As gays rights hit mainstream, what can drug policy activists learn from the gay-rights movement?

Why has the gay rights movement built so much political clout while drug users are still considered pariahs and drug policy reform still retains its political toxicity?

While he was growing hemp in his backyard and probably smoked it mixed with tobacco on his front porch, Thomas Jefferson proposed in 1779 a law that would mandate castration for gay men and mutilation of nose cartilage for gay women. Considering that homosexuality was a crime routinely punished by death penalty at the time, his was actually a rather liberal position. 234 years later in Lawrence v. Texas[i], the US Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in thirteen other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. Another ten years later, the Supreme Court appears ready to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and rule unconstitutional the discrimination against same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, but is specifically banned either in the Constitutions or by law in 40 states. Nonetheless, to quote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., “political figures are falling over themselves to endorse [same-sex marriage].” Even ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh admits that national gay marriage is unstoppable.

Meanwhile, drug users have yet to make a credible case for their own rights, rights that are routinely violated while they are considered criminals or sick people in the best case. Marijuana is still scheduled alongside heroin and crack-cocaine and possession is still subject to harsh punishment at the federal level. “Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” says João Goulão, head of Portugal’s national anti-drug program in an article published by Speigel Online on March 27.[ii] The truth is that while drug addiction is indeed a medical condition, drug users are neither sick nor criminals, and they should be granted the same rights as alcohol drinkers or psycho-pharmaceuticals users.

Far from falling on themselves to endorse drug users rights, politicians openly supporting marijuana legalization are barely a handful and the topic retains all its political toxicity. Still, medical marijuana is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia. 11 states have medical marijuana bills pending in their legislature, with New Hampshire and Maryland in the final stages of adoption. Marijuana has been fully legalized in Colorado and Washington and 8 more states are debating joining them through their legislature, although only Oregon stands any decent chance of doing so. Medical marijuana has the overwhelming support of the US population and a majority now favors outright legalization. Why then, has the marijuana policy reform movement failed, so far, to translate its very substantial public support into political clout?

The gay rights movement and the marijuana legalization movements took off at about the same time in the late sixties to early seventies in the US and were both originally tied to the counterculture movement. Estimates of the gay population vary between 2 and 4% of the US population, while up to 50% of the US adult population has used illegal drugs at least once and up to 20% are occasional users.

Why was the relatively small gay community so successful in overcoming the strong prejudice it had long suffered while the much larger minority of drug users has still failed to do so? Why has the gay rights movement built so much political clout while drug users are still considered pariahs and drug policy reform still retains its political toxicity? Why have elected officials been well ahead of public opinion on gay rights issues while they are still lagging far behind on drug users-rights issues?

Several reasons have been advanced to explain the remarkable success of the gay-rights movement. As gay people came out of the closet, people realized that anti-gay discrimination directly harms their loved ones, their friends and family members. But the same could be said of drug users. Gay people were unnecessarily dying of AIDS; but drug users are unnecessarily dying of overdoses or blood-borne diseases, including AIDS. In the prohibitionist propaganda, drug use is still equated with drug abuse, but gay lifestyle is not systematically associated with hazardous sexual practices anymore.

The reasons for the sharp contrast between the gay rights movement and the drug users-rights movement come from the drug users themselves. While the first gay pride marches started in 1970, there are still no marijuana pride marches to this day. Past use may have lost its stigma, but outside the entertainment industry, admission of current use still bears a strong stigma and drug users are still extremely reluctant to come out of the closet.

More importantly, while drug users in general and marijuana users in particular are still marginalized and strongly identified to the counterculture and pot-heads are often perceived as neo-hippies,  the gay right movement has long moved towards the mainstream and resolutely embraced mainstream values, all the way to claiming their rights to the much threatened marriage institution.

Far more critically, gay rights activists organized early on into a powerful electoral constituency, shaping the political debate, contributing heavily to political campaigns, massively mobilizing the votes, getting their members elected into office. Drug users on the other hand remain extremely distrustful of the electoral process, stay away from political campaigns, barely ever contribute to the political debate and rarely even vote. The 2008 presidential election marked some kind of political awakening when marijuana activists mobilized in droves to elect the first president they perceived widely as potentially one of them, Presidential candidate Barack Obama, a self-confessed former pothead. Still, to this day, no openly declared marijuana user is sitting in the House or the Senate.

