Last year I had the honor of being one of the many former police officers who served as a spokesperson for the Yes on 19 marijuana legalization campaign in California. During that effort I learned a lot about politics, and one of the biggest lessons was that many of the proponents of marijuana legalization need to learn how to talk more effectively with social conservatives.
I am not just talking about Republicans. Many of the older Democratic Latinos and African Americans that voted against Prop. 19 would be considered “social conservatives.” Remember, this is the same group of voters that helped pass Prop. 8, the initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008.
All too often, social conservatives are cast off as people that can’t be won over. My experience on the campaign trail shows that this couldn’t be further from the truth; it all depends on what arguments you use.
When talking with social conservatives, resist the urge to emphasize how much tax revenue could be gained from legalization, or racial disparities in arrest rates, or even how marijuana is “safer” than alcohol. Those arguments will most likely fall on deaf ears. Also try to avoid using what many reformers view as “conservative” arguments like how much money we are wasting on enforcing marijuana prohibition. While that is a great argument for fiscal conservatives, social conservatives generally have other issues that end up outweighing concerns they have for small and streamlined government.
Many social conservatives primarily oppose marijuana legalization because they are under the impression that keeping it illegal is somehow making society safer. And while many of them also share a desire for fiscal responsibility, they are generally willing to support government expenditures that they view as protecting national security and public safety.
So, if a social conservative believes that legalizing marijuana will “flood” the streets with it and lead to the moral decline of society -- or in other words, “the sky will fall” -- you can see why they would support continued prohibition.
This means that when you talk to a social conservative about legalization, you should focus on how our current prohibition on marijuana is making society less safe.
Most social conservatives don’t realize that by keeping marijuana illegal we are actually giving our children easier access to it.
So, politely remind your social conservative conversation partner that the neighborhood drug dealer doesn’t check ID. He doesn’t care how old their kids are; all that matters to him is if they have cash. And that’s why federal surveys consistently show that teens generally have had an easier time getting their hands on illegal marijuana than obtaining legal and age-regulated alcohol.
Those same illegal marijuana sellers also recruit teens to push marijuana on other children. Just ask any teenager where the best place to buy pot is, and the majority will tell you the same thing: their peers in high school.
Remember, just like how when we made alcohol illegal during prohibition, today’s ban on marijuana doesn’t get rid of it and it just means that instead of being sold in a legal and regulated system, it is relegated to an illegal market where there are no rules and anything goes.
Yes, it’s true we do arrest dealers when catch them. But once you take down a dealer, another always steps up to snatch his market share within a matter of weeks, if not days.
Emphasizing the violence that prohibition causes – not just between rival traffickers, but also brutal attacks on law enforcement and innocent civilians – is a particularly effective tactic in this sort of outreach.
As a general rule, try to remember when talking with social conservatives that being respectful of their opinions can go a long way. Please realize that as an advocate for reform, your goal is not to argue against their conservative principles, but that the primary task is to help them realize that prohibition violates these principles they so deeply believe in.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if it seems like you’re not really making any headway in getting the person to look at the issue in a new way. It’s not easy to get social conservatives – or anyone – to immediately change their minds about long-held beliefs, but planting a seed during a conversation now can make all the difference in the world the next time they find themselves in a voting booth staring down at the YES or NO box of a marijuana initiative.
Nate Bradley, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com) and executive director of Lawmen Protecting Patients (www.lawmenpro.org), is a former Wheatland, CA police officer.