Marijuana Policy Project looks to reform discussion

It's hard to be taken seriously when some think 'High Times' litters your office. That misperception has buoyed the Marijuana Policy Project's efforts to champion its drug-reform message.

It's hard to be taken seriously when some think 'High Times' litters your office. That misperception has buoyed the Marijuana Policy Project's efforts to champion its drug-reform message.

In the ongoing war on drugs, there are two sides. One is the government. The other is a group that wants officials to recognize the medicinal benefits of getting high.

But don't call them pro-drug. For the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), projecting a serious, buttoned-down, corporate image is no small part of the campaign to promote drug reform.

"One of the things we run up against is people - including people in the media - just not taking the issue seriously," says Bruce Mirken, director of communications. "If you come to our office, you won't see copies of High Times. You won't see people with [marijuana leaf] necklaces. Frankly, we do play the Washington games."

In recent months, Mirken's office has been inundated with calls. The Washington, DC-based advocacy group is often considered the go-to source on issues related to reforming state and federal marijuana laws. Though its most prominent campaign involves promoting marijuana's medicinal uses, the MPP is also an advocate of looser sentences for marijuana-related charges.

"Our basic philosophical viewpoint is harm reduction," Mirken notes. "There is simply no scientific or common-sense basis for arresting and jailing people for relaxing with a joint as opposed to a martini."

The group currently has its eye on Rhode Island, where Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) last month vetoed a medical marijuana bill passed by the legislature. The legislature now has an opportunity to override the veto.

On a national level, the MPP has won the support of both the American Medical Association and the Institute of Medicine, which have acknowledged research suggesting that some patients benefit from smoking marijuana.

Still, unlike many lobbyists, the MPP and its supporters must constantly prove that their position is legitimate, and not a fringe movement or the whim of a group of pothead slackers.

When the MPP hosted an awards gala for two supporters of the cause - Reps. Linda Sanchez and Sam Farr (both D-CA) - Congressional newspaper Roll Call mocked the ceremony. "VIP tickets are $500, which include a 'special VIP reception' (wink, wink) and 'preferred seating,'" the article stated. But Mirken notes that the group holds itself to the highest professional standards - realizing that even a typo in a press release is a potential ticket for mockery.

"We are fanatical about double-checking and triple-checking facts," he says. "We just assume that we're going to be given a higher scrutiny."

Choosing the words carefully

One of the lessons the group has learned is the importance of terminology. Using the word "legalization" invokes images of marijuana being sold on supermarket shelves, Mirken notes.

"We try to find clearer and more precise terminology," he says. "We will constantly hear groups like MPP categorized as pro-drug or pro-pot. We're not. We're anti-jail."

The MPP has a seemingly uphill battle ahead of it. Last month the House of Representatives shot down a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana. And that vote came within weeks of a Supreme Court ruling upholding the rights of federal agents to prosecute individuals in states where medical marijuana use is legal. Even though that decision did not overturn state laws - which the MPP has been quick to emphasize - medical marijuana users remain vulnerable to federal raids.

Although the movement recently suffered those federal setbacks, the MPP has been instrumental in pushing through medical marijuana initiatives in 10 other states.

Mirken notes that the recent developments "very much energized our constituency. They also showed that we have a long way to go in educating Congress."

One of the messages stressed by the MPP is the notion that drug-policy reform enjoys broad public support. A June poll commissioned by the MPP (and conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research) found that 68% of respondents did not believe people should be prosecuted for using marijuana medicinally.

"There's a perception out there among elected officials that this is a dangerous issue," Mirken notes. "In fact, it's not."

Neal Levine, director of state policies for the MPP, points to the conservative state of Montana, which allows the use of medical marijuana. "This really isn't a partisan issue," he says. "The public is with us - the challenge is getting the public [to push] the legislature."

Working with strong allies

Levine and Mirken are currently working on a series of commercials and radio PSAs to rally public support. The group's spokespeople include talk- show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, and Angel Raich, a cancer patient who brought her fight

to use marijuana all the way to the Supreme Court.

"The reality is that people are smoking marijuana to alleviate their pain; it's just the truth," Levine says. "The question is whether you're going to put people in jail."

Showing the people who stand to be incarcerated - many of whom are terminally and chronically ill - has been an effective vehicle for the MPP. Levine notes that prior to running the commercials in Montana, polls placed public support for policy reform at 53%; after they aired, support rose to 62%.

The MPP also aligns itself with healthcare professionals, who can give credence to research on the drug as well as its place in medical history. Finding people to come forward, however, is not always easy. "It takes courage," Milken notes. "We've had some very willing, passionate, and sincere folks who are reluctant to do it."

Parker Blackman, deputy GM and MD at Fenton Communications, has been working with Raich to paint the mother of two as "all-American," a patriot whose son is serving in the military. Although losing her Supreme Court case, Raich plans to travel to Washington to support the MPP.

When the issue comes before a state legislature, "it can get all about policy minutiae rather than how people will be affected by it," Blackman says. "Win or lose ... MPP's communications has been good to frame this issue."

At the same time that real-life patients and doctors can add credibility to the campaign, people who misuse marijuana can damage its carefully crafted, straight-laced image. The MPP, therefore, must take a hard stance against "bad actors," Blackman notes.

"I think the MPP is cognizant of that," Blackman says.

The MPP's PR team consists of Mirken and Krissy Oechslin, assistant director of communications. They work alongside Francis DellaVecchia, who is the director of VIP relations and oversees the advisory board, a high-powered group that includes TV personality Bill Mahr, former surgeon-general Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

The entire organization has 21 staffers in Washington and San Francisco, and a total budget of $3 million. It has 17,000 dues-paying members, according to its website.

Mirken notes that he never intended to be a PR person. But in 1996 he was working as a reporter for AIDS Treatment News when Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative, was enacted in California.

"The editor said, find out what we actually know about this subject," Mirken recalls, adding that he "hunkered down with a pile of medical journals" only to emerge convinced that the drug was "incredibly safe."

He was spurred to join the advocacy group to correct what he saw as deliberate misstatements from opponents of drug reform.

The cause is personal for Mirken, who has close friends with AIDS, "who are literally alive today because of medical marijuana." For patients with diseases like AIDS and cancer, smoking marijuana might help increase appetite, as well as counteract pain and nausea from traditional treatments.

Mirken admits that the anti-drug message is entrenched and fairly uncontroversial. When the Office of National Drug Control Policy puts out a report on drug use, the MPP typically does not get calls for comment. He calls it a "double-standard."

"People regard marijuana prohibition as a given," Mirken says, noting that marijuana was actually used as a medical treatment until it was banned in 1937. "We're constantly looking for new ways to further that discussion."


PR contacts

Director of communications Bruce Mirken

Assistant director of communications Krissy Oechslin

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