Another determining factor of the contrasting fate of gay-rights and drug users-rights might have been that anti-gay prejudice stroke essentially the white Caucasian majority, and the prejudice increased along the social ladder. Meanwhile, drug use was widely tolerated if not glamorized in the upper class of the same Caucasian majority and drug prohibition was disproportionately striking racial minorities and the poor. Paradoxically, the Obama administration’s decision to turn against the Caucasian-dominated marijuana dispensaries helped galvanize public support for marijuana policy reform. Had Obama a hidden agenda of drug policy reform, he couldn’t have played a smarted move.

While drug policy reform is still a long way away, marijuana activists already succeeded in moving the debate from fringe lunacy into the mainstream. They must now capitalize on their gains and transform them into politically clout. This can only be done through active participation in the political process at every level. To that effect, they have a lot to learn from the gay-rights movement, which clearly demonstrated that passion, will and determination with the right strategy can overcome even the deepest-rooted biases and the most entrenched institutional injustices. The recipe for success is rather straightforward: get out of the closet, unite, mobilize, organize, participate.

[i] 539 U.S. 558 (2003)

[ii] ‘This Is Working’: Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing


Jeffrey Dhywood
Investigative writer,
Author of “World War D – The Case against prohibitionism, roadmap to controlled re-legalization”
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Author: Jeffrey Dhywood

Jeffrey Dhywood is a European-born investigative writer, lecturer and public speaker, drug policy analyst, author of "World War D – The Case against prohibitionism, roadmap to controlled re-legalization" Jeffrey Dhywood holds a degree in Mathematical logics (Model Theory). He lived 20 years in the US and is currently living in Latin America. He is also very familiar with Asia, which gives him a good grasp of the global dimension of the War on Drugs, and its global failure. His academic background and his direct experience allows him to bring common sense and sanity to an issue often mired in confusion, misconceptions and preconceptions.

18 thoughts on “As gays rights hit mainstream, what can drug policy activists learn from the gay-rights movement?”

  1. Such considerations are why, according to Nadelmann, among the lines in his speeches that garner the most applause at marijuana events are those that call for global drug policy reform. And it’s why, after such speeches, there are always a few individuals who approach him and say, “I am the person you were interested in talking to.”

  2. What cannabis consumers can learn from the gay rights mouvements is the importance of coming out and being open about one’s own consumption. The majority of cannabis consumers are normal, productive and law-abiding people and those are the ones that would help the most the mouvement by coming out, not really the musicians and rappers who already have an anti-establishment brand to them.

  3. IMHO, the difference between grass and gays is that A LOT of money is being made with drugs. This means that there is a lot of interest from various sides to keep things the way they are.
    Nobody loses money by legalizing homosexuality….
    Kid de Winter, Amsterdam

  4. Thank you Jeffrey for writing and your tenacity. The more the better on the way to decriminalization. However, there are a few things your article misses. First off, capitalism is the reason for marijuana criminalization in that there is a thriving business incarcerating the poor and minorities, as demonstrated in the documentary “The House I Live In.” As long as our justice system continues to feed this machine, it will be illegal. This is probably the greatest reason Obama hasn’t made progress with decriminalization, yet.

    The flip side of that is that the gay population has also attained a higher “capitalist status.” That is, as the adage goes, when the gays move in, they increase property values by fixing up run down neighborhoods, think Key West. The opposite can be said of meth and crack houses.

    The other hurdle for marijuana legalization is that corporations lobby against it and probably profit from their investments in the prison industrial complex. For gay rights, you only have a bunch of religious nuts that eventually say enough nutty things that eventually discredits themselves.

    And lastly, the only thing really the same in these legalization movements is that they are grassroots and started about the same time, as you point out. The other thing that is similar is the “coming out of the closet” strategy. With documentaries like “The House I Live In” as well as several other web videos explaining the medicinal values of marijuana use by doctors and psychiatrists, more people are learning the values from those who benefits from the advantages in reducing pain and increased healing. Of course, this is the target of the pharmaceutical corporations and their attempt to stop legalization.

    I also loved your example about the gay pride parade. We need to start this tactic and enter holistic floats in city parades. Get local civilian who benefit from the medical marijuana to ride the float or walk beside it handing out pamphlets to attendees and provide testimony of its benefits.

    So, I believe we’re all making progress but it is going to take time to change minds. More anecdotal and scientific writing is needed and more videos to educate people at home or movie festivals or parades. Thanks for all you do.

  5. Good article, One large reason that the Marijuana movement has taken so long is indeed the mistrust of the electoral process. an example can be traced back to the Carter administration, as he was the very first president to openly call for a softer stance on the drug war, and this without a doubt contributed to his reelection loss. Also the people from upper economic circumstances have remained largely unaffected by policy. However with the momentum of the Colorado and Washington outcomes, this issue will no longer be ignored. The prohibitionist money interests from the prison industrial complex, will be replaced with big money earned from taxation and regulation. It also helps that the scientific truth is finally being allowed to come out and shine its guiding light.

