What is a Cannabis Activist & How to Become One?
At first glance, it appears that the news surrounding marijuana these days is almost always positive. Legalization, decriminalization and societal acceptance are carrying cannabis and cannabis-related products into the mainstream. There are now 33 states where marijuana is legal for medical use and 11 where residents can enjoy recreational weed, with a number of other states expected to join the growing list of recreational weed states in the near future. Take a closer look, however, and it becomes immediately clear that for all the gains that have been made over the past 25 years, marijuana activists have much to do to reach the goal of a system of equality.
Cannabis might be legal at the state level, but according to the Federal Government, it is a Schedule I substance and therefore prohibited under federal law. Unfortunately, high arrest rates disproportionately affect the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community and it is clear that a severe bias exists when it comes to arrests and incarceration of U.S. citizens for marijuana-related offenses.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, “on average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” There are currently over 40,000 people in jail in this country because of marijuana offenses. Marijuana activism is as important today as it has ever been.
The Role of the Marijuana Activist
Marijuana activists are individuals who are energetically involved in advancing the cause of marijuana legalization and legitimization. They seek to increase public awareness of the legislative issues surrounding the use of medical marijuana, remove regulations that restrict access to marijuana or work to reform a broken criminal justice system that prejudicially targets underrepresented or marginalized communities. A weed activist can work alone or work with/become a member of any number of organizations that focus on the inequalities and erroneous information that still surround cannabis – organizations like NORML, National Cannabis Industry Association and Marijuana Majority. Notable cannabis advocates include:
Known as the “Emperor of Hemp”, Herer is the author of the influential book The Emperor Wears No Clothes and founded Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP). Herer’s legacy is immortalized by the eponymous sativa-dominant strain.
D’Angelo co-founded the first commercial cannabis lab and the first cannabis investment firm in the country. He has worked tirelessly for decades to decriminalize and legalize cannabis.
The “Martha Stewart of Marijuana” founded Women Grow – the cannabis industry’s largest professional female networking organization – and also started the Jane West cannabis lifestyle brand that has turned countless suburban moms on to the health benefits of marijuana use.
Peron was instrumental in California’s medical marijuana legalization in the 1990s and co-authored California’s groundbreaking Proposition 215. He also co-founded the first public cannabis dispensary (San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club) and was known for providing marijuana to San Franciscans suffering from AIDS at the height of the epidemic.
How to Become a Cannabis Activist
There are several ways to become a marijuana advocate, support the movement for reform and reach the ultimate goal of federal legalization. As with any type of activism, it is important to be informed and stay up to date on the ever-changing cannabis landscape in the U.S. Follow the news, understand existing and potential legislation and get engaged!
Find the Group That is Right for You
We mentioned a few organizations above, but take some time to investigate and decide where you want to focus your energy. Do you want to focus on cannabis legalization? Do you want to fight for those imprisoned for marijuana-related offenses? Looking for a local group of medical marijuana activists? Get online and find the right fit.
Go to Local Government Meetings
Even within states where medical and recreational cannabis are legal, there are municipalities where they are not. Regularly attending city council or county board meetings and making your voice heard can have a profound effect on local ordinances that might unfairly target minorities or prevent patients from accessing medical weed.
Become Educated on Political Candidates and Vote
It’s not just a worn cliche – your vote counts. Use it to back pro-cannabis legislators and pro-cannabis legislation. Laws and statutes regarding marijuana are often written and championed thanks to strong public support and the will of the people.
Attend an Event or Rally
Going to cannabis advocacy events is an excellent way to meet similarly minded people and champion the cause of marijuana. Local gatherings on a small scale are great for networking and larger marches and rallies can prompt the public and politicians to understand the strength of the movement.
We live in a capitalist society and money talks. Cannabis advocates and pro-marijuana organizations require funding to operate and effectively educate others. A little research can go a long way to guide you and your dollars to a suitable group or association that will benefit from your philanthropy regardless of the amount of cash donated.
