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.