Making War, Not Love: The Insurgent Strategy behind Marijuana Reform

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

If the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz was correct in considering war the continuation of politics, so too is it true that politics often looks a lot like war. Take the way that marijuana reform—the movement to legalize pot for medicinal and recreational purposes—resembles insurgent warfare. Both try to beat the overwhelming strength of the American national government, one on the battlefield and the other at the ballot box. Neither can do so through conventional means, so each chooses uses every tool it can find, from whipping up recruits to finding green cash, then shows strength through unconventional venues. For marijuana, that means winning victories through state-level referenda when federal policy will not yield.

Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana reform advocates are taking on nothing less than the full power of the federal government: Congress listed the drug as a Schedule I narcotic, thereby subjecting it to absolute prohibition, over four decades ago. Every president since Carter has endorsed that policy. And the Supreme Court has found sufficient constitutional authority for marijuana prohibition to keep on puffing along. Efforts to change federal law or find a legal shield from it have, in a word, failed.

And yet, right under the nose of prohibition, twenty-one states have legalized marijuana by medical prescription and two more did so for recreational purposes in 2012. By November’s end, most of the remaining states and the District of Columbia will consider their own changes to marijuana policy.

The nationwide movement for marijuana reform is generating a lot of smoke these days because of the work of an army of advocates. Like the insurgents the American government encounters overseas, these insurgents are a loose coalition driven by opposition to a single enemy—prohibition. Little unites the parents of children using medical marijuana to manage critical illness with fiscal conservatives looking to balance state budgets or with the many “ganjapreneurs” trying to get high off of the profits to be made from marijuana sales. But for the moment, all these people find themselves in the same theatre of combat, forming alliances to force cracks in prohibition.

Like any insurgent army, marijuana reformers need the right social context and a lot of material support. Just as, say, the Taliban recruit heavily in rural areas where there is little respect for outside influence, marijuana reform has grown most successfully among the people with the least taste for heavy-handed prohibition: the old hippy generation and the new libertarian one. It’s no surprise that marijuana reform is finally putting down roots now, when the Baby Boomers of the conformist 1950s are out of power and the concerned parents of the 1980s are no longer the youth vote and not yet America’s wizened leaders. As for material support, Colombia’s FARC insurgency uses drug trafficking to net funds, whereas America’s marijuana reformers bank on promises: the promise of millions of dollars in tax revenue in a time of recession, plus even higher hopes of tens of billions of dollars for entrepreneurs and investors once marijuana enjoys legal protection.

But come now, the fair reader might think, it isn’t diverse recruits and the need for support that makes an insurgency an insurgency: up to this point, all this post has said is that marijuana reform is like any other political movement. Truly enough, the real hallmark of insurgent warfare is that it picks fights in the shadows, opting for unconventional venues and victory by any means against a much more powerful enemy.

Marijuana reform has long had to do that, given the reality of federal prohibition. It has blazed a path over the past twenty years through a series of wins that defy the normal course of American politics. Unable to directly change marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I narcotic, or to find some other way of halting federal enforcement of prohibition, marijuana reform has gone to the states and asked them to defy D.C. It has convinced one state after another to call off its police and empower doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine. Recently, it has even convinced Colorado and Washington State to legalize recreational marijuana. Forced off the main battlefield of federal policy, marijuana reform successfully fights in the states instead.

But it isn’t as though this unconventional combat has won over conventional state policymakers like legislators and judges. Insurgents generally avoid (or oppose) traditional power brokers like local, tribal, and religious authorities. Marijuana reformers see state politicians as blunt instruments for their goals, often appealing directly to voters through referenda. It is not state capitols that are green-lighting marijuana—it’s the people.

Chairman Mao, one of the last century’s most terrifyingly effective insurgent commanders, noted several stages of insurgent warfare. First, insurgents build up strength and recruit new supporters, making their presence felt in society. Think of marijuana’s success in building the diverse alliance noted above and identifying its own potential to change the economy. Next, Mao said, insurgents stage provocations to sap support for the government and expand their areas of influence. That’s the stage marijuana reform is in now, provocatively earning victory in the states and at the ballot box.

What next? According to Mao, insurgents directly attack the government and try to take power. In marijuana terms, that means massing for the final successful strike on prohibition. Insurgent politics have brought marijuana reformers within closing distance of the victory that eluded them for so long.


Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

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