Are you a cannabis activist or have you thought about joining others in marijuana activism? Take a moment to let us know in the comments section what it’s like where you live and the cannabis issues that you find to be most important.
At first glance, it appears that the news surrounding marijuana these days is almost always positive. Legalization, decriminalization and societal acceptance are carrying cannabis and cannabis-related products into the mainstream. There are now 33 states where marijuana is legal for medical use and 11 where residents can enjoy recreational weed, wi
ILLEGAL! Presents: The Cannabis Activist
ILLEGAL! is a new magazine that deals with drugs and culture. Sold on the streets of the UK by people who use drugs and others from marginalised groups, £2 from each copy sold is kept by the vendor, providing a valuable alternative income for people who would otherwise rely on criminality or prostitution to support themselves. VolteFace has teamed up with ILLEGAL! to present highlights from each edition online in a regular column. We are excited to be able to champion the work of ILLEGAL! Magazine, and if you see someone selling, we recommend you buy a copy to discover more great stories. This week, Lee Harris takes us back through over 50 remarkable years of cannabis activism.
I am the romantic revolutionary that resides in the soul of all of us, always rejuvenating and reinventing myself through alchemical rebirths and spring returns. I am part of the continuum, the passing flow of events that touch our lives and help us transform ourselves, and sometime the world around us.
My parents were Lithuanian Jews who left behind the Czarist pogroms and the coming of Bolshevism and fled to South Africa, to Johannesburg where I was born in 1936. My father died when I was nine years old and I spent the next three years in an orphanage. My mother remarried but I never got on with my stepfather. I started work in a clothing factory as an apprentice when I was sixteen.
At the age of eighteen I had a personal and political awakening from the conditioning of white Apartheid rule, who gave no vote and property rights to the non-white majority of citizens. I became a member of the Congress Movement and joined the struggle against unjust racist laws. I became a freedom fighter for a noble cause. “Freedom in our lifetime” became our clarion call.
It was an auspicious time. A life-changing moment for me. They were preparing for the Congress of the People, to proclaim a Freedom Charter, that the land belonged to all the people. In the weeks before the congress I was taken by a professor and activist to the downtown offices of two African lawyers, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Thambo and I sat with them and listened as they discussed the coming congress, which took place at Kliptown, near Soweto on the 25th-26th of June 1955. I sold the political newspaper New Age which was edited by Ruth First, who was blown up by a parcel bomb at Maputo university in Mozambique a few years later.
On the second day, a Sunday, the gathering of over three thousand, were surrounded by two hundred policemen armed with rifles. As the white police chief walked through the crowd to the platform, the mainly African delegates stood up and sang the anthem Nkosi Skelele Africa (God Save Africa). It was the most emotional moment in my life, I was so proud and humbled to be there. Six months later I left South Africa to study dramatic art and start a new life in the United Kingdom, having been liberated personally and radicalised.
By the time I arrived in London aged nineteen, I was a humanist, anti-racist and pacifist. I was inspired Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, a South African Indian communist and anti-apartheid activist, who was the leader of the Defiance Campaign in the Fifties and a follower of the Mahatma Gandhi. We used to sing “In 1951 when defiance was begun, mounting oppression was the cause for the defiance of unjust laws”. In 1958 I was on the first CND march from London to Aldermarston. I waited for thirty-eight years for apartheid to go and Nelson Mandela to be the first president of a democratic South Africa.
After finishing drama school I started writing plays and articles, and came on the scene as a moral crusader in 1963, exposing the purple-heart pep-pill craze of the young Mods in Soho clubs. I worked with the investigative journalist Anne Sharpley of the Evening Standard and the Member of Parliament for Paddington Ben Parkin and questions were raised in parliament. I was instrumental in getting amphetamines banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1964.
