An interview with drug law reform activist and Marijuana Majority board member, Shaleen Title.
Like many progressives, I was quite pleased when, in the recent election, we saw major advancements in the struggle to get marijuana legalized. The victories in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts were landmarks, and hopefully will only serve to encourage other states to follow suit.
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the measures in Colorado and Massachusetts—and the drug war at large—with Shaleen Title, activist and board member of Marijuana Majority, an organization that seeks to “help more people understand the simple fact that supporting commonsense solutions like regulating marijuana sales and ending marijuana arrests are mainstream positions and that there’s no reason those who support reform should be afraid to say so.” Their website is a virtual quilt of voices from all disciplines and walks of life, all of them fundamentally saying the same thing: these laws need to change. Definitely worth checking out and sharing with friends.
Shaleen worked on the ground in Colorado for six months and was instrumental in getting Amendment 64 passed, is currently working with medicinal marijuana policy in Massachusetts, and I’m very excited to share this interview with you. She has a lot of great and smart things to say, and I think it’s very important to keep fostering a discussion about the drug laws and their implications in this country. Hope you enjoy.
GMP: What exactly was your role in Colorado? How did you find the on-the-ground climate as far as the people you met? The state is something of a dichotomy when it comes to the blend of really progressive cities and ultra conservative/evangelical areas, and I imagine that there was a multitude of opinions among the citizens about the measure.
Shaleen Title: I lived in Colorado for about six months as a staffer for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol supporting Amendment 64. In addition to serving as one of the spokespeople for the campaign, I led the creation of several professional coalitions in support of the measure. For example, we had hundreds of academic endorsements—professors from within Colorado and all around the country, who responded to our invitation by sending us letters explaining why legalization was long overdue, based on their various areas of scholarship, everything from law to economics to public health to criminal justice. We released that list of professors on the same day that President Obama was visiting campuses in Colorado. Two of the signatures were from law professors at University of Chicago who had been his peers, which I thought was telling.
We also had the support of hundreds of doctors and—my favorite—law enforcement from all over the state who explained why marijuana prohibition and the resulting black market is so dangerous for society, and why regulation would be better. My favorite part of my work was recruiting law enforcement and setting them up to speak to audiences around the state, because they were so persuasive. Who could argue with a cop who has tried the prohibition route but seen firsthand that it hasn’t worked?
I absolutely agree with you about the interesting dynamics of the political culture in Colorado, and I think that’s a big part of why Colorado was the first state to legalize. It’s a very interesting mix of independent and open-minded thinkers from all over the political spectrum. There is the support you’d expect from the progressive cities, but there are also a lot of libertarian-leaning Republicans who discourage marijuana use but feel it’s a waste of government resources to prohibit it and drive the market underground. We also had a lot of support from groups you might not expect—many moms who understood that regulation minimizes teen access, for example, and clergy members who pushed for forgiveness and compassion rather than harsh criminal justice policies which are both racist and overly punitive. Certainly this is one of the only issues which would bring together endorsers like Pat Robertson and the Republican Liberty Caucus together with the ACLU and NAACP.
GMP: I wonder, too, what some of the bigger obstacles were in trying to get this measure passed by popular vote. What were some of the concerns that the opposition or the undecided voiced?
ST: It was an interesting phenomenon to see how the opposition’s strategy changed between Proposition 19 in California in 2010 (which I also worked on) and this initiative. In 2010, it was mostly fear tactics: your children will use marijuana; your children’s bus drivers will come to work stoned and get into car accidents; everyone will be using marijuana publicly all the time and we won’t be able to stop them. Reefer madness type stuff. But this year, it was all technicalities. Mostly the opponents focused on trying (unsuccessfully) to challenge some of the specifics in the measure—they claimed that the part of the law which directs the first $40 million in tax revenue to public schools couldn’t be implemented, for example. Or they argued that businesses wouldn’t be able to enforce their employee drug testing policies. I think this reflects a major culture shift in the past few years. The majority of the population is starting to understand that marijuana prohibition is a giant, wasteful failure that has never worked and causes additional devastating consequences. They know that marijuana is freely available whether we like it or not. Fear tactics are not going to work on the majority of the population anymore.
GMP: Having established that the opposition’s rhetoric is failing them, I wonder if you think there’s anything about the pro-legalization rhetoric that could use improving in any way? Maybe that’s another way of simply asking, what is the most effective way to argue for marijuana legalization in such a way that it might persuade someone who’s undecided about the concept. I agree that we’re experiencing a cultural shift—not quite a progressive renaissance, but marching toward progress all the same—but how do we sustain this, specifically in terms of fighting for legalization?
ST: I think it can be tempting, especially if you have been a legalization proponent for a long time, to see ourselves as revolutionaries when in fact we are totally mainstream voices. As a result of this cultural shift you mention, according to the numbers, it’s the other side that are fringe extremists. A Rasmussen Reports survey this month showed that 7% of Americans think that the war on drugs is working! If 93% agree it’s time for a change, we are only calling for what most people agree on. This is a major reason why Marijuana Majority was created: to have a simple and attractive visual demonstration showing that people (and politicians) have no need to fear supporting reform. In fact, they should be proud of it.
