What a Difference a Day Makes

The words “Four Twenty.” can elicit a chuckle from most adults. It is among the most overused slang on the internet, popularized by cannabis culture. It commonly refers to smoking cannabis around the time 4:20 p.m. and the annual cannabis-oriented celebrations that spring up throughout the country every April 20th. Everything from stolen street signs to legislation in the State House of California relates back to the term 420- it’s become a cultural touchstone around the world.

Today, “420” , represents the growing trend of legalized and decriminalized (two very carefully chosen words) cannabis use. The fact of the matter is, marijuana and cannabis are not legal everywhere, or as legal as people think.

Before we get into the meat of this discussion, I want to get something on the table first: the economics of the cannabis industry are debatable. Numerous experts and commentators have written about the topic of economics and cannabis extensively and their conclusions can be boiled down to either an economic windfall or an economic nightmare. The jury is still out on this debate, so we will leave it for another day. I instead want to focus on communications and messaging.

The cannabis industry has done a great job with two communications models: something I call “The Marijuana Model”,and also controlling the narrative in key areas.

The Marijuana Model represents a justification for true grassroots engagement at a micro level. On November 7, 2000, 54% of Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, which gave the state medical marijuana. Creating a group of advocates who can speak to the benefit of a product is grassroots 101. It is difficult for the public and state legislators to argue with cancer patients’ testimony that cannabis products helped them eat during chemotherapy.

Following Amendment 20 in 2000, in 2012 Colorado voters backed Amendment 64, allowing for recreational marijuana use. Once the measure was passed, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper commissioned several groups to explore how the commercial sale of cannabis products would function in the state.

The above model, of super local grassroots efforts, evolves into a full-fledged lobbying program. It starts small, with a focused group of motivated speakers that doesn’t just create a geographic base, but builds a solid idealistic one.

When it comes to controlling the narrative, let me ask you a simple question: Is marijuana legal? The answer is simple; it’s complicated. Certain states have legalized recreational marijuana use, and a number of jurisdictions have authorized medical usage, but ultimately, the US Federal government has not changed its stance.

Ask the average person if marijuana is legal and they will most likely say “yes, in certain states.” The cannabis industry is doing a great job of messaging around this complicated situation by keeping the message simple, talking about the good they are doing, and avoiding the legality issue.

I said at the beginning that this is a very complicated story with numerous minute, fine details I could not reasonably explore here, but there are clear lessons to be learned. First: start small and local (with the understanding that the term local means more than mere geography). Small and local today, thanks to digital media, means people with shared ideas and values regardless of where they live. Energize a base around the issue based on their passion points first, and their location second.

The second point is simple but challenging: don’t get lost in the details. Too often communications professionals are so focused on getting all the details right that they forget to keep pushing forward with the program they are supporting.

Successfully crafting a message that resonates with people and accomplishing concrete, tangible policy or public opinion goals is an enormous achievement, and often requires leaders to see the forest for the trees. Look to the example set by the marijuana industry and use it as a guidepost: start local, set small, incremental goals, and message to your base, focusing on the people you’re helping.