Interview with Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority is a longtime activist and organizer, who has worked with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and now runs Marijuana Majority.

David Matson: Tom, can you tell me a little about yourself? How did you get into the Marijuana activism business?

tomangellTom Angell: I’ve been working in drug policy reform for over a decade now. I started off as a student activist at the University of Rhode Island, where I got involved with Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

At that time I saw several of my friends being arrested for drug offenses and saw how it negatively impact on their lives. I myself was arrested for possession of marijuana as a freshman in college and missed some classes to go to court, and had to pay some fines which were quite hefty for a no-income college student at that time.

I was angry about that. I wanted to figure out how I could change these laws and prevent them from harming other people. I got involved in SSDP and started to go to conferences, and almost immediately I learned that the impact of these laws is much bigger and much more damaging than I had personally experienced, or could ever imagine.

I met people who have loved ones who have been incarcerated for decades. I met people who have lost friends and loved ones due to gang violence which is perpetuated by drug prohibition.  I met people whose mothers died of heroin overdoses because there is no quality control in the black market.

I quickly realized that this issue is much bigger than a college student angry to have to go to court a couple of times cause you got busted with a small amount of marijuana.

QuotesCover-pic12I realized that – this is something I could be involved in – that I could help change. So I stayed involved in SSDP through the course of my college career. And when I graduated in 2004 I got a job at the SSDP national headquarters here in Washington DC. And for the next four years headed up efforts to place media coverage about why students around the country and the world are organizing to change these laws.

After those four years I became a media director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP – the group of police officers, judges, and prosecutors who have been on the front lines or the drug war –  and see up close that these policies are not only not working, but causing all kinds of corruption and violence and other crimes and wasted resources. For four years there I spent time generating news coverage about why police officers who once risked their lives enforcing those laws are trying to change them.

After 4 years at LEAP I decided to start my own organization, Marijuana Majority. Marijuana Majority really focuses on a simple message: trying to get people to understand that marijuana reform is a mainstream, majority-supported issue.

Over the course of my career working on this issue and interfacing with elected officials and decision makers, so many times, so many times, more times than I can count, people would tell me behind closed doors – “Oh yeah, I completely agree with you, these laws don’t make sense, they need to change” – and then they would say, “I could never say that in public! Because this is a third rail issue and I’ll be attacked as soft on drugs or soft on crime, and my opponents will use this against me, and i’ll lose my election and I won’t be able to do all the good things I would otherwise be able to do if I kept this office that I have now.”

That perception – that this is a dangerous issue – is one of the biggest roadblocks in our way to victory.  And it is of course, false. All the polling shows that the clear majority of voters want to legalize marijuana, and believe that the whole war on drugs is a failure and we should change directions.

The voters, the public, are ready for reform, and Marijuana Majority is just trying to let politicians and decision makers know that simple fact: That they will be rewarded and not attacked for doing the right thing.

DM: The website for Marijuana Majority is very single minded focused on sharing views of people we know and respect, primarily celebrities, and some politicians. But it seems like there is still a long way to go with actual elected politicians. There are only a handful of them openly supporting legalizing at this point.

stateslegalizepollTA: The polls show that sixty percent or more of voters want the federal government to let states set their own marijuana laws. However less than four percent of the members of the US House have co-sponsored a bill to do just that. There is this huge, huge disconnect. and we are trying to bridge that gap.

DM:  Do you think that it is mostly fear, or is it that the issue just hasn’t been ripe yet?

TA: I think it is a lot of leftover fears perhaps from the 1980s when this issue was marginalized, and voters weren’t necessarily ready for reform.

I think a lot of mainstream politicians today are still being advised by political consultants who came up during the 1980s. They can remember instances, for example in presidential politics when, Michael Dukakis, not on the drug issue, but, he was attacked on other criminal justice issues was shown by the Republicans to be “soft on crime”.

I think those scars from those campaigns back then still have resonance and undermine some politically involved people.

gallupmarijuanaThey haven’t necessarily taken the time to realize how much public perception has in fact changed since then – so strongly in our direction. So it is a matter of holding these people’s hands and making sure they look at the polling, making sure they pay attention to that fact that basically every time this issue is put on the ballot in front of voters, our side wins.

There are a lot of important issues in the world that politicians are spending their time on, so it is hard to get their attention on this. There are wars, healthcare, jobs, the economy, etc.

It is our job to let them know it is important to pay attention to this, too. So you are right, we do have a lot of work to do, but we’re doing it.

DM: I wonder about the current administration. I think they believe in some reform, I just don’t think they think it is their issue, and they just don’t care enough to make it a priority, is my personal opinion, I don’t know what you think about that.

TA: That’s my sense as well. As you probably know, the Obama administration has closed down more state legal medical marijuana providers than the Bush administration did. I often get asked “Why is that the case? Why is this president so obsessed with closing down medical marijuana shops?” And my answer is always: I don’t think he is. I think he is just not necessarily paying attention to the issue.

