Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests:
Movement Makers or Risky Distractions?
Summer's here and the time is right, well, maybe not for fighting
in the streets, as a much younger Mick Jagger once advised, but
at least for marching in the streets. As winter's cold gives way
to pleasant weather, the marijuana movement's traditional street
protests and rallies blossom like the hardy perennials they are.
And with the return of protest season comes the annual debate
about the utility of such tactics.
The season is already here. Last month in Ann Arbor, thousands
flooded into the University of Michigan quad for the annual Hash
Bash, puffing furiously and providing a healthy jump-start for
Michigan's marijuana legalization initiative petition drive
(http://www.PRAyes.com). And last weekend, activists in more
than 130 cities worldwide, including dozens in the US, held
street marches under the auspices of Space Odyssey 2001, this
year's version of the annual Million Marijuana March effort led
by venerable yippie activist Dana Beal.
(See http://www.cures-not-wars.org for further information).
More are on the way, including the 32nd annual Washington, DC 4th
of July smoke-in, the annual monster events, such as Boston's
Freedom Rally and Seattle's Hempfest, both of which draw up to
100,000 participants, and innumerable smaller hempfests, pot
parades and smoke-ins across the land.
Not all reformers leap at the prospect of such mass actions.
David Borden, DRCNet's executive director, sees little utility in
smoke-ins, marches, and the like. "A lot of competent, devoted
people spend a lot of time on these events that could instead be
poured into more effective types of activism," said Borden.
Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project
(http://www.mpp.org), which focuses on lobbying Congress and
state legislatures, told DRCNet he doesn't totally disavow
protest actions, but that the possible benefits must be weighed
against possible negative publicity and that such actions need to
be carefully thought out.
"At MPP, we draw a distinction -- we do demonstrations, not
rallies," said Thomas. "We will do a targeted, focused
demonstration aimed at a member of Congress on a particular
"Before doing a public demonstration, people need to determine
specifically what it is they want to accomplish," said Thomas.
"They also need to assess their other efforts. Have they tried
all other options -- have they written to their legislators, have
they tried to set up meetings, have they built a broad coalition,
have they recruited the best spokespersons, have they written
letters to the editor, have they exhausted all options and as a
last resort now see the need for some sort of organized public
But even then, said Thomas, protest organizers can expect to be
bushwhacked by the press. "No matter how well organized a rally
is and how well controlled the message is, the media are so
hungry to find one example to confirm their stereotypes of
marijuana users that all it takes is one young person smoking a
marijuana cigarette or one misspelled sign or one strange looking
fellow in a tie-dye, and there's the image on the evening news,"
Thomas explained. "Such images unfortunately can scare the more
close-minded people in our society, and those are people we need
to turn around."
Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy is a member of the
collective that organizes the annual Washington, DC, 4th of July
smoke-in (http://www.fourthofjuly.org). "It's not a smoke-in,"
pleaded McVay, fruitlessly following the organizers' official
line. "It's the 4th of July Hemp Coalition Rally, March, and
Concert to End Marijuana Prohibition." (Organizers can call it
what they want, but in the local marijuana culture it will
forever be the smoke-in.) McVay is not so concerned about
possible bad media images, arguing that the media will take them
where they find them and use them as they see fit.
"If they can't find a 15-year-old kid smoking a joint at a pot
rally, all they have to do is go to any rock concert to get their
picture," said McVay. "And we cannot afford to be so intimidated
that we do not show our faces. It's a fallacy to believe that
Bill Bennett and his ilk will shut up and leave us alone if we
just keep a low profile."
Dana Beal has no plans to keep a low profile and no qualms about
organizing marijuana marches. "These are important events for
the movement," he told DRCNet. "We had marches in at least 130
cities, and there may be more I haven't heard about yet. If you
have marches in enough cities, especially where it hasn't
happened before, it can represent the kind of sea change that
happened when the gay liberation movement emerged in the late
But Beal also understands how the media tends to operate and
organizes accordingly. "It's how you configure the public
event," he said. "For example, we turned our event from a
festival to a march, and the media tends to focus on the front of
the march, so we make sure we have our people with signs up
front." Beal emphasized that the event was a march, not a smoke-
in. "There was no conscious civil disobedience, no one trying to
But arrests did happen, at least at the New York City march. In
line with Mayor Giuliani's crackdown on marijuana smokers, New
York's finest sent undercover cops into the crowd to finger
smokers, then began arresting crowd members who pointed out the
narcs. There were 197 arrests, Beal said, the majority for
interfering with police. The police also resorted to pepper
spray as the march threatened to turn into a police-provoked
"What happened in New York shows the importance of local
conditions," said McVay. "Issues and things like relations with
the police are very site specific. In New York, you have a long
tradition of gritty activism with the yippies and the squatters,
and the cops there are the ones used to roust the homeless and
street activists. Washington Square Park is not a place for
mainstream America," he added. "And the police came off looking
like the aggressors, especially when they pepper-sprayed the
"Similarly, here in Washington we know that on the 4th of July
the Mall will be crawling with police. That's why we make such a
point of stressing nonviolence and no confrontations. This isn't
a smoke-in -- at least not in the sense that people are engaging
in civil disobedience to get arrested. We've been saddled with
the smoke-in name for 30 years, but the point of the rally is
legalization, not getting together to smoke pot in public," said
McVay. "These things give people a chance to speak out publicly
and know it's all right. Our opponents will always try to
marginalize us, whether we're wearing suits or t-shirts. But
we're not marginal; drug reform is mainstream now. What's not
mainstream is opening your mouth about changing the law, and if
mainstream drug reform organizations would support us, we would
be ecstatic," McVay added.
