition?  Where should, and what kind of, resources be allocated regarding something that is considered an industrial, medicinal, and recreational commodity, yet¸ is still thought of by some as a scourge? What factors should be considered when re-evaluating or developing policies and procedures to deal with circumstances where marijuana exists? Organizations of all stripes confront these questions.

The following is the first in a series of posts commenting on the rapidly changing relationship between society and marijuana in the United States. Regardless of currently held understandings, organizations, and the individuals that comprise them, must deal with the far-reaching reverberations these changes will continue to bring. P21c offers perspectives useful for navigating the quickly shifting terrain.

The Government and the Public: a Disjointed Conversation


There seems to be a rift between those who do and do not realize that in a historical sense, our time of marijuana prohibition is the anomaly, not the norm.

Collective decisions about marijuana are thrust into the center of national political conversation. What is unique about this discussion is that nearly everyone participating has never lived under any conditions different than the ones that currently exist. In other words, most alive today have always lived under conditions where marijuana prohibition enforced by the state. There seems to be a rift between those who do and do not realize that in a historical sense, our time of marijuana prohibition is the anomaly, not the norm.

While a growing majority of Americans are coming around to this fact the Trump Administration seems incapable of grasping this truth. In turn, the American people are willing to consider alternatives to the disastrous impacts of marijuana prohibition. The Trump Administration is still taking cues from Dr. Carroll.

“It’s Public Enemy, Number One! “On February 23rd 2017 White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed President Trump’s intention to reverse course on federal marijuana policy implemented during the Obama administration. Americans, he said, should “expect greater enforcement” of federal law in states that have legalized marijuana for commercial and recreational purposes. If pursued, such actions will do more harm than good. The specter of reigniting the woefully misguided, and Nixonian inspired ‘War on Drugs’ should worry all Americans. If pursed, people will unnecessarily enter the criminal justice system, those who need medical help may have access impaired, a sustainable billion dollar industry will not grow, and citizen’s taxes will foot the bill.

As the administration considers rolling back the clock on marijuana policy, Americans don’t have to look far to see holes in the White House’s ‘official story’ about the plant. For instance,  Spicer’s  comments about marijuana and opioids should raise eyebrows.  This line of reasoning is outdated, outmoded, and dangerous. Extensive damage could result, and most likely will, if it serves as the foundation of policy. Additional worry is warranted when Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced that private (i.e. for profit) prisons will not be phased out. When profit is related to filling prison beds shareholders, not citizens, gain. This says nothing of why the Trump administration’s position on marijuana breaks from their otherwise broad application of ‘state’s rights’. 

During the same press conference, Spicer also told reporters that Trump “understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases” (emphasis added). If we adhere to the advice to ‘take the President seriously, but not literally it’s easy to imagine the administration imposing restrictions on medical legalization running counter to policy crafted by state health departments, the medical community, patient activists groups, and patients. Those supporting medical legalization should watch with skeptical eyes too.

After years of progress the government seems poised to intervene in the private choices of otherwise law abiding citizens, and potentially come between patients and doctors. If nothing else, the federal government should at least 1) remove marijuana from Schedule I classification, 2) allow unencumbered research on the plant, and 3) respect duly enacted state laws.

Fortunately, the American people may very well be the best bulwark against any misguided, and backwards political action the Trump administration is currently suggesting. Public opinion expresses widespread and growing support of reform. Nearly 60% of Americans support recreational legalization, and over 90% support medicinal legalization. These numbers have been steadily increasing over the past several decades.

The New York Times and Marijuana – A Preliminary Report

To further understand why public opinion may look this way it would be helpful to explore how marijuana is ‘written’ into the news. Current research sets out to accomplish this goal. For preliminary analysis news items mentioning marijuana were collected from The New York Times at five year intervals beginning in 1990 and ending in 2015. The search yielded about 2500 cases. A few interesting features emerged from the sampled stories. Writing incorporating marijuana became relatively commonplace as time progressed. 1990 yielded about 250 hits. In 2015 nearly 2.5 times as many instances were published.

Something interesting also appeared in terms of ‘who’ wrote the stories in the sample. Non-journalists are writing in small numbers compared to journalists, but those numbers rose over time. While tests for statistical significance are still being constructed, the number of politicians, researchers (academic and applied), doctors, activists, and citizens writing about marijuana, or including marijuana in their writing, trended upwards. More voices were publicized, and with that more expertise and opinion offered.

Other initial indicators are worth mentioning too. The focus of stories incorporating marijuana expanded over the time-frame of the sample. Most often included in stories about crime, stories centered on politics, economics, medicine, and popular culture grew. In addition to seeing an increase in stories about legislative debates, business models, or health regimes that include marijuana, it seems the plant is being woven ever more tightly into stories about language, literature, art, and mass media too. In short, the contexts in which marijuana was written about expanded.

When asked what their first impressions were of the experience, they couldn’t have given me a better response: “It’s great. It feels like a normal store, like you are shopping at Macy’s, or an Apple Store. I don’t see what the big deal has been.”

The data also showed that marijuana was not written about uniformly. Within the sample, marijuana was most often ‘tangential’ to a story. It was written ‘with’, but not about. In one example, a journalist asked revelers in Time Square about their hopes and fear for the year 2000. Marijuana’s inclusion in the story was a mention of a passing smell. It was simply a casual, expected, and mundane part of the New Year’s Eve scenery.

The second most numerous type of usage placed marijuana in a ‘supporting’, but not starring, role. Marijuana was certainly part of the story, but not the primary topic. In another example, a story about ‘at-home’ drug testing kits  were being touted as a new tool for concerned parents who suspected their children used, among other things, marijuana. Marijuana might have initiated action, but it became less important from there on. The final, and least numerous type of story identified marijuana as a ‘primary’ focus. Marijuana is necessary to comprehend the story. In other words, the story was about marijuana. A story about cutting edge marijuana research (or lack thereof in the United States), legislative actions, or legal rulings qualify.  At this point in analysis ‘tangential’ and ‘primary” stories increased over time while instances of the ‘supporting’ stories decreased.

Irrespective of the best intentions (that are bigly good for paving, I hear) the War on Drugs centered on marijuana, causes far more problems than it solves. Before the Trump administration doubles down, and turns its ‘story’ into policy, that is, before policy incarcerates otherwise decent, hardworking, and law abiding Americans; before it potentially makes it harder for suffering people to access help; before it stifles a burgeoning American industry; before it ignores the opinion of a majority of Americans … maybe they’ll recognize that the logically, pragmatically, and ethically flawed Reefer Madness inspired ‘story’ they spin is a terrible guide for policy.

But we should remember, the Trump administration’s current ‘story’ is just one of the many stories about marijuana. There are so many ‘better’ (i.e. logical, practical, systematic, and ethical) stories about marijuana to consider. Luckily, it seems the American may be doing just that.  Support for ending marijuana prohibition emerges from from new and unexpected places every day. It’s probably also a good sign that even ‘like-minded’ individuals don’t agree on prohibition.

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