What Can You Do to Get Marijuana Legalized in Your State?

People rally in Washington, D.C., in favor of marijuana legalization.
People rally in Washington, D.C., in favor of marijuana legalization. | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

In a handful of states, producing, selling, and using marijuana is legal under local law. Although this conflicts with existing federal laws, for the past several years marijuana legalization in these select states has gone off without a hitch. Money is being made, jobs are being created, and nothing particularly horrible has happened as a result. All told, the push for legalization in these states has been a success.

That can be hard to stomach for those on the outside looking in. While some states are primed to push for their own legalization laws in the near future, others have little hope — barring a complete federal overhaul concerning cannabis.

If you’re someone who’s in one of those states, is there anything you can do? Obviously, concerned citizens do have the power to affect change at the local level. But when it comes to marijuana, how can you go about educating yourself, gaining support, and getting a proposal on a ballot? It’s a long, difficult process. But far from impossible.

And besides, the winds of change are at your back. Support for marijuana legalization has never been higher, and it would be more surprising, at this point, to see a return to old laws rather than new ones passed.

We talked to Morgan Fox, senior communication manager at the Marijuana Policy Project about how the average citizen can go about affecting change to state marijuana laws. If you live in a state that has yet to legalize (or if it still seems like a pipe dream), read on to find out where and how you can get the ball rolling.

Why should the average American, even those who don’t use cannabis, want to vote to legalize?

Men pass a joint at a pro-pot rally
Men pass a joint at a pro-pot rally. | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

For some, throwing their weight behind a legalization push doesn’t seem to make much sense. So, why should people get on board?

“In short, marijuana prohibition causes more harm than good and causes more harm than marijuana consumption to the individual and society,” Fox said. “It is a policy that has utterly failed to accomplish a dubious goal, at great economic and human cost.”

The Marijuana Policy Project also has a list of reasons you can check out.

If I am interested in pursuing legalization in my state, what should my first step be?

Members of the DC Marijuana Coalition roll joints at a table
Members of the D.C. Marijuana Coalition roll joints at a table. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve seen the success of legalization in states, such as Colorado and Washington, and don’t want your state to miss out, what can you do?

“The first step is to educate ourselves about the issue,” Fox said. “The better we can effectively communicate the reasons to end marijuana prohibition, the more likely we are to convince others. The next step is contacting our lawmakers to let them know their constituents support marijuana policy reform.”

How can I find others in my community with similar goals?

A cannabis mascot gives a thumbs up
A cannabis mascot shows approval. | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

If you live in a fairly conservative state, it might be hard to find others who support marijuana legalization. Where can you find them?

“A good place to start is finding out if there are any local chapters of NORML or Students for Sensible Drug Policy in your area,” Fox said. “Going to community events, town halls, and city council meetings is also a great way to network and meet people who are interested in this issue.”

Which policymakers should I approach?

A D.C. policymaker holds up a joint during a hearing
A D.C. policymaker holds up a joint during a hearing. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you’re serious about starting a legalization push, you’ll need to talk to policymakers. Which ones you contact depend on what your goals are.

“It really depends on the types of reforms you are working on,” Fox said. “For example, if you are trying to pass a local decriminalization ordinance or make marijuana possession a lowest law enforcement priority, you would start by contacting community leaders and members of the local government, city council, etc.

“If you are lobbying for a state legislation, your elected state reps are the people to talk to. And everyone can, and should, contact their federal representatives regularly and urge them to remove marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances.”

Were there any mistakes made in other states’ legalization pushes to try to avoid?

Pro-marijuana buttons are seen during the Denver 420 Rally
Pro-marijuana buttons are seen during the Denver 4-20 Rally. | Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

Learn from the mistakes of others. Marijuana legalization is still a very new and novel concept — at least when it comes to crafting laws that work.

“There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts over the years,” Fox said. “I think the biggest mistake that people make is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Marijuana has been illegal for a long time, and there are still a lot of people with misconceptions about the substance or bias against people who consume it.

“Despite increasing public support, most people are not going to vote to make marijuana legal and very loosely regulated as some would wish. Unfortunately, some supporters of reform are unwilling to accept this and end up delaying incremental progress.”

Who actually creates the legislation?

State Reps. Cezar McKnight and John King share a laugh between bill readings at the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.
State Reps. Cezar McKnight, left, and John King share a laugh between bill readings at the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Say you’ve gained some momentum. Who actually writes everything down and knows what to do with it? A lot of people, as it turns out.

“This is usually done with the help of local organizations, national reform organizations who are helping to support the effort, and legislative sponsors,” Fox said. “In many cases, MPP and our allies will start with our model legislation and tailor it to lawmakers’ specifications.”

Are endorsements important? Those of police departments, business leaders, etc.?

A New York Police Department sergeant stands by at a press briefing
A New York Police Department sergeant stands by at a press briefing. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

An important part of the process is to gain support from community leaders. A respected voice (or group of voices) can carry a lot of weight when push comes to shove. As for what endorsements you should seek?

“Elected officials, medical professionals, law enforcement (you’ll have more luck with retired than active duty), patients and caregivers, veterans groups, clergy, business leaders, and advocacy organizations are all important and can provide useful public support,” Fox said.

What’s the best way to attract attention to legislation?

a sign that says "legalize it" regarding marijuana
Marijuana protest | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

This is the really tricky part. If you go through all of the hard work of gaining endorsements and organizing, what good is it if nobody knows what you’re trying to do? You’ll have to do some marketing and lobbying. The good news? It’s easier these days than ever before. Fox said there are a few specific channels you should start with.

“Organized lobbying, hosting press conferences in connection to specific policy goals, and social media promotion are all useful,” he said.

What resources are out there for people who want to learn more about changing their state laws?

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana light up in front of the White House during a demonstration
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana light up in front of the White House during a demonstration. | Mike Theiler/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re not ready to jump into community organizing, you can start by reading and learning as much as possible. “A good place to start is MPP’s state policy page,” Fox said. “You can sign up for email alerts pertinent to your state and get regular updates on policy reform efforts.” Also, search for local advocacy groups, and tap your individual networks for those with shared goals of marijuana legalization.

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