Beyond that, I believe in focusing on what people know intuitively: that marijuana is already freely available to most anyone who wants it, and that prohibition has never worked for marijuana just like it never worked for alcohol. Marijuana prohibition is very similar to alcohol prohibition and we need to handle it the same way—admit it was a mistake and move on. Again, this concept is already there in people’s minds; we just have to point it out.
GMP: Shifting over to MA and its medicinal marijuana measure, what are some of the challenges already being faced in trying to implement this new system?
ST: I think it’s great that City Councilor Consalvo is setting up a public dialogue to discuss how Boston wants to handle treatment centers. A lot of other cities are having this conversation as well. I just hope that cities discussing bans on treatment centers fully think through the consequences. They should remember that patients’ rights will be protected by this law regardless, so the question is whether the town’s patients will receive their medicine from a facility licensed by the Dept of Public Health or the black market. They should also consider that if there are no treatment centers within a reasonable distance from patients’ residences, they would likely be granted a hardship registration and they or their caregivers would be able to cultivate their own marijuana. There are several examples of towns which banned medical marijuana centers but then decided to reverse the ban. Fort Collins, Colorado, for example, passed an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city of Fort Collins, one year after they voted for a ban. And last month, the Los Angeles council voted to repeal a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.
On that note, it’s wonderful that we have the example and the lessons of 17 other medical marijuana states. It’s always been the treatment centers that are most focused on helping patients and supporting their community which have thrived the most, and after spending time in Colorado I’m glad to be able to share some of their best practices with potential business owners here in Massachusetts.
I expect to see a similar domino effect of states taking cues from each other and learning from each other in passing and implementing new legalization laws.
GMP: Is there any consensus or prominent hypothesis among those who’ve worked to get marijuana measures passed about how Holder and the Obama administration will handle this in the second term? Will they turn a blind eye, will they react?
ST: Great question. Predictions about what the administration might do vary, but the sure consensus is that, as the results of this month’s elections show, marijuana law reform is far more popular than President Obama. The smart thing would be to respect the will of the overwhelming majority of voters in Colorado and Washington (and Massachusetts as well).
GMP: And in a similar vein, Obama has an opportunity in this second term to make great strides toward ending—or, at the very lest, disassembling and reforming—the War on Drugs. Knowing what we all know about these policies, exactly how monumental would it be to see sensible drug reform in this country, and what would it mean for those already imprisoned for nonviolent marijuana crimes and the generations to come?
ST: Honestly, I think that history will look back on arresting people for marijuana use as a barbaric practice. I think most people have a sense of the cognitive dissonance that has to take place when you live in a society that arrests SOME—only some—people for an action that the majority of people (and the last three presidents) have taken. When you look at the charts showing the racial disparities in drug arrests and incarceration—in Colorado, even though whites use marijuana at a higher rate that Latinos and Blacks, the arrest and incarceration rates for marijuana offenses for Latinos and Blacks were literally double and triple those of whites—you see that it’s no dramatization or exaggeration to call drug policies “the new Jim Crow.”
GMP: Have you read that book, by Michelle Alexander? That was a real eye-opener for me, and it’s amazing to me now how infrequently this gets talked about. I really think our media has failed us—surprise face—yet again by refusing to pay this terrible injustice—which becomes so crystallized in Alexander’s argument—any attention. Why is it such a difficult conversation to have?
ST: Actually, I have to disagree with you there! Of course it’s talked about less than it should be, but from my perspective, the publicity around Michelle Alexander’s book has been amazing! It totally changed the conversation from focusing on pot-smoker-culture to finally discussing how mass incarceration affects everyone. On a sidenote, it greatly affected my work personally—nothing has inspired my work more strongly than her book and accompanying talks. I consider her my guru. A strong statement to make about someone I’ve only met once, but it’s true because her work and her powerful words have influenced and shaped the way I approach every task I do every day, from campaign work in CO, to public education in Massachusetts, to just thinking big-picture. As a woman of color involved in drug policy since the 1990s, I struggled for years to articulate to others why I felt this particular issue was so crucial until she changed the dialogue and made the effort crystal-clear. Before she starting doing major media interviews, it was always white men trying to talk about the effects of mass incarceration on communities of color among all the other marijuana-related issues. But after her book came out, the effects were huge. When she talks about the “undercaste” created by the drug war and how the drug war is largely responsible for huge and devastating social consequences, like a huge chunk of a generation growing up without fathers because their fathers are in prison, that’s eye-opening. Once you’ve seen those connections, you can’t un-see them. In 2010, when Neill Franklin and Alice Huffman helped get the NAACP on board to support California’s legalization measure, it was groundbreaking. That laid the groundwork for campaigns like our CO campaign to get their support as well as groups concerned with the racist effects of marijuana prohibition. So, of course I want this to be talked about more, and I certainly have complaints about media coverage of this issue (I cringe every time I read a munchie pun in a respectable publication) but if the media coverage of this issue continues to rise at the pace that it has, we have a lot of positive results to look forward to.