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How to Change a Local Cannabis Law

August 15, 2017
As American citizens, we are bestowed with the opportunity to participate in the law-making process. It may seem daunting, but getting involved in helping create, pass, and support legislation at a local level is not as difficult as it might seem.

Watching politics stall at a federal level can be incredibly frustrating and could make even the most patriotic citizen feel disheartened in the convoluted and often sluggish political process. But if you get involved at a local level, you are far more likely to enact change that will impact you and your community on a much intimate scale.

Here are ways you can make a difference and work to either introduce a local cannabis law or get an existing law changed.


How to Change a State Cannabis Law

1. Identify Your Issue

In this case, the issue that concerns you is probably cannabis-related, but there are plenty of other reasons to get involved in local politics. Concerned about transportation? City council members? Police accountability? These are all great motivations to get involved in your local political scene. Whatever your cause, take that passion with you all the way through this journey.

One local issue that’s often overlooked is that of cannabis decriminalization. This can be accomplished at a state, city, or county level, but be careful not to allow your law to supercede the state law, as was the case when Nashville, Tennessee tried to decriminalize in 2016, leading to the law being overturned. Decriminalization is a huge and important step, and many states are behind the times with this one. Even in many states where medical marijuana is legal, you can still face arrest and jail time for the possession of even small amounts of cannabis.


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2. Do Your Research

It’s all too easy to complain about an issue, especially when it directly affects you, but sometimes it’s worth doing a little digging on the legislative history of this particular topic. What other relevant changes have been enacted in the past? Is this the first or 50th rendition of the policy? Has it changed many times? Did it used to be better? Worse? How was it drafted and decided? If it was decided with a city council vote, for instance, it will probably be decided by a city council vote again.

You may find that the root of the issue stems from a completely different cause and requires a completely different approach to the problem than originally anticipated. Once you’ve pinpointed the heart of the issue, you can begin to address it.

A relevant example is Georgia’s cannabis oil registry. Georgia passed a law in 2014 allowing the use and possession of cannabis oil for medical reasons, but the law was vague. In 2016, Georgia Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) introduced a new bill to expand the program and outline clear rules, which passed and was signed into law.


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3. Find Allies

This is where you’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get out there. This may an especially daunting task for introverts, so consider encouraging your friends to get active on the political scene, too. Go to local city council meetings, attend meetings for public input on your preferred issue, take notes, and write letters to your representative or preferred candidate and ask for their support on this issue.

You may discover an entire group of concerned citizens like yourself who has worked to change the law in the past and may support your efforts to improve the law. These groups may also be likely to know which local politicians are more sensitive than others to your cause.

If you’re not sure where to start, try reaching out to local chapters associated with national groups, like NORML (the National Organization of Reform for Marijuana Laws) and Americans for Safe Access (ASA). There are also local groups in less cannabis-friendly states, such as New Approach Missouri, New Approach South Dakota, New Approach Idaho, etc. Reach out to the coordinators and find out the best way to get involved and make an impact.


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4. If Possible, File an Initiative or Referendum

This is not always a possibility and you’ll have to do some research on the inner workings of your own local government, but if you have the opportunity, make a draft of the most important subtopics related to your issue. Drafting legislation is not easy, so consider enlisting an attorney or city council member to help draft it and support it. You may also want to work with a local community group that supports the issue to help draft an initiative to enact the change you wish to see.

If you’re already involved in local politics, you may already know which lawmakers are more cannabis-friendly and, therefore, more likely to help you in your quest. If you don’t, however, pick up a voter’s pamphlet, visit a few city council member websites, and do some light reading on who might be the best person to approach to support your cause. Additionally, if you get involved with local advocacy groups, they may already know which officials are most likely to lend an ear.


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5. Rally Your Community

This may mean testifying at council meetings, contacting local groups, and even gathering signatures on the street. However you get the word out, it’s crucial that you garner enough support within the community and local government leaders to help pass your initiative.

When it comes to cannabis, a broad range of citizens from varying demographics often support measures related to decriminalization and legalization, and showing that your ordinance has a diverse group of people supporting it will signal to elected officials that this issue is important to a significant portion of the community (and they’ll be more likely to throw their weight behind your efforts, too).


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6. Know Your Counterarguments

When it comes to any major issue, no matter where you stand, there will always be opposition and a point to your counterpoint. Prepare yourself to answer any questions that may arise, and keep research and statistics handy so you have knowledge to back up your proposal.

What are the possible counterarguments that people may try to use against you? Practice speaking in favor of your proposal and anticipate detractors—not only will this help you firm up your own personal reasons for supporting this ordinance, it’s great for your public speaking skills (and it might give you a little boost of confidence, too).


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7. Get Loud

Get the word out about your proposed policy change in any way you can. Speak out at community meetings, and schedule a meeting with the editorial board of a local newspaper to ask if they would be willing to publish an op-ed. Contact other media outlets, including local radio and television stations, and let them know about your efforts. Tell every registered voter you’ve ever met in your life just how important this issue is to you and why.

One of the most commonly discussed topics when it comes to cannabis legalization is the story of Charlotte Figi, the little girl who was able to treat her seizures with a specialized high-CBD strain named for her. This story, which aired on CNN in 2013, has inspired laws across the United States, even in Southern and Midwestern states that would never normally give cannabis legislation a chance at a hearing, let alone sign it into law.


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8. Be Patient

The good news is that policy changes at a local level move much faster than at a federal level. The bad news is that it’s still not very fast. It can take months for your initiative to get approved, and getting it in front of voters or considered by local politicians may also take some hard-earned connections within the community.

Be patient, be persistent, and be indefatigable. Do not lose hope if you don’t succeed on your first go-around. Take it as a learning experience, and keep moving forward. Personal experiences and anecdotes are often the reason a voter or politician is moved to vote in favor of an issue, so keep sharing your story and why this issue is important to you.


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Arkansas is a great example of when perseverance and determination came out on top. The state has had several different cannabis advocates introducing both medical and adult-use measures over the past five years, but the Arkansas Attorney General rejected each measure, again and again, on the basis that the proposal’s language was unclear.

Advocates were tireless, however—after seven rejections, Little Rock attorney David Couch was able to secure a spot on the ballot with Issue 6 to legalize medical marijuana, which was passed by the voters and enacted into law in 2017. Never underestimate the power of perseverance!

9. Don’t Give Up

Fall down once, get up twice. No matter how many times you may feel like giving up, don’t! If this issue is truly important to you and is something you truly and passionately believe in, it’s worth the time and effort to make this policy change stick. Be willing to compromise, especially if you hear a particularly compelling argument from the opposition. If at first you don’t succeed, re-group, re-organize, and get ready to fight for what you believe in.

Lisa Rough's Bio Image

Lisa Rough

Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.

View Lisa Rough's articles

  • lovingc

    A new policy goes into effect 3/1/17 for people caught with misdemeanor amounts of marijuana in Harris County.

    Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced the new marijuana policy earlier this month. She says it will save the county millions of dollars and free up resources to focus on prosecuting violent crimes.

    The new Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, which takes effect on March 1, 2017, will divert all misdemeanor marijuana cases — involving up to four ounces — out of the criminal justice system, instead redirecting low-level drug offenders into a decision-making class.
    Harris County marijuana prosecution by the numbers
    Harris County spends approximately $26 million each year prosecuting 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases
    Crime labs spend $1.7 million testing evidence for those 10,000 cases
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    Harris County spends $13 million housing marijuana offenders, who each spend an average of 6 days in jail
    Low-level marijuana cases account for 10 percent of cases on Harris County court dockets.