Going to Pot

Tips on getting a high turnout to next year's pro-legalization rally

click to enlarge PUFF PUFF PROTEST: When did you say that demonstration was? Will there be Doritos? - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
PUFF PUFF PROTEST: When did you say that demonstration was? Will there be Doritos?

From where I sat, Tampa's contribution to the Million Marijuana March looked to be something of a bust. It was 12:45 p.m. - nearly an hour after the anti-Drug War rally was scheduled to begin - and no one was there except for three or four activists still working to set up camp in front of the nondescript W. Kennedy Boulevard professional building that houses the Drug Enforcement Agency's local offices.

Last Saturday saw crowds of wildly varying sizes gather in cities around the world to protest stiff legal penalties, a steady rise in arrests for possession of middling amounts of pot, and the legislative tug-of-war over medical marijuana. While some past Bay area pro-decriminalization demonstrations have drawn impressive amounts of participants, this particular shindig - co-sponsored by the Florida Cannabis Action Network (F-CAN) - looked far from inspired.

Well, why?

Aside from all the usual reasons why some pro-pot rallies achieve less than stellar success (disorganization, a desire among supporters for anonymity, bad live music, short-term memory loss, lack of adequate supplies of Doritos), the simple fact is the Bay area has lately been swamped with crowd-drawing spectacles. We've had more than our fair share of homegrown inspirations to put Sharpie to posterboard.

• Terri Schiavo.

• The Dolans.

• The ongoing controversy surrounding BayWalk's curfew policies.

• The clearing of a Pinellas County Sheriff's Deputy in the shooting of unarmed Jarrell S. Walker.

That's a lot of competition for the average outraged citizen's attention. And in America, the average outraged citizen wants to be target-marketed as much as anybody else does, particularly in a market suffering from "protest fatigue." You wanna draw the crowd, you gotta have your shit together, and outdo the other guy - and whatever the other guy's outraged about.

Here are a few helpful hints for making your next pro-marijuana public event the talk of the bong-circle.

Make sure the date of your event is included in the press release. Simple, but effective. It can't possibly be a coincidence that the promoters of hemp-fests and pro-legalization rallies are famous in newsrooms for leaving key details out of their press materials. Not even organized activists are immune - initial information regarding the nearly 20-year-old F-CAN's marches in Tampa and Sarasota last Saturday neglected to mention what day the events would take place. We know you're hungry, but have your roommate read through your notice before you hit "Send"; it's only been 13 minutes since you ordered the pizza, anyway.

Take your crowd's paranoia into account. Distrust of the federal government is part and parcel of a countercultural lifestyle. Not a lot of pro-legalization pundits are going to be all that interested in showing their faces outside the DEA office while the Moral Majority owns a two-thirds stake in the White House and Congress, and drug-arrest statistics - particularly for marijuana - are skyrocketing. Plenty of other locations would offer similarly symbolic impact without the pesky connotations of the word "agent" - the courthouse, a busy street corner and the back of a customized '79 Ford van with tinted windows spring immediately to mind.

Timing is everything. Doesn't Mystery Science Theater 3000 come on at noon on Saturdays? You might want to think about planning your scene for late afternoon on a weekday - that way, everybody who wants to come can pester the one guy in their apartment with a job and a car for a ride the second he gets home from work. Also, you can't ever underestimate the street-side rush-hour exposure factor, and you might make the news if you tie up traffic badly enough.

Perks are important. Why should somebody attend your rally, as opposed to that other rally? Because you've got a Ben & Jerry's kiosk, that's why. It's not enough to put a couple of local bands onstage near some shade trees; this is the era of corporate sponsorship, and some corporations will sponsor anything if there's enough potential for visibility. Maybe Coke would like to offset those reports about its exploiting indigenous South American peoples by having the Dasani Girls stop by and vanquish cottonmouth. At the very least some snack manufacturer has to have a new buffalo-sauce-blue-cheese-and-onion-flavored something coming out soon.

Step into the information age. Take a cue from American Idol, and embrace the possibilities inherent in the Telecommunications Revolution. Let's face it: Sometimes, your target demographic is not all that interested in leaving the house. What if they didn't have to? Organize a text-message bombardment of some prominent anti-legalization politician's assistant's cell. Schedule a day for 500 medical marijuana supporters to call the White House, one every 10 seconds or so. You could probably go the sponsorship route with this one, too, and stage the Cingular High Times Annual Phone Jam. There's no better sell for pro-pot activism than telling legions they'll have to lift a finger for the cause - but only one.

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