"Look, these rallies do have a purpose. The first is to show
that your issue has popular support, that you can get the bodies,
and second, to be in the middle of a crowd of people talking out
loud about drug policy reform and marijuana legalizing is
empowering and validating. That's what these rallies are good
for," McVay concluded.
Bob Doyle, a board member of MassCann (http://www.masscann.org),
the organizers of the Boston Freedom Rally each fall, told DRCNet
his organization rehashes this very debate every year. MassCann
plays both sides, he said. "We have the button-down guys in
suits working with the legislature, and we helped write seven
drug reform bills before the legislature. But we also do the
rally, and what does that get us?" he asked rhetorically. "It
gets us 100,000 showing up to hear our message and it gets our
name on the front page of the Boston Globe."
Doyle recognizes the danger of media stereotyping, but he told
DRCNet he believes MassCann has begun to move the local media
beyond such reflex reporting. "The Herald and the Globe always
concentrated on the 14-year-old smoking a joint, but now we're
being taken more seriously. Now, when we go to the media and
tell them we're from MassCann, they say 'oh, you're the guys who
put 100,000 people on the Commons.' The publicity is great and
the name recognition is important," Doyle said.
But Doyle has complaints, ones that other drug reformers can only
dream about. "We're stuck with the Freedom Rally," he said.
"It's so big we couldn't think of not holding it anymore." Doyle
would like to see a number of smaller rallies across
Massachusetts. "We have to get more mainstream," he told DRCNet.
"We believe our views are mainstream, we think most people agree
with us about medical marijuana, decriminalization, etc., but it
is still so much fun for the mainstream media to play with those
'60s and '70s stereotypes."
The divisions over mass protests are not only tactical. They
also represent broader cultural, racial, and class divisions
within the drug reform movement and society at large. Unlike,
Canada and some European countries which have organized hard drug
users' groups, the only drug users organized in any significant
manner in the US are marijuana smokers, and actual demographics
aside, their public face is overwhelmingly young, white, and
For Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst at the Institute for Policy
Studies, mass protests over marijuana are a diversion from more
serious work. "I work on the intersection of race and poverty
with the drug war," he told DRCNet. "I don't go to smoke-ins,
nor do I listen to the Grateful Dead." (DRCNet did not have the
heart to ask him about Phish.) "I don't have much use for such
actions unless they are able to mobilize people into a
disciplined electoral force, and I don't see much sign of that.
After all, it's the laws that we are trying to change, not the
culture. There are plenty of libertarians who can fight for the
right of privileged white drug users to party."
California activist Mikki Norris of Human Rights and the Drug War
has heard such sentiments before and has a ready response. "You
shouldn't be calling these things smoke-ins because you want to
send a message that goes beyond having a right to party," she
told DRCNet. "We have protests for equal rights for pot
In fact, Norris has created a web site -- http://www.potpride.com
-- to carry forth her pot-positive message. "Equal rights are
for everybody," says the site. "Discrimination is wrong. Equal
rights for pot smokers." Norris and her husband and fellow
activist Chris Conrad took themselves and their message to San
Francisco for that city's marijuana march on May 5.
"In San Francisco, we had a parade and I had a bullhorn and we
did some chants: 'Say it loud, I smoke pot and I'm proud,' 'what
do we want -- equal rights, when do we want them -- now,'" Norris
demonstrated. "We emphasized how we are good people, not
criminals, and we deserve the same rights as anyone else. It
wasn't about our right to party; that doesn't get you anywhere."
Norris and Conrad agree that pro-pot rallies can have adverse
consequences -- "pictures of kids smoking pot are not helpful,"
Norris noted -- but argue that such events also provide a morale
boost for the movement. "These actions give people a sense of
empowerment, camaraderie, and of power in numbers," said Norris.
They also agree with MPP's Chuck Thomas that mass actions need to
be carefully thought out as part of an integrated political
strategy, although, unlike Thomas, they do not view them as a
"You can do a smoke-in," Conrad told DRCNet, "by which I mean an
act of civil disobedience where people plan to be arrested for
violating the marijuana laws. But if you're going to do that,
you need to be serious. You need people ready for a structured
confrontation with the police, you need attorneys present, and
you need to ensure that the person doing the smoking is an
articulate and legitimate spokesman, such as a medical marijuana
patient or responsible adult."
"But," Norris chimed in, "you have to do more than just a smoke-
in. You have to be calling on your representatives or elected
officials, engaging in the political process, and demanding that
you no longer be treated as second class citizens."
For MPP's Thomas "pot pride" is all well and good, but does not
by itself pull marijuana smokers from their marginal position in
society. "We need to point to marijuana smokers who are already
successes in society and to the extent we can do that, that's a
good thing," Thomas said. "But if someone is going to hold
himself out as a responsible pot smoker, he better be one. It
can't be 'look at me, I smoke pot and I have a good job... in
drug reform,'" he added. "You'd have to be willing to lay it all
on the line and be willing to undergo scrutiny from critics to
show you actually are a normal, mainstream person. It's only
worthwhile to come out yourself if you can withstand the
The Marijuana Policy Project has 6,000 people writing letters to
legislators, Thomas said. "Our goal is to provide an
organization where the most mainstream supporters of marijuana
policy reform can feel like they have a role in the movement."
And the various smoke-ins, rallies, and marches bring out
hundreds of thousands. Neither form of activism is likely to go
away. As the drug reform movement matures, the question is not
letter-writing vs. taking it to the streets, but how best to take
advantage of all the tactics at the movement's disposal and wield
those tools in an integrated, appropriate manner within a
multifaceted reform movement.
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