Gay Rights & Marijuana Activist Jay Lassiter: “Let’s Make Weed Sexy”

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PHOTO: Diane Fornbacher

In 2009, lame-duck New Jersey Governor John Corzine (D) signed bills from the legislature both allowing same-sex marriage and medical marijuana in the state, knowing full well when incoming Republican Governor Chris Christie took office, he would veto both.

“As a state, New Jersey is one of the hardest battlegrounds because it is the embodiment of the confluence of the marriage equality fight, the coming of age for cannabis and the end of prohibition,” says Diane Fornbacher, Ladybud Magazine Publisher.

Jay Lassiter is one of New Jersey’s most prominent activists championing both causes. He began his political career canvassing for former President Bill Clinton in 1996. He has gone on to create Lassiter Consulting, a full-service political communications and consulting firm. He sits on the board of Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey (CMMNJ) and is a blogger for Politicker New Jersey.

I sat down with him in his beautiful Cherry Hill, NJ home, where he has been working diligently to fundraise and organize events to convince state legislators to override Chris Christie’s veto, and to make some “special” rice crispy treats and talk about why the whole country needs to pay attention to what Christie is doing in New Jersey and how to make weed sexier, thank god.

LADYBUD: How do the rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA in SCOTUS affect what is happening in New Jersey?

JAY LASSITER: The ruling on Prop 8 probably doesn’t effect New Jersey specifically; it is narrow specific to California. DOMA, however, has a more sweeping effect for New Jersey and beyond. In states where gays and lesbians are legally permitted to marry they will have the full range of federal benefits they are currently being denied. In New Jersey, where we only have civil unions… you see how complicated this is?

LADYBUD: Right, and it only takes 15 minutes to not be in New Jersey anymore.

JL: Well, and it takes five minutes to be in Pennsylvania where we are legal strangers. Or we can go to Maryland where we can be married, or Delaware where we can be married or north to New York we are married. For now, we are just a civil union. It is sort of a patchwork of quilts, a patchwork of laws affecting marriage equality in the United States. Ending DOMA and Prop 8  helps to make it a little more uniform.

If I go to Pennsylvania with my partner and something happens and I end up in the hospital, he is not my next of kin. God willing, that happens very infrequently, the big arguments though are tax fairness, being able to jointly file, the fact that if I am on my partner’s health insurance plan it’s taxed as income, not a benefit, like normal spouse’s. If one of us were to die we wouldn’t get Social Security. If we had children we wouldn’t have a co-equal relationship with each of our children.

LADYBUD: The tax filing is weird; I have heard of a lesbian couple that both have to file as single parents on their children every year. You would think that people who oppose gay marriage but want tax fairness would be in favor of gay marriage to equalize that tax burden.

JL: It sucks. A conservative argument for legalizing gay marriage is gay people pay more taxes at tax time. At the end of the day, we are fucked. If you are looking at a relationship with two women? Double fucked. Triple fucked.

You know, women make what? Eighty cents on the dollar, still? So when you are in a same-gender, female relationship, not only are you getting screwed every April 15 like your gay brothers are, but, because you are a woman and because misogyny still reigns…

LADYBUD: Oh, does it? 

JL: Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

LADYBUD: What was Chris Christie’s logic when he vetoed marriage equality in New Jersey? 

JL: He said he supports civil unions but he doesn’t support marriage equality. I want the government out of my life. I am not even sure I would even want to get married, but there is something intrinsically unfair about the government telling me who I can and cannot marry.

LADYBUD: Christie is a Republican, Libertarian even, who campaigns on getting big government out of personal lives.

JL: I don’t think he is a proper Libertarian. I think if you look at his policies on cannabis, on gun rights, birth control and gay rights, on a lot of things—he is actually very much a big government kind of guy, which sucks.

When he campaigned, he campaigned to get government out of our lives. It was one of those things I thought ‘at the very least…’ you know. Most conservatives tend to have a different philosophy. Chris Christie is not one of those kinds of conservatives and he is certainly not a Libertarian. As long as he has political aspirations beyond being the governor of a very progressive state, he is not going to be able to act on his Libertarian instincts.

