By Rob Kampia

People involved in marijuana policy reform are inevitably asked the question, “Are you a marijuana user?”

Whether or not the reformer uses marijuana, it isn’t obvious how the question should be answered.

Of course, whether or not a particular marijuana policy activist uses marijuana has very little to do with whether our nation’s marijuana laws should be changed.

But to answer the question by saying, “It’s none of your business,” isn’t the way to go. Why? Because it comes off as rude and therefore isn’t effective if you actually care about making a positive impression on the person who asked the question. So your answer shouldn’t focus on how offensive you find the question, but rather on how to direct your interlocutor to the real issue – arrests and prison, arrests and prison, arrests and prison.

Interestingly, those of us who have been arrested for marijuana are in the strongest position to answer the question. Because I’ve been arrested, I can say, “Given that I was arrested and went to jail for marijuana...sure, I’ve used it.” This kind of answer points the conversation in the direction we want it to go – arrests and prison.

For people who haven’t been “lucky” enough to have been arrested, one way to answer the question is to treat the issue as the personal, private matter that it is. During MPP’s first ballot-initiative campaign in Nevada in 2002, a Newsweek reporter complained to me that one of our major supporters had refused to answer the question; the reporter couldn’t understand why someone who had invested so much, both personally and financially, in reforming our nation’s marijuana laws wouldn’t talk about his own marijuana use.

I responded by telling the reporter that he wouldn’t dream of asking a Planned Parenthood employee whether she had had an abortion. And, I continued, the marijuana question is even worse in some ways, because the Planned Parenthood employee wouldn’t be admitting to a crime if she were to answer in the affirmative.

And in thinking about the comparisons to another divisive social-change issue...

The marijuana policy reform movement bears a strong resemblance to the gay rights movement, in part because both began to coalesce in the late 1960s with distinctive cultures of likeminded people. So why has the gay rights movement been much more effective than our movement? Largely because the gay rights movement has incorporated the strategy of its members “outing” themselves: Many of its leaders quickly recognized the simple truth that it’s harder to demonize a group of people if you actually know (and even admire or love) someone who is part of that group.

The marijuana policy reform movement could have the same success if more of its proponents were to disclose their own marijuana use. It would then be much harder for our opponents to invoke the term “pothead” or cling to other pejorative stereotypes.

Of course, in publicly admitting to one’s marijuana use, could you be subjecting yourself to arrest and criminal penalties? No, because there’s a difference between disclosing that you currently possess/grow marijuana versus disclosing that you currently use marijuana. It’s a matter of wording, and the latter wording is the smarter wording.

In my opinion, it’s best for most marijuana users to come out of the closet, perhaps by saying something like, “I’ve used marijuana, it hasn’t hurt me, and it actually has a beneficial impact on my life.” More people need to hear this message from more of us.

And if you’re not a marijuana user – and many marijuana policy reformers are not – the question is a perfect opportunity to explain why marijuana policy reform isn’t about changing the laws for personal gain. Rather, it’s a serious civil liberties issue that everyone, not just marijuana users, should care about.

Back to the issue of outing oneself: I’m a marijuana user.

Rob Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, www.mpp.org. Email him at rob@mpp.org.