This is a tough thing to write about but I think now is the time.
Over the last few weeks, over 30 people have been arrested for either possession of cannabis or smoking cannabis in both Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, which happened in part because protestors got up in the face of law enforcement and challenged them about what they really mean by decriminalization and legalization, and in part just to get the attention of legislators and newsmakers.
Sometimes civil disobedience works, sometimes it backfires. It’s a risky proposition.
The D.C. group, led by Adam Eidinger, co-founder of DCMJ, a community cannabis organization, who was recognized by CBE in 2016 as part of its Political 100 list, is also an avowed and successful civil disobedience activist. He has not only managed protests about the legalization of cannabis, but other causes – the world bank and genetically modified foods.
Eidinger was arrested twice in a four day period (April 20 and 24) along with others for possession and smoking cannabis on federal property when he and his troupe of like-minded protestors staged two separate protests on Capitol Hill.
His counterpart in Philadelphia, Nikki Poe, who Eidinger often collaborates with, was arrested in Philadelphia on April 22 and charged with much harsher offenses. He organized a smoke-out in Philadelphia, which was attended by undercover cops who arrested him and 16 others when they found pounds of cannabis and dangerous fire code violations.
While news agencies love running the images of stoners in handcuffs being hauled off to jail, the question for people trying to run a legally licensed cannabis business is: What exactly are you guys trying to do?
Aren’t we done with this sort of stuff? Hasn’t the battle been won?
There has always been a connection between the efforts for the legalization of cannabis and the activists who push that agenda, tracking all the way back to the beginning of the war on drugs in 1970 created by a crook of a president. It’s been a righteous cause, especially beginning at a time when the Vietnam War was raging on and protestors were literally being shot down by law enforcement.
Free the people. Free the plant. Stop this insane war on drugs. Those protests slowly faded into 70s-era retrospectives.
Then more recently, the cannabis protestors began to rise up. In 2012 in D.C., it fell to Eidinger, a hemp product business owner who watched his business raided and his inventory confiscated – illegally as it turned out later.
In 2013, he got to work on changing the cannabis laws in the District, and brought his style of protest to the issue.
With the support of the Drug Policy Alliance and others, he chaired the D.C. Cannabis Campaign working to get Initiative 71 passed. In 2014, it passed, and recreational cannabis was legalized in the District (medical cannabis was legalized in D.C. in 1998).
Just think about that for a minute: Legalized adult use cannabis in the heart of the federal government. That’s what activism, along with advocate organizations, can accomplish.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, Eidinger turned up the heat and organized a series of protests because he saw President Obama, an admitted cannabis smoker, as the last best chance to get cannabis descheduled. It was time for more aggressive protesting, time for mass arrests, he told followers.
Cannabis today is seeping into the mainstream, even being judged alongside tomatoes and cucumbers in the D.C.’s annual state fair just like another home-grown commodity.
A certain level of fear of the plant is gone. There are significantly fewer arrests in D.C. since legalization here. There is a sense of real justice, in part because of the work of street activists like Eidinger.
So, yes, things have come a long way in part because of what activists have done.
But just like National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and just like Americans for Safe Access (ASA), both organizations that saw civil disobedience as an early but necessary methodology to support their cannabis agendas, who now have helped support the development of medicine or ended wrongful incarceration, maybe it’s time for the street theater activism to stop and for civil disobedience about cannabis to end.
Maybe it’s time to fold all that energy and passion into an organization that actually works with the establishment to make change happen. The ASA has done that. NORML has done that. They’ve created chapters. They’ve worked with legislators. They have helped get bills passed.
The uncomfortable reality is that these are revolutionary times. Revolutionary times require citizens to stand up against injustice. Look at how many protests marches have been staged in D.C. and around the world for climate change, for women’s rights and a host of other causes since President Trump came to power.
If anything, this administration, and especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has created more of an environment for civil disobedience and social causes.
But.. but.. but..
In the cannabis industry, aren’t we done with that? There are now 29 states and the District that have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Of those, eight states and the District have also legalized recreational marijuana. More states are standing by to join in.