LADYBUD: The reason I think it is important beyond just the state of New Jersey to be following Chris Christie, and what he does, is because he is a very viable candidate for the Republican Party in 2016.

JL: He is a viable candidate, and if you care about changing drug laws, gay rights and the government not controlling every pregnancy in America, then you will wake up and not be beguiled by his sort of everyman charm and realize he wants to control everything from the medicine you take to who you marry.

Jay Lassiter (center) as a guest commentator on News 12 New Jersey

Jay Lassiter (center) as a guest commentator on News 12 New Jersey

LADYBUD: New Jersey is a medical state, kind of. How far do you have to drive to get to the state’s only dispensary*?

[*Greenleaf, the state’s only dispensary, is currently closed due to a marijuana shortage.]


JL: I have to drive an hour and a half each way. Buying it at the dispensary has a lot of benefits, actually. It is really unfortunate I have to go so far out of my way to acquire it.

I have heard a lot of people bitching that it is too far away and not any cheaper than you could get it on the street. Otherwise, why do you even bother?

Well, honestly, it is nice to be able to transact it somewhere safe with a medical professional who is staring at a monitor and accessing my medical records. Someone who can see what my latest lab work was, my blood pressure, can watch my weight go up and down. It’s quite novel and very beneficial.

These are the things that when you are out there sort of ‘being an advocate’ and fighting for something, on the business end of it, it’s just a really great thing to be able to have an environment where the person I am getting my cannabis from is just as looped in to my health care battle as my pharmacist, physician, nurse practitioner or my “Dr. Feelgood.” They all have coequal access and this forces an open dialogue between all of them.

There are times where they can advise certain kinds of strains for certain kinds of symptoms. It’s no mystery to cannabis activists that having a variety of strains is beneficial. There are a lot of different symptoms out there. Here in New Jersey, we have a three-strain minimum and frankly that is not helpful.

There is a laundry list of changes that need to be made. The program is so flawed on so many levels that it does require a lot of attention on a lot of fronts. Obviously, there are very limited conditions, potencies, and access—there are a lot of problems with our law.

Specifically in regard to strains though, I am healthy and have been HIV positive for twenty years. For me, a three-strain maximum isn’t that big of a deal. My symptoms are under control, I have one for daytime where I can take my cannabis and still function and I have one for nighttime that helps me sleep ok. Other than that, I really don’t have any major considerations. I need to work during the day, 9-5, like everyone else. As much as I like to wake n’ bake– and I do it’s not beneath me –if you gotta go to work and you need to take your meds you can’t afford to be totally checked out….

You can’t afford to, you know, take the Alaskan Thunderfuck train during the day… cause we all know where it ends up.

LADYBUD: Where does it end up?

JL: Well it doesn’t end up at work!

The point is; to have just some variety suits me because I am able to address all of my symptoms. There are a lot of scenarios where having multiple drug options are beneficial to patients. It is the patients who are always the sickest, as it always is, who get screwed the hardest with this three-strain minimum. It’s not the upper middle class white guy with HIV that has it under control like me.

I am sort of alluding to a class kind of component of the medical marijuana program in New Jersey. It is a rich man’s treatment. It is not covered by insurance, not covered by charity care, not covered by any program. You can’t even put it on your credit card if you are in between paychecks. You have to pay cash for it out of pocket.

Imagine if someone had to do that with their insulin! These are chronic conditions people are treating here and to constantly have to pay out of pocket is truly cost prohibitive for a lot of people. Of course there is the little clause in a lot of states where patients can’t grow their own. That is rather unfortunate, I mean, we have a green house. We literally have a greenhouse right out back. Cause again, if you are a rich white dude and have a greenhouse and no arrest record, you can be brave like I am…

LADYBUD: Do you want me to take that part out of this interview?

JL: No! You should keep it in. Look, the thing is you can’t get me in trouble because I am a “rich white guy” who lives in the suburbs and doesn’t have an arrest record! Don’t you see? This is privilege!

This is as it always is with cannabis, with gay rights… discrimination does not affect the elite nearly as much as it affects the people on the margins and that is why it is so frustrating to me.

I got HIV while I was living on the margins because I was living on the margins. You know, I find the grace that I can amend my life and make it to the point where I have a really good thing going on, well that was lucky. But it was also because I am white and because I have a supportive family.