  6. This is a very important article, And spot on about complaining about the contemptible remarks that drug users are sick. But it singularly fails to answer its own question! When we talk about gay issues, we always relate it to the people concerned. The entire discourse is human centric, Whereas with drugs the entire reform movement finds itself locked in and it is an illusory really reverse paradigm. Not only do you unwittingly dehumanise the whole issue into an abstract discussion about regulating ‘it” , But you haven’t recognised that the whole debate using terminology such as ‘illegal’ drugs and ‘War on drugs’ creates The objectification of drug users Via replacing the subject of regulation (the drug user) With an indivisibly illicit (supposedly) object (drug) Thus denying all human agency. The problem goes further because you actually shore up The arbitrary policy of declaring some classes of person stealing in harmful drugs to be outside of the law by merits of them supposedly being concerned with ‘legal’ drugs Which simply do not exist. Law controls the person not the object.

  7. The reason, imo, the gay rights movement has done it so quickly compared to the drugs movement, is the profits in drugs are so big, that gets in the way.

  8. Dear Jeffrey,
    you have forgotten to mention the YIPPIES Movement in the 70ies and the Rallys in New York with Dana Beal!

    Lookup Wikipedia!

    Can you comment it please?

  9. Q: “Why then, has the marijuana policy reform movement failed, so far, to translate its very substantial public support into political clout?”

    A: Jail terms.

  10. The main reason why medicinal plants and extracts are currently illegal is because they cannot be patented. They are illegal because they can be produced and sold for pennies by peasant farmers. They are illegal because the biological action of every prescription drug can be duplicated with medicinal plants, extracts, and dietary supplements that are much safer, more effective, and much cheaper. In a free market where everyone, including poor people, are allowed to compete, basic medicines (drugs) would be dirt cheap. Big Pharma (the government licensed drug cartel) would lose more than ninety percent of their sales amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. That is the reason why government drug fighters are employed to arrest millions of consumers who choose not to be ripped off by Big Pharma. Money is the reason why government thugs are employed to murder peasant farmers and spray poison on their land, livestock, crops, and families. In fact, the medical industrial complex purchases tons of opiates every year from selected peasant farmers and resell them by prescription for ten thousand times more than they paid. The prescription drug racket is the most profitable racket in history enforced by armies of police and a million prison cages. The drug war is now a one trillion dollar per year armed robbery that enriches Big Pharma, the police-prison industrial complex, and the substance-abuse industrial complex at the expense of everyone else. The millions of people who profit from this war want the war to continue.

  11. I can tell you one Big, Big Difference, between these two issues.

    America’s largest and most politically powerful banks, are NOT addicted to laundering hundreds of billions of dollars, in GAY MONEY, every year, for purposes of vital liquidity.

    On the other hand, America’s largest and most politically powerful banks, ARE addicted to laundering HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS in ILLEGAL DRUG MONEY, EVERY YEAR, for purposes of VITAL liquidity.

    Think the US government doesn’t care if their, “club member”, banks have access to TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN ILLEGAL DRUG MONEY, every handful or so, of years? With all due, respect, fellow drug policy reform advocates, THINK AGAIN.

  12. The “War On Drugs” is an integral part of US military/political strategy in Latin America. The gay rights movement doesn’t threaten those activities; drug legalization does. Mobilization without an accurate description of the opposition is worse than useless.

  13. one important point you failed to sufficiently emphasize: no one makes money from anti-LGT legislation (other than the budgetary impacts of not providing benefits to spouses)

    BY CONTRAST: The Drug War is about money. All the Drug Warriers have their hands in the money pot; of course many are corrupt; then there is the rest of the Drug War Industrial Complex (testing, prisons, police, courts, lawyers, customs officials, DEA, etc.); and in addition, the cartels; and of course, the alcohol/tobacco/pharma industries don’t want competition, either. Given the legal status and the way that lobbying works, of course Drug Law Reform lags Gay Rights and many other causes.

    The only Prohibitionists without a direct financial stake are those who swallowed “Reefer Madness” hook line and sinker and/or the bible thumpers who can’t read (e.g., Genesis says all plants with seeds were divinely given to people, and Christ = Messiah = “anointed one” — the anointing oil contained 4 things, one of which was “canne bosm” which means “cannabis” in Hebrew).

    SO basically the Prohibitionists are the coalition of the corrupt and the ignorant folk.

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