I don’t think he is walking around the oval office with the Attorney General, mischievously rubbing his fingers together, saying how can we punish more medical marijuana patients today.

I think it is just a matter of the career drug war bureaucrats in the Department of Justice, who have made the calculation that if they go forward with this crackdown the President is not going to tell them not to.  He is too busy focused on other things. And that is unfortunate, because in 2008 he campaigned, in part, on on respecting state marijuana laws, and lot of voter were hopeful he would follow through on that. And it is just makes him look really bad and it is really disappointing that they haven’t necessarily followed through on that.

I think it is to his detriment that he doesn’t pay more attention to this issue. As I said, the voters want this, and he will be rewarded and cheered for doing the right thing. That is unfortunate.


DM: Yeah, I think it is obviously not his priority, maybe he thinks its a distraction from the other things he wants to do. And its a lot of work. The drug war infrastructure, as you said,  there are thousands of employees who have been fighting this stupid war for decades. It’s a battleship, you just can’t turn it around without a lot of effort.

TA:  That’s right. It definitely takes time.

DM:  So what do you spend your days doing at Marijuana Majority to promote your cause. Are you on the phone with politicians, or are you doing advertising campaigns ?

Harry Reid on marijuana law reformTA: A lot of the time it is very closely monitoring news coverage to see who in fact is adding their voice to the debate, and reporting who is speaking out. What I spend a lot of time doing is publicizing those instances where prominent people who are respected – whether they are legislators or actors or artists or athletes – have added their voices to the debate, to further the impact of what they have said.

We also have someone who is on our board, Aaron Houston, who is a longtime capitol hill lobbyist. He spends a lot of time interfacing with legislators – to let them know that they should be comfortable in speaking out about this. I personally, primarily focus a lot on PR, media relations, and I put together these graphics online, that we hope are widely shared. To send the message to everyday people that this is a mainstream and majority supported issue.

Its not just politicians who agree with us behind closed doors but are afraid to talk about it. A lot of everyday people know that the drug war isn’t working, and we need to legalize marijuana, but are afraid of talking about that with their co-workers or members of their family, because they think they will be marginalized. “Oh, if you want to change these laws you must be a stoner” or something.

So by sharing these graphics of prominent people and politicians who are speaking out-  when people see that, it lets them know its okay to have these conversations. That’s the only way that we are going to change these laws and develop the critical mass it is going to take to win, is if people are comfortable talking about this. So lot of our focus is on the social media.

DM: Do you do much support with local activists on the ground, trying to get signatures, and that kind of work?

Marijuana Legalization must suceed to end the war on drugsTA: Yeah, we helped out with the campaigns in Colorado and Washington in 2012. And here we are I am now in Washington DC, you may have seen we just filed a ballot with the city board of education to form a marijuana legalization initiative. So that may in fact may be on the ballot this year, this November 2014. And if that moves forward, we are certainly going to be very involved in that with the signature gathering effort, with media coverage and social media. So yes, we are not just internet activists, although it is one of our primary focuses. We do get involved directly in efforts to change these laws.

DM: Yeah, that’s great. Even this week there has been so much news: there is DC and there is an initiative filed in Pennsylvania, there is New Hampshire voting on a legalization bill.

TA: That’s right, yes.

DM: And while a lot of these legalization bills that are submitted by legislators are probably not going to get that far the first try, just having politicians submit these bills, and opening the public debate is such a great step, because eventually these are going to get through.

TA: It is, absolutely. It goes back to what I was saying before –  when these politicians put their name on the bill, and they introduce it, co-sponsor it,  talk about it favorably in committee or on the floor – it sends a message to other politicians who are supportive, but are uncomfortable saying it publicly yet. They see it is possible, and that these politicians that are taking the lead now are largely getting a lot of positive press coverage.

Their constituents generally like it, and it sets a really important example for other politicians, who are a little bit skittish right now.

You can’t pass a bill unless it is introduced. As with any issue, it often take multiple legislative cycles to work its way through the entire process.

I feel really good about where we are right now with the movement. We have marijuana legal in two states – that is amazing! The country of Uruguay has just become the first nation in the world to legalize marijuana. Things are absolutely moving in our direction, and more people are realizing that.

I don’t want to get too overly optimistic or too pompous or anything – certainly marijuana is not going to legalize itself from here on out. But the clear fact is that we do have momentum on our side, and in politics momentum is really important.  Politicians want to be on the winning side, they don’t want to be on the losing side.

As we move forward this year and legalize marijuana in, whether it is one – two – three – four additional states – then into 2016 and add a bunch more on top of that – it is going to get easier and easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, there is still a lot of work to do, that’s for sure.

DM: I totally agree that there is a ton of work to do, but it is such a great time for activists to get involved, because we’ve seen it work, now we know it can work, and there is a clear path to actually getting these things passed. A couple of years ago these things never passed, but now its been done, and people see it, there is a path to winning.