Hasn’t the work of cannabis activists paid off now? Do we really need the images of a group of stoners, happily parading their civil disobedience ways, pulling along a huge inflatable joint, puffing away in front of the White House, with those images rocketing around the world reinforcing the average Joe’s opinion that stoners are a bunch of dumb, entitled, bad people who flagrantly violate the law and hide behind the protection of the first amendment?
If you are an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry, those images probably cause you a moment of pain. You are watching these people – who consider themselves heroic in what they are doing, who consider themselves true patriotic Americans just following the age-old tradition of protest that is at the foundation of this country – and you probably have mixed emotions.
It’s a bit confusing. There’s good that comes out of protest in this country, right? There’s progress, right?
But if you are one of the business people who just put down $200,000 to get a medical marijuana license and start a legitimate business, in, say, Pennsylvania, where you could theoretically make millions; or if you are a greenhouse developer building a million-dollar grow facility in, say, Massachusetts; or if you one of the leaders in a group of investors cashing in your 401K to build an edible brand, all this noise from civil disobedience protestors is not just a distraction.
It’s a perception-killer. It’s a stigma-reinforcer. It’s hippies going at it again, the 70s all over again. Cheech and Chong goof offs.
It does nothing to promote the business of cannabis, and does everything to turn the general public away from supporting the business of cannabis. And most importantly, now, today, cannabis industry leaders are investing millions of dollars to change the perception of the industry, and help local, state and federal regulators and legislators get a better understanding about what the industry has become, and is becoming.
And this is why it’s difficult for me to write about this: I like these guys.
I was at the deschedule smoke-out in front of the White House with a bunch of Eidinger-led protestors. I was at the Eidinger-organized 9,000-joint giveaway on inaugural day. I was at the PTSD smokeout in front of the White House. I was with Eidinger’s group when they went into Jeff Sessions office to try to bring some education about cannabis to the attorney general nominee at the time, bringing cannabis with them, courting arrest.
I even organized and moderated a press conference at the National Press Club that featured Eidinger speaking about his work in civil disobedience, which ended with him handing out free joints to journalists there.
I have that first-hand knowledge of how these events work. His protests weren’t all about “Dude, let’s get high and mess with the Man.”
There were messages presented during these protests about wrongful arrests and sick kids and suffering veterans. There were tearful testimonies from real people. There was angry talk about terrible laws.
There was real value at these protests, and a real message of need and hope and desire and rights. These weren’t wild stoner street parties. These were well-organized, respectful-of-law-enforcement protests that may have gone into the danger zone a few times, and people did get arrested. But for the most part, the group would make their point then disperse.
I have a deep respect for anyone who challenges authority knowing that they could end up sitting in jail – or prison – just for expressing their beliefs in a way that law enforcement doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand. Sometimes they become felons in service of a particular righteous cause.
There is something patriotic about that. Something Boston Tea Party about that. Something give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death about that.
But I am also the managing editor of a cannabis business publication. I want this industry to succeed, I want the sincere business people who are taking a huge risk to succeed. This business of cannabis business is both risky and potentially hugely rewarding. It doesn’t help if a certain negative perception continues to be a big part of the risk.
I know that I am on the front lines of educating and informing not just other entrepreneurs about the cannabis business, but also the general public, law enforcement, legislators and anyone else who wants to figure out what is going on and why they should care.
And I have never sat in a jail or a prison because of my beliefs. I have no idea what that experience is like. So yes, maybe I should shut up and go away.
But it does feel like we are sort of at a crossroads here, and the uncomfortable alliance between activists and advocates, between advocates and business developers, between advocates who become business developers, probably needs a reset. A reboot.
Do we need acts of civil disobedience in the cannabis industry now? My take is: No. Will they continue? Probably. Because that’s what democracy looks like. And the cannabis legalization movement is not over. There’s more work to be done. Wrongful incarceration continues. Bad laws continue. People still need access to their medicine.
But maybe, just maybe, the machine of law-making will find a way for all that change to happen because the people have willed for it to happen. Maybe we should trust in that now, going forward, because, well, that’s also what democracy looks like.