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Illustration by Maya Chastain

This story is part of our Ethical Cannabis series, which explores moral quandaries in the cannabis space and empowers readers to become conscious consumers. Got an issue to unpack? Email kmorrell@healthline.com.


One Tuesday afternoon in March 2015, President Barack Obama visited the Atlanta landmark Manuel’s Tavern. Decades prior, President Jimmy Carter announced his first gubernatorial campaign in the same spot, and President Bill Clinton reportedly stopped by in 1992.

Nearly 6 months after President Obama’s visit, I drove an hour to Manuel’s to attend my first meeting of Peachtree NORML, Georgia’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Despite Manuel’s reputation as a favorite spot for famous Democrats, Peachtree NORML meetings have historically attracted a diverse crowd of people from across the political spectrum, and this is true for the movement as a whole.

According to Gallup, 2 in 3 Americans (across political parties) support the legalization of cannabis.

But cannabis reform is a dynamic concept — and its supporters don’t always hold equally nuanced beliefs.

For example, some only support medical use, and others are content to accept laws that protect and benefit their social group while continuing to marginalize those historically targeted by the United States’ war on drugs.

Becoming a more conscious cannabis advocate requires a little work and a wide perspective. It’s also an enriching and engaging process that offers multiple ways to get involved.

When I first entered Manuel’s Tavern, a friendly woman wearing a name tag that read “Mama Juana” accepted my membership dues and introduced herself as Sharon Ravert, the chapter’s founder.

Next, she taught me the adage: “When we’re talking, we’re winning.”

Later that night, chapter secretary Kim Smith reminded the group that wearing a NORML shirt counts as a form of “talking,” too. Inspired, I purchased a shirt and began blogging about what happened when I wore it to “normal” places — like my children’s gymnastics class.

The result of this experiment was a series called NORML Mom that ran on my personal blog for 3 years.

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The author donning her NORML shirt at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, GA.

During my time as NORML Mom, I lived in a rural part of northwest Georgia, and I quickly realized the power of simply giving a face and name to a cause.

I was surprised to discover how few people realized that advocacy organizations existed, and I inspired some people to become more vocal about their own enthusiasm for cannabis reform.

While my original intention was to reduce the stigma around the intersection of parenting and cannabis, I quickly realized that the strongest stigma was attached to advocating for racial justice and social equity within the cannabis reform movement.

I also encountered stigma surrounding responsible adult use versus medical use, as well as stigma from cannabis enthusiasts against advocates who acknowledge that cannabis isn’t a panacea for all things.

Tackling each type of stigma head-on requires a nuanced approach. But when it comes to helping others recognize the fact that these stigmas even exist, simple conversation starters like shirts and blogs are powerful tools for initiating change.

Educating yourself about cannabis is also an important component of advocacy. Having complete knowledge of both the benefits and drawbacks of the plant leads to well-informed policy.

Likewise, sharing accurate information with children and teens helps undo decades of fear-based propaganda, while simultaneously inspiring safe, responsible use.

In addition to educating yourself about the pros and cons of cannabis, it’s equally important to recognize that cannabis isn’t for everyone — and that’s OK.

Cannabis entrepreneur Alice Moon previously managed an edibles review site before developing symptoms of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a sometimes life-threatening condition characterized by excessive vomiting and dehydration that’s linked to long-term, heavy use. Her symptoms are only alleviated by avoiding cannabis.

While she remains in the industry and continues to be an advocate, she’s also been the subject of harassment from activists who feel that her story will have a detrimental effect on the movement for legalization.

Conscious advocacy rejects this type of “all or nothing” thinking. Instead, it embraces the idea that understanding the negative consequences of cannabis consumption will make the industry safer and more successful as a whole.

Another simple step toward becoming a more conscious cannabis advocate is becoming a more conscious cannabis consumer.

Within the growing legal cannabis marketplace, there are plenty of opportunities to support people who simply seized the opportunity to profit from legalization.

Meanwhile, there are far fewer opportunities to support entrepreneurs who represent the communities that have been, and continue to be, the target of draconian drug laws.

In the first episode of the Netflix docu-series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike,” the Atlanta-based activist and rapper Michael Render demonstrates this point when he makes the commitment to purchase items only from black-owned businesses for 1 week.

After a conversation with El-P, the other half of his duo “Run the Jewels,” Render extends the challenge to purchasing only products sourced from Black-owned land. This means both his food and cannabis must come from Black-owned farms.

