Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The NORML Communications Campaign, pt. 2

Author's Note: This paper was originally written in 1991 as a undergraduate student at the University of Georgia for my Speech Communications major. - MR


Shortly after calling the national NORML office in Washington D.C., the author received a packet of information containing Jon B. Gettman’s “Social Activism and Marijuana Reform - An Organizing Manual,” a short compilation “Marijuana: Facts & Figures,” a tri-fold flier entitled “NORML,” membership pledge forms, and a catalog of NORML products (See Appendix A).

Gettman’s manual is the center piece of this set of information and it spells out the philosophy behind NORML, and suggests how NORML members can become actively involved in working to achieve reform of the current cannabis/hemp laws. From this packet of information, it has been determined that NORML has a bifurcated mission statement. There is a twofold purpose of the organization which is laid out ii Gettman’s manual32 (see Appendix A, Doc. 1)

I): The purpose of the NORML program is to get our members to engage in public activity to demonstrate support for the reform of the U.S. marijuana laws. This activity is designed to attract further support and provide resources for more ambitious action.

Gettman, though, never defines what “more ambitious action” actually is. Later in the manual, Gettman says that the second purpose of the NORML program is to “change the way you think about marijuana and judge the laws that define marijuana users as criminals.” It is significant to note here that the stated purposes of NORML’s campaign attempts to initiate changes in all three major components of persuasion: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Values, as defined by Sarah Trenholm.33

As the source of a social campaign, NORML must meet several requirements in order to successfully achieve its purpose. The source characteristics that are important to the NORML campaign are the components of credibility and power. Another kind of source characteristic, attractiveness, does not play an important part in persuasion in this case until after the first two characteristics have been established.


NORML recognizes their perceived lack of credibility as a major obstacle in successfully delivering their message. In several telephone interviews with NORML’s information specialist Allen St. Pierre, he articulated a major objective of NORML, which is to “get on an even playing field with the lawmakers” in terms of delivering the facts about cannabis/hemp. Mr. St. Pierre sees one avenue for increasing the credibility of NORML as being able to engage in an open forum of discussion and debate with their opposition. An open public forum would allow NORML to present their argument first hand, thereby alleviating the inherent biases of second hand information sources. Opposition to NORML, however, categorically and systematically refuses to even discuss the issue in an open public forum. This has always been the case. DFA and other involved parties interested in sustaining prohibition deny NORML’s requests for public debate on the following grounds:

First, acknowledging the opposition in this way would serve to legitimize them. It follows that by simply agreeing to a debate the prohibitionists would be implying that NORML has a legitimate and credible platform worthy of further consideration.

As it now stands, though, every prohibitionist organization has refused NORML’s invitations to open public discussion. Just one example of these groups’ policies is evident in the National Federation of Parents for a Drug—Free Youth (DFY), who justifies their refusal to debate NORML with the rhetorical question “would you debate segregation with the Ku Klux Klan?”34

Second, NORML is unable to find a prohibitionist organization willing to publicly debate the issue is that these groups are fully aware that they stand to loose tremendous ground in their own campaigns if the factual evidence surrounding the cannabis/hemp issue becomes widely known.

The historical fact that NORML’s platform has never been refuted, neither by legitimate scientific evidence, nor by peer review, is the cause of justifiable concern for groups like DFA.35 These organizations, staffed with very knowledgeable and proficient advertising agents and public relations directors, are all too aware of the potential negative impact of a nationally televised debate over a “hot-issue” like cannabis/hemp prohibition.36

Since NORML is unable to go “face-to-face” with its competition on this issue, they must try to rebuild their credibility through the use of other techniques. The most obvious of the group’s attempts at re-establishing credibility are NORML’s uses of expert testimony. In most of their publications NORML cites examples from scientific studies and “experts” from the fields of law and law reform, criminology, sociology and others. In their publication “Marijuana: Facts & Figures” NORML points out “such conservative notables as William F. Buckley, George Schultz, and Milton Freidman... columnist Mike Royko and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke” have all suggested legalization of drugs.37 This publication also cites statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Department of Justice as well as academic studies from the Harvard School of Government and the Harvard Medical School to support its claims for the repeal of the prohibition of cannabis/hemp.

Another tactic used by NORML in attempting to increase its credibility is to make an association between well-known public figures and cannabis/hemp law reform. “Marijuana: Facts & Figures” states that “Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were all documented as having grown hemp.”38 This tactic goes hand-in-hand with the use of expert testimony.

NORML uses “name-dropping” as a credibility enhancing measure because they are unable to hire celebrity spokespersons due to budgetary constraints.