There are certain baked-in-the-cake advantages I have because I am a man, because I am white, because I am an American, because I am middle class, and as a consequence, I can afford to go on TV and smoke pot and be really, really honest about my condition, my marijuana use, my past drug use—whatever.

If you can trade on your own story it is such a blessing and if you squander that then you are an asshole.

AB: Marijuana and gay rights tend to get linked together in the media a lot and both are polling over 50% nationally, how do you feel these two issues are linked together and how do you feel it is a sign of overall change?

JL: First of all, twenty years ago when I started out as a young gay activist hanging out with the NORML crew, (not because I wanted to make drug laws better, but because I wanted to hang out with the cute guys who had the pot) I realized we were truly marginal, on the fringe.

If you supported gay rights you were in the minority. If you even tolerated gay rights you were in the minority. Now, if you don’t support us 100% you are kinda uncool. I would say that has all happened within twenty years. We went from being at death’s door, AIDS crisis, to being on the verge of marriage equality. And you and your partner, you too can be married, upper middle class, have a place at the beach. It’s remarkable. It’s moving at warp speed.

AB: Do you ever encounter anyone in either the marijuana or marriage equality movements that think you are getting distracted by the other one? 

JL: If I did I would be like ‘Fuck you, I can walk and chew gum at the same time.’

No, these are totally simpatico and they drive me. I will die on the field for both of these causes. We will either win or we won’t win and I will die still trying. That is as plain as the nose on my face. I am sure of that. What I am not so sure about is how public opinion will drive us to the logical conclusion of full equality for gay rights and for repealing our wacky prohibition laws.

AB: I am wildly optimistic, especially because my generation in particular, the Millennials, are overwhelmingly progressive-minded on these issues and in 2012 we made up 29% percent of the electorate but in 2016 we will make up 36% percent and 40% percent by 2020.  How long do you think until we have legal marijuana and marriage equality?

JL: Well, definitely within 50 years.

AB: Really?! 

JL: Come on, you have to realize; we are a patchwork of states, darling. We are not all alike, we 50 United States. There are a lot of places where the movement against gay rights is very deeply entrenched. Whether it is for religious or moral grounds, it tends to be in a certain geographical region…

AB: The Midwest and the South.

JL: Certainly the South in a lot of places, and the Midwest, yeah. Marriage equality has not arrived in the south or the Midwest yet.

AB: And that’s not because there aren’t gay people there.

JL: No, that’s true, it’s because of the political climate. Put it this way, even though pot and gay rights have moved at the same speed, they haven’t taken the same path. Look at Rand Paul for example—I would stand with Rand on cannabis, on hemp, decriminalization, and legalization—whatever. Strange bedfellows, of course, but for the most part I would say the kinds of places where gay rights are legal tend to be the same places where they take a more forward-leaning view of cannabis… but certainly not always.

Honestly some of my most conservative friends are big time potheads and I love them. We get stoned and we laugh and we have fun together.

"I think the most effective gay rights ad in the world would have two hot lesbians in a very tender but sexy embrace with the caption ‘If this turns you on you should really support gay rights.’"

“I think the most effective gay rights ad in the world would have two hot lesbians in a very tender but sexy embrace with the caption ‘If this turns you on you should really support gay rights.’”

AB: That’s an important element to focus on. As far as changing laws on marriage equality or marijuana you need to win public opinion and you can preach to the choir all you want but real change won’t really happen unless we work together on things. How do you get other people on your side that aren’t already there?

JL: That’s the thing that frustrates me about activists in both movements, specifically in the cannabis movement. You know, you gotta be prepared to shave off your dreadlocks.

To be a good cannabis activist in 2013, and be “on,” you have to be equally fluent at a Phish concert as you are in the halls of Congress. You have got to be able to play both roles equally well. You have got to look the part, talk the part. Even if it means kinda play acting—look, I am not a Dead head but you know I know the culture of a [Grateful] Dead show and I know how to comport myself there and be an effective communicator, I wouldn’t show up there in a suit.

It’s sort of the other way around, when I see these young cannabis activists or even some of the old heads, they remind me a little bit of 1960s-era sort of retrograde—look, I am not a hater but I am just saying if you want to be effective you gotta be able to bring the substance and the style.