While he eventually secures a warm meal from a cooperative in Athens, Georgia, Render is never able to secure the cannabis for which he’s a known enthusiast and consumer.

There’s tremendous power in taking the time to seek out and support Black-owned businesses within the cannabis industry, as well as to support legislation that empowers Black cannabis farmers to own and cultivate land.

A plethora of organizations exist to promote all aspects of cannabis education and advocacy. These also offer connections and a sense of community.

While many organizations do excellent work, an important measure of their impact is the degree to which they acknowledge cannabis reform as a racial justice issue.

Here’s why:

  • Nationwide, a Black person is almost 4 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for cannabis, despite using cannabis at nearly equal rates.
  • Since the decriminalization of cannabis in Washington, DC, a Black person is still 11 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for public use.
  • Over the course of 2012 and 2013, more than 13 thousand immigrants were deported or otherwise separated from their families due to cannabis possession (fewer than 1 percent of those were drug traffickers).

Additionally, many who’ve been arrested for possessing, consuming, or selling cannabis are either still behind bars or prohibited from joining the industry.

Since cannabis-related incarceration rates are disproportionately high within low-income, marginalized communities, these same communities are also disproportionately restricted in their ability to profit from the legal cannabis industry.

When it comes to organizations that champion both racial justice and cannabis reform, The Last Prisoner Project leads the way.

A collaborative effort of cannabis industry experts, activists, educators, and community leaders, The Last Prisoner Project is “committed to freeing every last prisoner of the unjust war on drugs, starting with 40,000 people in prison for cannabis offenses legal in most states.”

The organization has amplified and accelerated its efforts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spread at record-setting rates through overcrowded U.S. prisons and jails.

Finally, voting and political engagement remain some of the most important ways you can be a conscious advocate for cannabis reform. The impact of your engagement occurs at the federal, state, and local level.

Federal

Cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. However, the Obama Administration set the precedent for allowing individual states to legalize without interference.

While the Trump Administration’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to reverse this standard, his efforts were unsuccessful.

Instead, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 legalized hemp farming and paved the way for a boom in legal hemp-derived CBD products, which brought cannabis squarely into the mainstream.

Additionally, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2019 offers federal protection to financial institutions that collaborate with cannabis businesses in legal states, and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 decriminalizes cannabis at the federal level.

The SAFE and MORE acts have progressed through the House of Representatives and must receive additional approval from the Senate.

Despite having inherent limitations, each act represents a major step forward in federal cannabis reform, and individual U.S. citizens can encourage the passage of these acts by calling their senators, signing petitions, and electing officials who support these new measures.

State

So far, more than 30 states have approved some form of cannabis legalization, and this number is poised to rise.

During the upcoming November 2020 elections, votes on cannabis policies will occur within the following states:

  • New Jersey
  • Mississippi
  • South Dakota
  • Arizona
  • Montana

Additional states are actively seeking the signatures necessary to add questions to the ballot.

At the state level, advocates have the opportunity to sign online petitions and to call their legislatures.

Lobbying in person at the state capital can also be a rewarding experience, but timing is limited to dates when voting is in session, and health restrictions due to COVID-19 may apply.

Local

Engaging with local city and county governments is sometimes the most powerful way to bring about change.

Just as the federal government has set the precedent for allowing state-based reform, some states have set the precedent for allowing individual counties and cities to first decriminalize, and later legalize, cannabis distribution and consumption.

Additionally, local governments often facilitate civic engagement, and running for office is easier than many people expect.

NORML provides a comprehensive guide to the 2020 election, which highlights key pieces of legislation in each state and offers candidate profiles.

Over my 5 years of active cannabis advocacy, I’ve embraced all 5 of these steps — but I also recognize that my ability to do so is due in part to the level of privilege I hold.

While past cannabis policies have been detrimental to everyone, they have been uniquely destructive within historically marginalized communities.

As the current cannabis reform movement intersects with 2020s renewed focus on civil and human rights, it’s time for the cannabis advocates who are experiencing the most freedom to ensure lasting change for all.

Kelli Lynn Grey is a professional medical copywriter and K-12 educator who also writes essays and poems about conscious cannabis culture and hope blooming in the dark. A mother of two and defender of civil and human rights, she shares updates through her newsletter The Grey Way. Her full length poetry collection, SOVEREIGN: Recovery Poems, is forthcoming this year.