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Meet The Activist Leading The Marijuana Movement

Whenever there are rumblings of new developments in the cannabis industry, there’s one resource many insiders visit first for reliable information—cannabis activist Tom Angell’s Twitter account.

Inspired by two defining personal experiences, Angell has spent the last 15 years educating people and diligently shining a spotlight on opportunities to take action, help build the cannabis law reform movement and continue momentum toward world-wide legalization.

In addition to breaking stories and uncovering new important policy developments as a journalist for MassRoots, Angell is founder and chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. It’s an educational and advocacy organization that helps politicians and the media understand that cannabis is a mainstream issue supported by a growing majority of voters. In addition, Angell is the editor of the Marijuana Moment newsletter, an informative email with up-to-date global news and action alerts.

It’s comforting to know there’s an intelligent voice in our community who’s willing to devote so much time and energy to keeping everyone informed, while pointing people in the right direction to stand up and take action. We’re getting closer every day. Cannabis legalization is now a major focus in U.S. politics—both blue and red states are turning green before our very eyes. And, it’s happening around the globe, too. Fortunately, Angell’s newsletter breaks it all down by region.

HT: You have an impressive legacy of activism. You continually create and update a robust ecosystem of important current events, news and information. More than a decade ago, you began working with the Marijuana Policy Project. What got you interested in marijuana activism and policy reform?

Tom Angell: I’ve always felt that people shouldn’t be punished for behavior that doesn’t harm others. In particular, I think there are two major things that galvanize me to devote my career and my life’s work to this issue. When I was in college, it was actually the second night of my freshman year, I was arrested for marijuana possession. To make a long story short, it was a pretty grueling ordeal involving missing classes to appear in court, paying hundreds of dollars in fines and hiring an attorney. Beyond academic probation, I had to worry about not getting caught again lest I be expelled from college.

Even as a relatively privileged white dude, it was still pretty grueling, time consuming and stressful. Even experiencing that, I knew that other people in our society, who are less privileged than me because they are in a different socioeconomic status or have a different color of skin, have had their lives absolutely devastated by these drug laws. So, that’s one thing that was a prime motivator for me.

HT: And, the other?

TA: My mother has multiple sclerosis (MS). As a result of sticking my toes into the waters of drug policy reform activism, I met someone else who has MS who benefited from medical cannabis. After meeting that woman, I spoke to my mom about it. I said, “Hey mom, maybe this could help you. Here’s some research I compiled. Will you take a look at this?” She found it compelling. She’s a medical professional, a nurse for a long time. She talked to her neurologist about medical cannabis and her neurologist said, “Yeah, this may actually be able to help you.”

Unfortunately, in our home state of Rhode Island, medical marijuana was not legal at that time. That began a years long effort that my mother and I, plus a number of other people, worked on together, which ultimately led to the passage of the medical cannabis bill in Rhode Island. My mom ended up becoming the first legal registered patient in the state when we passed that law.

HT: That’s such an inspirational story. I love it. I’ve seen first hand how cannabis can improve the quality of life in a patient with MS, so that’s cool you were able to do something so impactful, to truly make a difference.

TA: In my mom’s case, it’s particularly interesting because she used marijuana a few times as a teenager but never really liked it. She never even drank alcohol while I was growing up. She really likes to be in control and doesn’t like the psychological effects of marijuana. However, she finds that when the pain and stiffness in her legs is particularly unbearable, using a little bit of cannabis will help her out with that.

There’s a certain stereotype in some quarters that medical marijuana is just an excuse for people who like to get high. I think stories from people like my mom, and so many others, show that’s obviously not the case.

HT: From your unique perspective, what is the most promising aspect of the cannabis industry and current-day marijuana policy in the U.S. and across the globe?

TA: I’ve been working on this issue now for over 15 years. It’s interesting to look back over the course of my work and come to a realization about how different things are now from when I first started working on this issue… not to mention, how it was when people were working on this issue in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

The fact is, we are winning now. It’s now a mainstream issue at the forefront of American politics. Whereas, just a decade and a half ago, when I told people what I do for a living, they would oftentimes laugh at me and say that it’s never going to happen. Well, it is happening now. We made this happen.

HT: What are you most excited about?

TA: Earlier in my career, we’d have to continually chase down politicians just to get the time of day to get them to work on extremely incremental issues, like not denying financial aid to college students who have drug convictions for cannabis. Nowadays, politicians and elected officials are actively coming to us, to Marijuana Majority and other organizations for advice on crafting bills, messaging, how to build support for what they’re working on.

There are so many developments on the policy front that it’s incredibly difficult to keep track. With Marijuana Moment, I attempt to do that. But, even pumping out these newsletters every single weekday morning, I still can’t include every single thing. There’s just so much going on in the United States and around the world. I’m always relying on the automatic Google translate in my Chrome browser just to try and figure out what’s happening in Denmark, Spain or Mexico. There’s just so much.

HT: And, the least promising?

