By Dan Bernath
A common source of frustration for MPP – and for most folks in the marijuana policy reform movement – is being mischaracterized as "pro-pot" or "pro-drug" by the press. Not only are these labels misleading and politically charged, they're completely inaccurate.
Most of us who wish to end marijuana prohibition do so because we see the policy's utter futility and its legacy of failure and waste. Our argument isn't that marijuana is fun; it's that marijuana prohibition is a disaster, and that perpetuating it is inhumane and irresponsible. That's true whether you use marijuana or not, and whether you approve of marijuana use or not.
I don't think reporters mischaracterize us on purpose. Reporters pride themselves on their ability to approach topics with a healthy dose of skepticism, but most of them haven't given marijuana policy much thought. They grew up with the same propaganda about marijuana and the same stereotypes about marijuana users that we all did. If those ideas go unexamined, then those unexamined views often find their way into reporters' work.
And it isn't just the small papers and local news channels. Just last week, I corresponded with a reporter for the Washington Post who had described MPP as a "pro-pot group" to request a correction in the online version of the story.
I'm not bringing this up to bash anybody. I believe that she and her editor sincerely gave my request honest consideration based on their point of view, and she was prompt in responding to me, but they declined to change the story.
It makes sense that defenders of marijuana prohibition like to characterize critics of our current policies as pro-marijuana or as encouraging marijuana use. They have a much better chance defeating this straw man than if they were to engage in an honest debate about properly assessing marijuana's relative dangers to individuals and to society and developing effective policies designed to mitigate those dangers. It's very difficult to defend prohibition in that light.
I suppose objecting to being mislabeled as "pro-pot" can appear to many in the press as the standard quibbling over rhetorical distinctions that they may perceive as common among activists. But that just shows that marijuana policy reformers need to do a better job of accurately and clearly defining their position.
It can certainly get wearisome countering these same mischaracterizations in the press, but it's also an opportunity. Although I failed to get the Post article corrected, I did get in touch with the paper's ombudsman who, after looking into the issue, agreed that the phrase "pro pot" was "simplistic" and posted a note to the Post staff advising them about my complaint and her opinion. So I'd like to think that pointing out the problem at least caused some folks over there to think about marijuana policy for a moment or two.
If so, that would be bad news for prohibitionists in the long run. Their best chance at perpetuating these awful laws is by discouraging critical thought and mischaracterizing critics' stance. That will be much harder to do if more members of the press approach drug warriors and their agenda with the same skepticism with which they approach other groups.
Dan Bernath is the Marijuana Policy Project’s assistant director of communications, www.mpp.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dan Bernath