A Birmingham/Salt March Moment: The Cultural Tipping Point for Cannabis Legalization

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Before I became a stay-at-home dad for a medically fragile child, I was a social historian, studying how large groups of people forced “change from below” via organization and protests. With my specialty being African and African-American history, I spent a lot of time researching the history of the anti-colonial and civil rights movements.

Now that I have a daughter with a seizure disorder, I find myself in the midst of a (pardon the pun) “grassroots” protest effort among parents of similarly affected children to get access to medical marijuana, which offers potential for helping a large number of children who have found no relief from their seizures using traditional anti-seizure drugs, surgery, etc. A rapidly growing number of anecdotal success stories of children using medical cannabis extracts to reduce or eliminate seizures, and initial FDA trials of cannabis extracts for treating seizures have whipped parents of children with severe seizure disorders into a frenzy.

These parents, knowing that nothing currently available is stopping their child’s seizures, and having watched fellow parents have success with medical marijuana in their own children, are forming groups and pressuring legislatures with their stories. A protest movement is growing. These parents want medical cannabis to be available for their child to try as a medicine every bit as badly as African-Americans in the South wanted the vote in the 60s, if not more. Their kids’ very lives are at stake. The vast majority of Americans want medical marijuana legalized; at this point the politicians are way behind, but it seems like a big change is coming. Eventually.

But when does REAL change happen? At what point does the domino tip?

Studying the Civil Rights and anti-colonial movements made me appreciate the importance of key events – what I’d call “Birmingham” or “Salt March” moments. These are moments that swung the debate in the mind of the general public, and so they had great importance in achieving the ultimate goals of those movements.

Birmingham, AL, 1963. It’s important to understand the background of Birmingham. The Civil Rights movement got a huge boost from WWII. During the war, blacks and whites had ultimately ended up serving side by side, which had a huge impact in setting the stage for events to come. It’s important to understand how important this was; as the Civil Rights movement progressed, these young veterans became middle aged, and gained power. The bus boycott and lunch counter sit-ins, etc. all stirred the pot and kept the movement going. Certainly the March on Washington and MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech were important in moving the debate forward.

But what really tipped the domino as far as public opinion and resulting political action were the protests in Alabama, and in particular the protest by the children. The reaction of the Birmingham police, led by Bull Connor, was becoming ever more severe as the protests continued. During the protests there in May, America was served up a heavy dose of reality: many newspapers carried pictures of well-dressed black children – the same age as the kids of those white WWII veterans — being taken down by dogs and blasted by fire hoses. On some deep visceral level, Americans were appalled. Movement on meaningful Civil Rights legislation happened much more quickly after Birmingham.

India, 1930. India was the crown jewel in the British colonial empire. The empire certainly enriched Britain, but it was also the source of great pride in that the British felt they were doing the subjugated peoples a ‘favor’ by colonizing and “civilizing” them. Indians were exploited pretty heavily by the system, but the British public believed that the Indians were (and should be) grateful to be part of the empire. The British put down numerous protests, sometimes in a quite violent manner, but the British public seemed basically unaware of how badly the Indians wanted their independence. Again, one protest seemed to sway public opinion more quickly than anything else, and it involved the Salt March.

Gandhi was not yet famous for leading the protests in India, but his strict non-violent tactics were pushing the authorities to act. Noting that his people were not even allowed by British authorities to make salt (necessary for life) from the sea as they had done for centuries before British rule, Gandhi had his people peacefully advanced in defiance of police warnings to disperse at Dharasana. The protesters refused to leave or defend themselves from police attacks in any manner, with hundreds if not thousands of people taking beatings from police, one person replacing another as each one fell, and none resisting the blows from the police. It went on for many hours. The scene was so vicious, and the violence so utterly one-sided and unrelentingly savage, that the mere newspaper accounts of it horrified the nation, completely blowing up the myth of the benevolent “civilizing” British influence:

Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down….Finally the police became enraged by the non-resistance….They commenced savagely kicking the seated men in the abdomen and testicles. The injured men writhed and squealed in agony, which seemed to inflame the fury of the police….The police then began dragging the sitting men by the arms or feet, sometimes for a hundred yards, and throwing them into ditches.

After the Salt March, Indians realized they had strength in numbers and it became clear that they would not accept anything less than full independence. The image of the morally superior ‘civilizing’ British authority had been shattered, and India had its independence in short order as Britain lost the will to keep the most valuable part of her empire.

Why do I bring these events up? It occurred to me that at some point, there may be a smaller version of a “Birmingham” or “Salt March” moment in the medical marijuana struggle. It would be a moment in which the injustice of the situation is put into stark relief for the whole nation to see. While it would end up propelling the movement to victory, it would also necessarily emerge from some horrible scene: a child being taken away from parents who were using cannabis to stop the child’s seizures, or a grower being led off to jail while the courthouse steps are filled with sobbing moms and seizing children now unable to get their meds.

I really hope it doesn’t take a “Birmingham” or “Salt March” moment of extreme injustice to achieve the change we seek. Some might argue that we’ve already had such a moment – like Sabina Rose losing her fight with Dravet before her parents could navigate the needlessly complex and restrictive New Jersey medical marijuana system, or a medical grower or patient being locked for decades in a cage simply for growing or possessing a plant to treat severely ill people – and that the public just hasn’t taken notice. But as modern-day people would say, it needs to go “viral” as Birmingham and the Salt March did in their own time. I’m not sure how/where or even if the Birmingham/Salt March moment may occur, and we may not even recognize its importance at the time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens soon.

Just some random food for thought.

Photo Credit:Yann under public domain via Wikimedia