420 and the Tipping Point on Marijuana Policy

Not every new invention is adopted. Not every new product succeeds in the market place. Not every good public policy becomes law.

In 1962, Everett Rogers published Diffusion of Innovations that laid out the theories of the spread of new products and ideas that is the hallmark of contemporary American life.

An innovation is meaningless until it is adopted, and key are the early adopters, the first 13 percent, or so, of the population. Early adopters sustain the market for the new innovation and spread the word about its value to a larger fraction, the early majority.

The first people with telephones had very few people to call. For those early adopters of telephones, the early majority were critical to make ownership of a telephone worthwhile. With a 19th century technology like the telephone, it took many decades for virtually all households to have telephone.

In more recent years, the time period from innovation to majority has become much shorter.

Without early adopters society would struggle to innovate, but success depends upon the recruitment of the mainstream adopters to reach critical mass. If there were no early adopters, who would ever use the technology? If early adopters don't like the new technology, it dies in competition with its rivals, like 8 track audio tapes.

In 1971, 420 was born in San Rafael, CA, north of San Francisco, as a shorthand for a group that met after school at 4:20 p.m. to smoke marijuana. In 40 years, 420 has become a widely known code phrase for marijuana use. For many years now, April 20 has been a holiday to celebrate the use of marijuana with rallies and events organized in locales around the world.

420, having been adopted by an early majority, is one of numerous signs that America's relationship to marijuana is at a tipping point toward normalization of marijuana in our society.

California is a hub of innovation -- fashion, music, drug use, technology and politics. In politics, California has been a leader in decriminalizing marijuana (failed initiative in 1972 and successful legislation in 1975), adopting restrictions on tax increases, adopting "three strikes and you're out" sentencing laws, and medical marijuana (1996).

Because of the value of marijuana as medicine, in the four years since the first inauguration of President Obama in 2009, the number of medical marijuana states increased by 50 percent -- from 12 to 18. Voters in Arizona and Massachusetts passed initiatives in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Legislatures passed the new laws in New Jersey (2010), the District of Columbia (2010), Delaware (2011) and Connecticut (2012).

Some observers thought the failure of California's 2010 vote to legalize marijuana (46.5 percent yes to 53.5 percent no) was the story. But part of the "secret sauce" of innovation -- from Thomas Edison to today's Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs -- is to embrace failure as integral to innovation and to learn from it.

Taking lessons from that effort, in November 2012, Colorado and Washington State decisively voted to legalize marijuana for adults and to legalize production, sale and taxation of marijuana through retail stores.

These political victories suggest to some commentators, again, that in the terms of diffusion theory we are at critical mass, or in the words of writer Malcolm Gladwell, "the tipping point."

Marijuana prohibition blights our system of justice. 850,000 arrests just for simple possession of marijuana wastes the time of police better spent on real crime. Marijuana arrests are more than twice the number of violent crime arrests.

Human Rights Watch and many others have proven that police all over the country make marijuana arrests in an unwarranted racially disproportionate manner.

Marijuana prohibition laws undermine respect for the law because they are disproportionately punitive compared to laws controlling more dangerous substances such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.

Marijuana's legal association with much more lethal drugs undermines the credibility of anti-drug education for the nation's youth.

The prohibition of marijuana funds organized crime organizations around the world, most notably in Mexico and the United States.

Legalization of marijuana is expected to bring significant benefits to American society.

Parents and teachers will be freed to speak honestly about marijuana use to contribute to safer and more responsible patterns of use.

Marijuana use will lose some of its powerful symbolic power for rebellion and result in less experimentation by youth at greatest risk for anti-social behavior. Perhaps 420 events will be a casualty of marijuana legalization.

The legalization of marijuana sales will generate several billions of dollars in direct taxes annually for federal, state and local governments. The importance of this source of revenue cannot be underestimated as communities have endured severe cutbacks in vital public services over the past five years.

The health of marijuana users is likely to improve. The legalization of medical use of marijuana has led to the spread of non-smoked forms of ingestion. Marijuana ingestion from beverages and foods, or from vaporization, will eliminate the risks of smoking.

Most importantly, the liberty of tens of millions of Americans will no longer be threatened by the government for behavior that is not wrongful or deviant. In the most creative industries in our society -- technology development, software, Internet and mobile applications, film making, music, performance, advertising, etc. -- many industry leaders have used marijuana and call for its legalization.

But identifying a tipping point is a historical judgment after change takes place. Reform is not inevitable! Hundreds of bureaucracies in federal, state and local governments are unified and mobilized in their opposition.

Ultimately, the Congress must reform or repeal the marijuana laws, but elected representatives still feel no pressure to do so. There are 36 U.S. Senators that represent medical marijuana states, but none of them have ever supported a bill to allow their state's law to operate effectively.

For over a decade there has been little change in the House of Representatives in the numbers supporting marijuana law reform, and two of the leaders, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) have retired.

Members of 420 culture, to reap the benefits of marijuana legalization, must become politically more active. A majority of the American public agrees with the voters of Washington State and Colorado, marijuana legalization makes sense, but that is not political power.

Members of 420 culture must consciously adopt diffusion theory and join the reform movement of NORML, MPP, the Drug Policy Alliance and their local and "identity" reform groups (students, religious, ethnic, professional, etc.) to spread the acceptance of marijuana legalization.

The key of diffusion theory is the personal connection. The new silent majority must move out of the anonymity of the rally or the party and share with their families, neighbors, and co-workers the benefits of participation in 420 culture.

* Co-author Jane Marcus has a PhD in Communication and Policy Analysis from Stanford University where she studied with the late Professor Everett Rogers and Professor Emeritus Albert Bandura. She recently retired after 35 years as an administrator in the University's central computing organization. Marcus is past president of Beth Am Women, the sisterhood of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. CA, and serves on the Boards of Women of Reform Judaism and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The ideas she expresses are her own.