How Cannabis Legalization Became So Popular Amid Regressive Global Politics

In just a few years, cannabis legalization has taken the world by storm. Long-time activists, advocates and enthusiasts are seeing their decades-long dream come to life, as today's daily victories shape tomorrow's global cannabis scene.

“It is a fabulous time to be alive if one is a responsible marijuana smoker,” said Keith Stroup, attorney and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “While only 14 percent of the adults in the U.S. are current marijuana smokers, 68 percent of the public now supports full marijuana legalization. They have come to understand that marijuana prohibition causes far more harm to society than the use of marijuana itself.”

But legalization policies are not isolated episodes.

Although cannabis activists have gallantly led the quest to legalize, there’s no way these results could have ever been achieved without the right socio-political context to give them a green light.

So let’s start digging, as we make an effort to understand why the international playing field is becoming more permissive to cannabis law reform. What's causing the shift in public consciousness that's benefiting not just the cannabis industry, but also more broadly, the freedom of thought, expression and action for people all over the world?

Contradictions At First Glance

As we analyze the global socio-political environment that allows legalization policies to thrive, we stumble upon an apparent paradox:

How is it that cannabis legalization (often propelled by open-minded, progressive, and liberal attitudes) can be gaining ground in a world that appears to be gravitating more and more toward regressive tribalism and extreme conservatism?

We’re living in a time of political setback. Twentieth century economic structures are crumbling under today's deregulated finance and international tax evasion (or elusion). People are losing faith in the ability of democratic governments to keep tabs on an overwhelmingly powerful financial elite. And an array of populist ideas are beginning to creep from within the broken hearts of the frustrated middle-class masses, giving birth to a new (but well-known) kind of politician — one with authoritarian solutions, strong ideas of national recovery, and an aim towards restoring the “lost glory” of the past through xenophobic measures of national isolation (sound familiar?).

As history has taught us, this type of iron-fist leader hardly ever welcomes the changes that may disrupt a society’s traditional values. Since, afterall, their power grip depends on preserving a culture steeped in nationalism or mythical ideas of national purity.

So, it would seem an unlikely agenda to reform the laws around a plant that's traditionally been viewed as an evil drug. Nonetheless, legalization seems to be slipping through their firm hands like an inevitable cloud of sweet-smelling smoke.

Marijuana prohibition is crumbling because it's been a "house of cards" propped up by law enforcement, prison guard unions, religious groups, and so forth, who have been promoting anti-cannabis propaganda, explains Danny Danko, senior cultivation editor of High Times magazine and long-time legalization activist.

"The combination of the rise of the internet as an alternate source of info, various financial crises, and a general distrust in the state's ability to enforce unjust laws has led to a change in ‘groupthink’ that spread quickly and changed the tide of public opinion," he said. "Once it became clear that none of these forces were interested in public health or protecting citizens, the public, and the investor class was able to see that the money to be made far outweighs any potential harms.”

The Reign Of The Market

Interestingly enough, the same seed that’s sprouting sentiments of extreme nationalism around the globe is allowing legalization to take root in the soil of the global economy.

As the morality of traditional nation-states begins to lose its credibility, state authority is replaced by media, corporate, and market powers. Therefore, governments must adapt in order to retain their apparent grasp of control. And so, cannabis law reform presents an opportunity for governments to demonstrate their utility in today's new paradigm.

One reason behind the global wave of cannabis decriminalization is that market pull is becoming stronger than the state's power to regulate it. States are stepping down from their traditional place of market regulators, and giving way to the new currents that have overpowered their own authority — all in order to maintain an aura of control (and show people there’s still a point to all those taxes).

Cannabis is a multi-billion dollar market just waiting to be exploited. And since consumer demand steers the market, a strong, persistent demand serves as assurance of success to business owners and investors.

It’s All About People’s Choice

Laws are thought to be a reflection of a society’s morality. Murder is illegal because the majority of people think it’s wrong to take another human being’s life. At the same time, being born into a society where murder is legally frowned upon would likely cause most people to inherit this rule into their belief system.

But as faith in governments and nationhood plunges, people allow themselves to question current legislation, and how it affects their own personal freedom of choice.

If the grip Western countries have over market regulation is crumbling, their command over public opinion is officially torn apart. And the main forces driving this phenomenon seem to be globalization and the internet.

A World of Data

If one origin of cannabis legalization is market-driven, another, even more significant driver, is the socio-cultural shift in the way people engage with data: Big media groups and the government are losing control over public opinion, as information circulates more freely through (presumably) unbiased channels.

“Thanks to years of perseverance and fearlessness by cannabis pioneers and advocates, we’re seeing a wave of legalization victories being celebrated every day. It’s a great time to be alive,” said Derek Riedle, Publisher of Civilized. “Cannabis is now making its way into everyday conversations and culture. It’s incredible to see the momentum take hold around the world.”

New media outlets are providing greater opportunity to spread new messaging — that isn't necessarily driven by a content creator's socio-economic positioning, contacts,  lobbying capacity, or political inclinations.

Word-of-mouth nowadays carries the potential (and power) to go viral. Scientific studies and anecdotal evidence can serve as opinion-changing proofs. Everyone's heard of cannabis, and they're talking about its potential in medicine. They question current legislation and wonder if cannabis is really all as bad as prohibition makes it seem.

They want to try it for themselves, demand grows, and the market becomes powerful enough to influence legislation. Laws change, and the cycle conditions, as cannabis science and legal reform becomes all the buzz. Social, legal, and economic transformation happens. This outward spiral of unprecedented events will be known in later history books as the era of cannabis legalization.

“The spread of socially acceptable cannabis consumption will undoubtedly exert a kaleidoscope of influence on our decision-making, idea generation and business formation as pubs and coffee shops did in their respective eras," said Sumit Mehta, CEO of cannabis banking platform Mazakali. "The collision of technology, globalization and the emerging wellness trend is undoubtedly having a profound impact on our employer relationships, politics, values and community.”

Cannabis activism has sparked a virtuous circle that’s razing ignorance, prejudice and close-mindedness all over the world. We’ve just traced the global phenomena allowing for this revolution to take place.

As Evan Eneman, CEO of the MGO/ELLO Alliance, put it at a National Cannabis Industry Association event, "Cannabis is not a panacea. However, it is a proxy. It takes time to change people's minds...And we’re merely at the infancy of fostering that education, and doing so with an open mind.”

Image courtesy of Jamesy0627144 via Wikimedia Commons

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I've been covering cannabis for nearly five years, and by now I'm all too accustomed to the impersonal cannabis conference at a stuffy, generic hotel or expo hall, brimming with white guys in suits, and generally lacking in the spirit of well, cannabis. (The woes of legalization, I suppose.) So it was a breath of fresh air when I walked into what felt like a giant atrium in downtown LA for a new kind of cannabis conference. Located in what's called the Valentine Grass Room in an industrial area past the hustle and bustle of the DTLA skyscrapers, Microscopes & Machines (M&M) boasted a diverse array of speakers, from doctors and lawyers to chemists and cultivators on the frontlines of the cannabis industry.

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