Clearly, the political systems of the UK and the US are vastly different, the political environment and context for drug policy reform is entirely different, and the history of the reform movement is very different. However, even with these caveats, there is a lot that the UK reform movement can learn not only from the US drug policy reform movement, but other American grass roots organizations and campaigns as well. Here are a few ideas:

Ensuring coherence of message and purpose

The Drug Policy Alliance has done a great job of targeting their message to inspire their base, neutralize their critics, and broaden their appeal.  I know that they’ve got buckets of cash from the Soros Foundation, but I don’t think it is just money that’s made them influential. As an example of their clear communication strategy, check out the home page of their website and its rotating banner of 6 key messages:

The other thing that the DPA does well is organize people around a specific legislative item- defunding this, or supporting reform of that. The UK budget process doesn’t offer the same opportunities for action, but there are campaign initiatives that activists could be organized around, such as the recent proposals to include a triennial review of the Misuse of Drugs Act in the Police and Justice Bill.

The Tea Party* has taken a similar approach. Although critics accuse it of being an ‘astro-turf’ movement (fake grass roots), it has facilitated the spread of a consistent message while maintaining local control and leadership. There are core ‘tea party principles’ and communication resources, and members are encouraged to use those resources. Tea Party communicators who go ‘off-message’ are reined back in or denounced by those at the center.

Supporting activists to communicate better with non-believers

Another grass roots movement that could work well with younger activists, is Sarah Silverman’s “great schlep”.  Working on the assumption that the Democrats had secured New York’s electoral college votes, but that there were a load of young New Yorkers with relatives in Florida, which was a decisive swing state, she encouraged young Jews to undertake “the great schlep”: to go down to visit their relatives, and their relatives’ friends and explain to them why they should vote for Obama. Maybe a similar movement could inspire young stoners in the UK to sit down with their parents and explain to them why they should care whether cannabis is illegal or not, what the harms are of prohibition, and what the benefits are of legalization. There are some obvious Daily Mail talking points to address: the perceived risks of schizophrenia, whether legalization would “send the wrong message” to the kids, whether marijuana is a gateway drug, etc.  If the LCA can provide young activists with the resources they need to address these issues, maybe they would take up the challenge.

Keeping it local

The final lesson from the US is to campaign around specific initiatives at a local level. Here, the differences between the UK and the US make it difficult to draw direct comparisons, and I have to admit a certain level of unfamiliarity with how local politics work in the UK.  However, the point is that where the US has been successful in energizing a grass roots campaign is around ballot initiatives, and state legislative initiatives- such as I-692 for medical marijuana in Washington State, or Proposition 19 for legalization in California (even though it didn’t pass).

Because the UK has a much more centralized political system, without the option of ballot initiatives or referenda, it’s hard to draw a direct parallel. But citizens can have a say in how their services are funded locally, and how the city or county council prioritises issues such as community safety, anti-social behavior, drug treatment provision etc. Especially if the Tories go ahead with plans for elected Police Chiefs, there’s a huge opportunity to influence the content of the political debate at a local level.  One of the reasons that the Tea Party are in such a strong position now is because they focused their attention on local government first: getting elected to the school board to influence local education policies, or getting elected to local councils and influencing zoning decisions for abortion clinics etc. By effecting change at the local level, they energized people into thinking they could change things at the national level as well.

Those are some of my thoughts on what the Legalize Cannabis Alliance could focus on in the future. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

*For the sake of my reputation, please let me make it clear that I do not support the Tea Party’s message, I just think they communicate it well.