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The Fourth Way to Legalize Cannabis

Financial rewards can drive legalization as much as social justice.

By Allen St. Pierre

The notion that there is, in fact, a fourth way to legalize marijuana brings to mind the three previous paths taken to legalization.
What are the three groups behind these efforts, and what now constitutes a fourth way?

1. The Stakeholders
At the start of the social justice movement to legalize cannabis in the late 1960s, the organizers could be characterized as cannabis law-reform activists and stakeholders. These were the men and women who cultivated, sold and consumed cannabis and wanted to have legal parity with their alcohol-consuming peers. NORML and the now-defunct Cannabis Action Network (FLCAN still exists in Florida) are prime examples of consumer-oriented public-advocacy organizations with lots of enthusiasm, but short on economic resources, that placed a number of unsuccessful ballot initiatives before the public in the ’70s and ’80s.

2. The Do-Gooders
In the mid-’90s, the social “do-gooders,” depicted by organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance and American Civil Liberties Union, started to have strong influence over the cannabis law-reform agenda, fueled not by their declared stakeholdership in ending cannabis prohibition, but instead by multimillion-dollar donations from elite billionaires (notably George Soros and the late Peter Lewis) as a component of a larger social justice reform agenda.

3. The Ganjapreneurs
After the pro-pot philanthropy of these billionaires started to take hold, with nearly a dozen voter initiatives passing from 1996–2010—creating a gray market of medical cannabis businesses mainly on the West Coast and in Colorado, with new-world “ganjapreneurs” risking their liberty and capital to establish otherwise federally illegal companies—it was wrongly assumed by both stakeholders and do-gooders that an emerging class of “medical marijuana millionaires” was going to become the legalization catalyst, driven by their wish to not get busted and legitimize their—in prosecutor’s parlance—illegal criminal enterprises.

In 2010, Oakland-based cannabusiness owner Richard Lee pledged that if he was successful in selling medical cannabis and didn’t get busted, he’d donate the lion’s share of his net worth to ending cannabis prohibition in California. True to his word, Lee spent millions getting a legalization initiative on the ballot. Unfortunately, his effort, Proposition 19, came up just three percentage points short of passage. However, the lessons learned in the campaign were successfully applied toward ballot victories in both Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Ironically, the triumphant ballot initiatives to legalize ganja in Colorado and Washington were funded by an amalgam of old-guard stakeholders, do-gooders and activists, not the burgeoning cash-heavy cannabis industry.
This leads us to the fourth way that cannabis law reform may come about in the modern era:

4. Politically Connected Interests
Currently, in states such as Michigan and Ohio, political operatives from the two major parties are publicly and actively organizing to place pro-cannabis law-reform initiatives on state ballots, where, if successful, their clients[What is meant?] would receive the first licenses that allow for production and/or sale of cannabis products—positioning them to enjoy a competitive advantage, take a larger market share early on and create branded products.

In Arizona, public controversy recently broke out because the Marijuana Policy Project chose to work with cannabis industry insiders rather than medical cannabis patients and activists in filing “pro-industry” legalization initiative language.

There are several ways to prepare an egg to eat, and no “proper” or right way to go about the task. Maybe this too can be said for cannabis legalization, where the particular intentions of an effort for marijuana legalization is not nearly as important as succeeding in ending cannabis prohibition, and replacing this long-failed public policy with free-market and constitutionally friendly alternatives.

Allen St. Pierre is former Executive Director of NORML.

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