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By Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel

Long-time marijuana legalization proponent, and NORML Advisory Board member, comedian Bill Maher, achieved some sort of milestone recently when he lit-up a joint during a humorous monologue on his HBO television show Real Time With Bill Maher.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There have likely been thousands of entertainers and celebrities over the years who have gotten stoned prior to appearing on a television program, and who have been comfortable performing in front of a national audience while stoned.

But this was different. Here was a celebrity talk-show host on a major network, who, in the middle of his monologue on the need to legalize marijuana nationwide, pulled a joint out of his jacket pocket, lit it and began toking. It was, I presume, his way of demonstrating that smoking marijuana is no big deal, and does not cause the smoker to lose control or behave in an inappropriate manner. Maher completed his monologue, which was extraordinarily funny, and continued with his program, without the slightest indication he was impaired by his smoking.

Don’t Take Legalization for Granted

Also, Maher clearly had a serious political purpose in mind when he decided to ignore the marijuana laws and light-up a joint on his show. He was using his monologue to remind his viewers that marijuana legalization does not occur without a lot of work from proponents in each individual state, and that none of us should presume the current political momentum will continue indefinitely. “Stop treating it like you could never lose it,” Maher warned.

That’s a message that resonates with those of us who lived through the 1970s, when, based on the report of the Marijuana Commission, we first decriminalized minor marijuana offenses in eleven states, and felt we were on the verge of winning nationwide. Instead, near the end of the decade the mood of the country turned far more conservative towards marijuana policy, with the rise of the parents’ movement and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and we saw our progress come to an abrupt halt. We failed to win another statewide marijuana reform measure for 18 years (until California legalized medical use in 1996).

There are important differences between those years and the current time, including an enormous increase in public support for legalization. In the 1970s, when we were winning decriminalization proposals at the state level, the Gallup Poll showed we enjoyed only about 28% support for legalization. Today that support level is at 58%, a reality our opponents will have to overcome if they expect to stop the legalization movement.

But Maher’s point is valid; we should not treat legalization as if it is inevitable. We are currently winning, and each election cycle we are adding more states and gaining momentum nationally. But our opponents have not given up the fight, and we must not rest on our laurels.

Lighting-Up As A Political Act

I know that lighting-up in public is something that remains off-limits for most legalization activists, considered a tactic that might be “over the line” and could frighten non-smokers and cause a political backlash. I too generally favor tactics that are less confrontational. With the wind of public support now behind our backs, we can usually make our case more effectively without the need for civil disobedience.

But for every rule there is an exception, and there are some situations in which lighting-up in public is justified, and makes sense. And Maher’s decision to light-up on his television program, as part of his monologue, was one of those times.

Maher was not getting stoned just to relax, or to get high; he was doing it as part of his long-term, continuing support for legalizing marijuana; it was a very public, and effective way to protest marijuana prohibition. And it demonstrated that Maher would not be intimidated by the fear of being arrested for his use of marijuana.

Others Have Used This Tactic Effectively

And it is not just celebrities who sometimes light-up a joint publicly to protest prohibition. One obvious example is Philly NORML co-chair and journalist Chris Goldstein, who in 2013 organized a series of marijuana prohibition protests at the Liberty Bell, called “Smoke Down Prohibition.” The connection between personal liberty and smoking marijuana was obvious.

These events were announced in advance, specifically for the purpose of protesting prohibition, and Goldstein (and others) ignored the presence of the police who were standing by, observing the event, and lit-up a joint and passed it around to others who chose to be part of the protest.

On the first event, there were no arrests. But at the second event both Goldstein and nine of his colleague were issued federal citations (the Liberty Bell is on federal property), but no one was taken into custody. But on the third time, two months later, Goldstein was arrested, and this time he was taken to trial, convicted, fined $3,000, banned from getting within 100 feet of the Liberty Bell, and placed on probation for two years, with strict drug testing and travel restrictions.

He understood the risks of engaging in civil disobedience, and he accepted the legal consequences for his actions, hoping the courage he displayed might cause other smokers to assume a more assertive role, and might cause some elected officials to treat the legalization issue more seriously. I greatly admire Goldstein for his willingness to put his personal freedom on the line for principle.

And importantly, Goldstein has continued his pro-legalization work and the results have been dramatic. With the help of a supportive city councilman, Goldstein led the efforts to decriminalize minor marijuana offenses in the city in 2014, substituting a $25 fine instead of an arrest and jail. And marijuana arrests have plummeted in Philadelphia.

The Seattle Hempfest and the Boston Freedom Rally

Public smoking has always been prominent at events such as the Seattle Hempfest and the Boston Freedom Rally, which are modern versions of what we used to call “smoke-ins.” The whole purpose of being there is to flout marijuana prohibition and to light-up in public en masse.

When one person does it, you may get arrested. But when thousands of people join in the protest, at most the police can only arrest a few token (or should that be toking) protesters. And generally, over time, the authorities essentially abandon their futile attempts to enforce the law, and largely look the other way. That has been the case with both the Seattle and the Boston events.

So while the marijuana legalization issue has made such political progress over the last several years that I believe these “in your face” tactics are, in most situations, not the most effective, so long as marijuana prohibition remains in place in even one state, and under federal law, there will be situations where lighting-up in public makes a positive political statement. And Bill Maher used one of those occasions to fire one up on his network television program last week.

Nice work, Bill. You made us all proud!


This column first appeared on Marijuana.com



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