How to Lobby Congress for Marijuana Legalization
10 tips on how to talk to federal politicians about ending marijuana prohibition.
By Dr. Mitch Earleywine
Just before Labor Day, NORML hosted a one-day training for folks like you and me to learn how to speak with elected officials and their staff. The next day we all pounced on Congress and gave them our message.
The pleasure of lobbying is hard to describe without sounding like a corny zealot. It’s supremely fun. The dazed delight of trekking down the marble halls and opening the oaken doors instills an unexpected sense of patriotism. Combine that with astonishing insights into the utter insanity of our legal process, and you’ve got about half of it. Like the pleasures of our favorite plant, words don’t quite suffice; you’ve got to share the experience. No matter how many emails and letters we send from home, nothing is as persuasive and satisfying as showing up at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and sitting down in a legislator’s office.
In an unabashed effort to persuade you to join us next year, here’s a list of recommendations before you attend. There’s plenty of time to plan. Even if you’ve never contemplated lobbying, check these out and see if you can envision the trip. I guarantee it’ll change your life.
1. You will not be the dumbest, least-informed person to ever set foot in Congress. Trust me, if you’re reading this magazine, you probably know more about our issue than most of the 535 members of Congress. Elected officials and all of their staff put their pants on the same way we do. You deserve to be there as much as John Adams did.
2. Bring your posse. Inspire your pals from home, and meet others from your state when you arrive. Go together to your Senators’ offices. Approach representatives’ offices in a pack. When a handful of people show up with cannabis leaves on their lapels, the faces of the young interns really light up. You’ll keep your fellow lobbyists motivated and feel closer by day’s end.
3. Make an appointment. This is the big one. A party of four of us got the eye-roll from Sen. Corey Booker’s counsel. But that same guy met with Freedom Leaf Senior Editor Chris Goldstein because he had an appointment. Email a month before you’ll be there. Call if you don’t hear back after a week. Imagine how fun it is to say, “I have a meeting scheduled with my senator.”
4. Bring 100 business cards. They don’t need to be double-sided in green ink printed on hemp, but you do need business cards and lots of them. Your name, affiliation and contact information will do the trick. Everybody you meet, including all the other conference attendees, should be able to reach you later. Leave one at every office. They could be the start of something big.
5. Bring printed material. Even if you get 90 seconds with the aide who handles cannabis legislation, that overworked person likely also has to cover minutiae about poultry regulations and accounting contracts. A single page of text in a large font with bullet points will last a lot longer than the vague memory of a casual chat.
6. Know your legislators by sight. Just as my crew and I stepped down the hall toward my congressman’s office, I saw him racing in our direction. I quickly called out Rep. Tonko’s name, shook his hand and slipped him my card. Getting recognized makes anyone feel like a celebrity. We still went to his office and did our show for his staff, but I would’ve missed a big opportunity if I hadn’t known what he looked like. Photos are all over the Web. Take a quick glance.
7. Start with thanks. Before launching into the rationale for freeing the weed, show some appreciation. Even representatives who think epileptic children shouldn’t have CBD are human, too. (Well, barely.) It sets a nice tone for the interaction, and opens anyone up to be a better listener.
8. Dress for success, with comfy shoes. Men: Wear a nice jacket, slacks and a tie, or a suit. Women: A dress; or pants, blouse and a jacket. I know it’s not consistent with our rebellious, cannabis identities. I spent most of my time talking to chic legislative assistants who weren’t as old as my high school diploma. They didn’t look any more comfortable in a suit than I did. I didn’t want them resenting me because I wore my hemp tie-dye to their office while they were spending a fortune on dry cleaning. It shouldn’t be true, but it is: People who look professional are more persuasive to these folks. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, so make sure to wear rubber souls
9. Remember, it’s a process. At the end of the day, I phoned my 11-year-old daughter who wondered, “Is marijuana legal now?” We have to keep our expectations reasonable. I’m open to the idea that we’re near a tipping point. Nevertheless, let’s not set ourselves up with unattainable goals that might make us feel deflated if we don’t reach them instantaneously. As Sharon Ravert of Peachtree NORML says: If we’re talking, we’re winning. You win the minute you step in the door. Most Reps don’t get many visitors who aren’t paid lobbyists. They’ll notice our presence. That’s how it starts.
10. Last one: Don’t bring weed. A TSA bust is no way to start a trip. Despite marijuana now being legal in Washington, DC, you can’t light up in the Capitol.
That doesn’t sound so complicated, does it? These 10 points don’t cover everything about Marijuana Legalization, but they’ll get you off to a superb start. I was nervous at first, but once we all got going, it was no big deal. And the feeling at the end of the day is unparalleled.
Mitch Earleywine is the former Chairman of the NORML Board of Directors, and Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
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