During this period I came into contact with cannabis users in the West End and I had my first puff of the herb, trying to inhale, walking along Oxford Street late on a Saturday night. A new cannabis culture was beginning in the Mod clubs and coffee bars in Soho frequented by young West Indians, bohemians, artists and students. I had my first bust in February 1967. I was searched coming out of a club in Soho by plain-clothed police and charged with possession of a tiny bit of cannabis valued at five shillings (25p at today’s value) and fined thirty pounds. I had my first criminal conviction.
By the Summer of Love of that year I was a hippie with flowers in my hair, at the Legalise Pot Rally in Hyde Park, where thousands turned up. We were the flower children, the hippiest of the beautiful people decked with the flowers of the hedgerow in our hair. I appeared in a photo on the back page of The Guardian and on TV’s Panorama hippies.
Lee Harris outside his shop, Alchemy
Later that year at the University of London I took part in a debate with Steve Abrams, an American Oxford graduate, on the motion ‘that this house would rather be high than holy’ with a Jesuit priest and the students’ chaplain. We lost but hundreds turned up including Lord Annan, the provost of the University.
During the late Sixties and early Seventies there were lots of stop and searches and police raids on premises because The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1967 allowed the police to do stop and searches just for drugs for the first time. The Act was passed with minimal debate in parliament.
Young people were being persecuted and politicised by the ruthless action of the police. There was a burgeoning counter-cultural movement and the hundreds of thousands who smoke cannabis came from all walks of society and every part of the United Kingdom.
Outraged at the treatment handed down to hippie drug users by the police and courts, art students Caroline Coon and Rufus Harris founded Release in a basement flat in Shepherds Bush and installed the worlds first 24-hour drugs and free legal advice telephone line. Organised by Steve Abrams and financed by the Beatles, The Times newspaper carried the first Cannabis Law Reform full-page advertisement, signed by the great, good and groovy declaring that the laws on cannabis are immoral in principle and unworkable in practise.
In 1972, with the support of Release, CARO (Cannabis Action Reform Organisation) was launched to change the drug laws demanding the legalisation of possession of cannabis. I was on the committee, a brave but fruitless task. That same year I started my indoor stall in the Portobello Market on a Saturday called Alchemy to serve the needs of the long-haired hippies who were returning from the journey to the East on the hash trail from Khatmandhu. I was selling balms, incense and herbal highs like ginseng, damiana. Alchemy is now London’s oldest headshop and the longest-running alternative, counter-culture enterprise in the Portobello Road.
By the late Seventies the LCC (Legalise Cannabis Campaign) and the anarchic Smokey Bears were active, and I published and edited ten issues over five years of Homegrown, Europe’s first cannabis magazine. In February 1980 the Kosmos in Amsterdam was the venue of the ICAR (International Cannabis Alliance for Reform conference, which Homegrown co-sponsored. Since then there have been numerous marches, campaigns, festivals, rallies and picnics all over the country.
I have championed the rights of drug prisoners abroad, serving long sentence often in inhuman conditions. I was one of the first to welcome Howard Marks home after serving his sentence in the USA.
Lee Harris and Howard Marks (Source: ILLEGAL! Magazine)
In 1990 I was sentenced to three months imprisonment for selling items such as cigarette papers and pipes ‘believed to be used for the smoking of cannabis’. The sentence was quashed on appeal, and headshops opened all over the country. The law against cannabis is simply archaic and belongs to a bygone era of prejudice and ignorance. It is simply wrong that young people can have their career options blighted or travel options restricted because of a criminal record for cannabis possession. Public opinion is now in favour of change.
Two of my most memorable moments of cannabis activism have been to be named in Release’s Roll of Honour, and to be one of the candidates to represent CISTA (Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol) in the London mayoral elections of 2016.
ILLEGAL! Presents: The Cannabis Activist ILLEGAL! is a new magazine that deals with drugs and culture. Sold on the streets of the UK by people who use drugs and others from marginalised groups,