TA: It’s an interesting question. It’s actually kind of the same answer, but the other side of the coin. We now have so much momentum. We’re winning so much across the board that there is a sense that marijuana will essentially legalize itself, that this movement doesn’t need more support or more activism, that it’s just going to happen any day now. The fact is, we’ve only been able to change the laws we’ve changed to date because we’ve built a strong, powerful nonpartisan and diverse movement. The movement not only takes hard work and activism from people who are willing to put in the time, but it also takes money to build, to pay for advertisements, to get people to show up on constituent lobby days, to support our online action tools, and so many other things required to participate in modern day American politics.

It’s kind of a double edged sword. We’re trying to get the message out to politicians that this is mainstream and it has momentum, “You should be a part of it for your own good.” On the other hand, extremely increased momentum sometimes gives would-be activists the message that we don’t necessarily need their help, when we actually very much do need their help to continue pushing the ball forward and changing laws in more and more places to remove criminalization.

HT: What should newcomers to cannabis activism be aware of, and how can they better their chances of bringing positive change to the movement?

TA: In politics, we need to build a movement, and we need to win new converts. Sometimes, the things that motivate us as activists aren’t necessarily the things that are going to motivate the people we still need to convince. For a lot of activists, they’re involved in this movement because they love marijuana. It has benefited their lives so much medicinally, spiritually, recreationally or in other ways. Even though we have a clear majority of Americans who support outright legalization, there’s still a significant voter base not with us, yet.

With that in mind, messaging about how “marijuana is great” or “it’s not necessarily as dangerous as you think it is, undecided voter” aren’t necessarily going to be the ones to convince the people who need convincing. Rather, I think we need to help people understand that, whether or not they love or hate marijuana, prohibition only increases all possible harms by putting large parts of the market into the hands of drug cartels and gangs. It makes it impossible to test and regulate for potency and purity. And, it distracts police officers from being able to do things that actually protect public safety when they are otherwise so focused on arresting people for marijuana.

One thing I would ask activists to be mindful of is, the reasons why you do this are obviously important because they motivate your work, but they’re not necessarily the reasons that are going to convince the people we need to get on our side to support changes for the law.

HT: What about “weed refugees” or the millions upon millions of people in this country living in prohibited states seeking access to cannabinologic remedies to no avail? Other than move, any thoughts on what they can do to better their situation?

TA: It’s an interesting challenge. The thing that is going to change the law in the places where those people live are stories just like theirs, but sharing their stories comes with risk because the law still needs to be changed in those places. In a number of places, we have witnessed families courageous enough to speak up, plus talk to their lawmakers about how CBD or other components of marijuana and other cannabis preparations benefit them, or might be able to benefit them if they were able to try it. Those powerful personal stories change lawmakers’ minds and motivate them to change the law. So, that’s one thing, just sharing your story even though in some cases it comes with risk. Like you said, another option is to move to another place that has already changed its law. Another component of this is continuing to build momentum to change federal law, so that there isn’t as much of a concern about transporting medicine across state lines.

HT: MagicalButter CEO Garyn Angel spearheaded the lobbying effort that led the Port Richey City Council to decriminalize possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis. Fore Twenty Sports raises money for Freedom Grow at their tournaments. What else can cannabis companies do to help the movement?

TA: The role of industry, not just the marijuana industry, especially the marijuana industry, is important in helping to change these laws. There are basically two general categories of things they can do to help. First, because they do have such broad reach—whether it be through social media, or email lists, or their website, or the ability to reach their existing customer base, or through physical storefronts via dispensaries or head shops—they can shine a spotlight on opportunities to take action for their customers, “Hey customer, there’s an important vote coming up on state or federal legislation. Here’s a link to Marijuana Majority’s action alert, or here’s a petition you can sign.” Or, “At this physical location, we’ve set up a laptop for you on the countertop where you can take a minute to make your voice heard by the policy makers who need to hear from you.” That’s one thing I would like to see a lot more of from companies.

HT: And, what’s the second thing cannabis companies can do?

TA: Give us money. In mainstream American politics, it takes money to change the law. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. And, that’s how we have won in so many places. It takes money to pay for signatures, to put an initiative on the ballot. It takes money to hire lobbyists in state capitals. That’s how change has happened. That’s how it will happen, at least for the foreseeable future.

Companies who are benefiting from legalization, yet not doing their part to contribute to the movement are, not only being socially irresponsible, they’re being fiscally short sighted. Because, if we don’t continue to build momentum on the state and federal level, we could see our gains erased at some point. Frankly, we don’t know right now what’s going to happen with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He’s made threatening remarks, to be sure. But, he hasn’t yet announced a full scale federal crackdown. That could happen and the market opportunities that our movement has created for these companies could disappear one day. If they don’t stand up and help us stop that, then they should be criticized for that.

HT: So, it’s really in their best interest, if they want to continue to stay in business and be successful.

TA: Setting aside the matter that it’s the right thing to do for social justice reasons, just looking at it from a pure bottom line self-interested perspective, it’s stupid to not help build the movement.

HT: That’s a great argument for why cannabis companies should get more involved. It’s odd, too, because there are many businesses that won’t touch politics in any way. But right now, being involved in the cannabis industry is a form of activism. It’s inspiring to see so many businesses putting themselves out there, supporting the movement.

TA: I agree.

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