TA: That’s absolutely right. When I was involved in Students for Sensible Drug Policy in 2004, when I was on campus, I can’t even tell you how many times we had a table, or we were trying to recruit people – We had people come by who clearly liked to use marijuana, tell us “Come on man, its never going to happen, dude. It’s not worth even my time to get involved.” Well, we proved those people wrong and now everyone knows it is going to happen.

statesmarijuanamapDM: Yes. This year we’ve got Alaska and Oregon are pretty good bets, and maybe California,  or that could be 2016. So the ballot initiatives are going to be grinding it on the ground.  But the really interesting thing that is going to happen is when the first state legalizes through the legislature. That is going to be fascinating, and going to be a huge tipping point.

TA: I definitely agree on that. This issue, this movement has had to had to rely on the voter initiative process just because politicians have viewed this as a dangerous issue. Citizens have had to circumvent them by going right to the voters. And that strategy has been worked largely for us, but I do agree with you 100% that it will be impactful when the first state legislature legalizes marijuana.

I don’t know if this is hometown bias or anything, but I feel – and I know a lot of other people in the movement agree – that Rhode Island, my home state has a really good chance of being that state to make it happen.

There is so much support within the legislature. The governor is critical opponent of the war on drugs as well. He unfortunately, Lincoln Chafee, said last week that  perhaps we should wait to see how it goes in Colorado before we go ahead. But if the legislature were to put a bill on his desk I don’t see him vetoing it, I see him signing it, and it going into law.

Map_of_Rhode_Island_NAI think Rhode Island has a good chance of being the first state. People are talking about Maryland – of course the Governor there is officially opposed – Governor Martin O’Malley said some very unhelpful things about his opposition to marijuana. But he will no longer be Governor next year, so Maryland has a really good shot.

Other people have talked about about Maine as a possibility, or Vermont. So it seems that there are a lot of local activists who are working on this in a number of states. Bills are being introduced, and it’s only a matter of time, and some more work,  before it happens. It could be this year, or it could be next year, or the year after that.

There is some sense among a lot of lawmakers that there is no need to rush this, that we should wait to see how things go in Colorado and Washington.  And it some ways, that is a reasonable and sensible point of view. You want to learn from the example of others.

On the other hand, the longer you wait, the more tens of thousands of people in your state are being put into handcuffs for no good reason. The longer millions of dollars are going into the pockets of drug cartels and street gangs that are controlling the illegal market.  The longer millions of dollars in potential tax revenues your state is losing out on.

So there are incentives to wait, and there are incentives to go for it, and we’ll see which attitude prevails from state to state.

DM: I think there are two different interesting models, there is the equal marriage movement that started happening and then became acceptable and inevitable. And then the other interesting analogy is the legalization of casino gambling, as far as the state interest in not having tax revenue going across the border. We’re not there yet, but in a couple years, that is going to be a consideration. If New York passes it, but Pennsylvania doesn’t, then people are going across the border to buy stuff, why are we giving this money up?


Customers in Colorado line up to buy legal marijuana on the first day of sales.

TA:  I think that is exactly right, you saw it just like I did. The coverage of the first legal sales in Colorado. How many of those people who were waiting in line for hours were not Colorado residents? How many were from Wyoming or Texas or Oklahoma? That goes directly to your point.

That’s money that the citizens of all those neighboring states are putting into Colorado tax coffers, not into the tax coffers of their own states. Just like with casino gambling, a lot of state lawmakers and state officials are going to say, “Huh, should be we letting this money go across the border? It’s not like people in our state aren’t using marijuana. Maybe we should try to control it, regulate it, and tax it in a responsible way. “

DM: It’s hard to jump past the removal of criminal penalties and legalization, but there are more battles to fight beyond that. There are issues of civil rights, job discrimination, family court issues, where parents, even with legal medical marijuana, are risk of losing their kids. Drug testing, and so many other issues. Are you thinking about and working on those issues as well beyond the criminal issues?

TA: That is a fantastic question. Obviously all those things are important concerns. Marijuana Majority specifically, being a very small underfunded organization, we try to focus where we can have the most impact – what has momentum right now. And obviously the first priority is making sure that people aren’t going to jail for using marijuana. So that it is where our focus is as an organization right now – working to pass decrim or legalization laws.

But you are absolutely right, our work is not done once marijuana is legalized, there is still societal discrimination, against people who choose to use marijuana. Where people are losing their jobs or having their children taken away from them. There will obviously be a lot of important work to be done to stop that societal discrimination against people who use marijuana.

I think it is important that you point that out, we shouldn’t lose sight of that. It is a good thing to focus on. But to answer your question, we don’t even really have a staff. I do a lot of stuff for Marijuana Majority on a purely volunteer basis. So it is a question of focus and resources and time for us – what we are able to work on.


About David Matson