I think perhaps that is something the cannabis movement could learn from the gay rights movement. We always dress to impress. When you are dealing with lawmakers, as superficial as this sounds, you gotta look the part. You gotta be credible in the minds of people who are judging you, who are judging you unfairly.

Do I think that’s cool? No, I think it totally sucks but that is the way it is and as a cannabis activist if you want to be effective you have to be able to make mainstream arguments and you have to look the part.

You gotta be prepared to make a conservative argument to a conservative lawmaker. Then you gotta turn on a dime, literally in the hallway, and you have to identify that progressive lawmaker coming at you with his aides and you have to be able to make an equally effective liberal-minded argument to that lawmaker so you can buttonhole both of them on the same issue.

So, preaching to the choir is really important. You want your choir to sing in tune, you want them to bring it. But, you gotta be forward enough to preach to everyone else. Not everyone can sing, not everyone is singing in your tune so bring ‘em in.

If you cannot communicate in an effective mainstream way, your message will be lost. Nobody wants to hear your weird long-winded stories about weirdness and tragedy, we all have a sad story, if that is the only thing you have got to trade on, and you aren’t willing to look the part, then it’s probably not going to forward the cause.

If I could tell a young cannabis activist anything it would be to get an elevator pitch, thirty seconds and ninety seconds. Get a five-floor elevator pitch and a 25-floor elevator pitch—and that’s it! That’s it! Don’t ever deviate from that nice tight message, because it’s going to convince the conservative, it’s going to convince the liberal. Nice tight messaging and packaging, stagecraft—this is something the gay community does brilliantly. It is something the cannabis community is terrible at.

AB: How do funny anecdotal comments about marijuana culture or personal beliefs detract from the overall message?

JL: If you are not on message, you are off message.

I don’t want to rob people of the dignities of their experience. In many cases they are very personal and very profound. The truth is we are only afforded the luxury of fifteen seconds, maybe thirty and we have to distill it down to something really tight that is an imperative. If you don’t look the part, you are detracting from the cause. It sucks, it’s superficial and I get that.

You wouldn’t show up at a nudey beach with armor on either, you know?

AB: You want to make marijuana and gay rights sexier. How do you do that? What is so sexy about politics?

JL: There is nothing sexy about politics… yet. That is because I am not President Obama’s sexy politics’ secretary. That should be it’s own cabinet position. It’s devoid of sexy. The fact that it is so unhip and kind of staid, the messaging is so typical.

I think the most effective gay rights ad in the world would have two hot lesbians in a very tender but sexy embrace with the caption ‘If this turns you on you should really support gay rights.’ Because, that is going to have everybody who is not in the choir at least taking pause and at least having to admit, ‘Yeah dude, I am so turned on by that.” They have to know they are turned on because there is a tingle in their balls that makes it undeniable. But the truth is, you can’t reconcile that feeling, that impulse, with the fact that you don’t accept gay rights. You can’t.

How do we break the barrier? What are the most effective ways to break barriers? In my experience two things have been really good at breaking barriers. Number one, peer pressure. Number two, making it sexy. Giving it some hot accessory, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s a sexy Fendi purse or maybe it’s a sexy billboard ad with two hot lesbians.

AB: Ok, so how can weed be sexy like gay marriage?

JL: There are a lot of good-looking people who smoke pot. You know? Look at you girls at Ladybud. Look at us!

You know, everyone who smokes pot needs to come out, first and foremost. Coming out as a cannabis smoker and an unapologetic consumer of medical and recreational cannabis has been more liberating than the coming out as a gay thing, probably because I did it later in life and I was able to appreciate what that transformation really meant.

That’s how you change hearts and minds— talking about how high you are on Facbeook but through really clever euphemisms about cannabis. Be proud about it, but be funny and proud. Be illuminating and proud. Be witty and proud, but be proud with virtue. If you can do that and share it on Facebook, or with all your friends and make it cool, that is what will work.

Because, sexy doesn’t always mean I want to fuck you. It can also mean I want to be like you, it is something that is appealing to people and attracts them. We need to make this movement attractive, and cool and hip and dynamic and smart.