The issue of credibility, or as in the case of NORML, lack of credibility, can be viewed from another angle as well. Since the group’s formation in 1970, opponents of NORML have very successfully employed the strategy of ad hominem argumentation where the opposition attacks the source of an argument rather than the argument itself. As a rule, attacks directed against NORML tend to focus on the members of the organization and their credibility or other personal characteristics instead of attacking the logic or rationality of NORML’s position. Since the laws governing cannabis/hemp mandate that its users are criminals and further imply that those who tolerate cannabis/hemp should be considered criminals as well, NORML has been an easy target for ad hominem attacks, reasoning that NORML and its members are nothing but a bunch of criminals. Comparing NORML to the Ku Klux Klan and the like has been a very effective tool used by prohibitionists to undermine NORML’s perceived credibility.

Ad hominem arguments against NORML have had far reaching effects. These arguments imply that no matter what credentials a member of NORML has, and whether they use cannabis/hemp or not, they should still be regarded as criminals. Even though the vast majority of cannabis/hemp law reform activist are upstanding, involved, and productive members of society in every respect, under ad hominem attack these people are seen as unworthy and incapable of legitimacy and credibility.


Examining NORML as the source of a social campaign reveals another serious drawback: lack of power. John French and Bertram Raven define the five types of power as expert power, referent power, reward power, coercive power, and legitimate power.39 In applying these terms to the campaign of NORML, it can be concluded that NORML has no coercive or legitimate power, and virtually no referent power——due to their lack of membership and name recognition. This leaves reward power and expert power as the only types of power available to NORML.

NORML focuses its campaign heavily on reward power-—the ability to offer a reward to those who comply with their requests. NORML contends that the public will be rewarded with less crime, a reduction of government spending, increased tax revenue, and improved environmental conditions if its position is accepted. NORML also offers to reward the cannabis/hemp user by halting the persecution, discrimination, and imprisonment of these otherwise law abiding citizens. This type of power is very effective in targeting the cannabis/hemp user, but not nearly as effective for the population as a whole.

The other type of power that NORML has is expert power. Expert power is the key ingredient to establishing credibility as discussed above. This kind of power, though, is very difficult to achieve without some other corresponding type of power, such as the coercive or legitimate power that NORML lacks. Even so, NORML is always striving to increase its expert power by soliciting endorsements and factual support from expert sources that already have credibility and support from their respective audiences. Some of the expert sources that NORML uses are doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, parents, teachers, politicians, intellectuals and others. NORML is meticulous about documenting its arguments with factual evidence from credible sources. This serves to build their expert power, which, in turn, adds to the organization’s overall credibility.


The clearest definition of NORML’s mission can be found in its title: the reform of marijuana laws. Historically, NORML has relied on the logical strength of it message to carry the weight of the campaign. Because of the logic and historical precedent behind the argument that prohibition does not work, it is hoped that everyone who comes in contact with NORML’s message will suddenly ‘see the light’ and realize how ineffectual and illogical cannabis/hemp prohibition really is. However, real world experience has shown this to be the exception rather than the rule.

There are many reasons that NORML’s campaign fails to persuade on the basis of logical argument alone. One of the reasons is the complexity of NORML’s message, which is made up of literally hundreds of related arguments concerning the “how,” “what,” “why,” “when,” and “who” of cannabis/hemp prohibition, in addition to the plethora of factual and scientific information, and social cost-benefit analysis. NORML’s messages attempt to encompass every facet of cannabis/hemp prohibition in each one of its persuasive attempts.

NORML views every aspect of the cannabis/hemp issue as one worthy of discussion. While there may be an argument for the implementation of a “catch-all” campaign, these kinds of messages serve only to overwhelm the receiver with very diverse pieces of information, spreading the argument thinly over a wide range of topics rather than focusing on a single issue and covering it thoroughly. There is a rule of persuasion that says “a campaign cannot succeed without a clear message targeted at a specific audience.”39 NORML’s campaign consists of many diverse messages that all point to a single solution, but the complexity of NORML’s message combined with the fact that the legalization of cannabis/hemp is a highly controversial issue requires that the receivers of this message have an inordinately high level of intelligence to adequately process the information.


The channels of communication that NORML uses in delivering its messages are severely limited due to the meager $300,000 annual budget. Without money for advertising, NORML must rely on word of mouth, hand-bills, a newsletter, and a small amount of donated advertising space in High Times magazine in addition to interpersonal contact during rallies and conventions.

The advertisements used by NORML are acceptable, but much of their persuasive value is misused. For example, one advertisement (see Appendix B) pictures a mixed drink, a lit cigarette and ‘roach clip’ holding the remains of a marijuana cigarette and is headed with the caption “ask your doctor which one of these is least harmful to your health?” Below the picture, is the caption “now ask your Congressman why it’s illegal.” This is followed by a text that describes the dangers of alcohol and tobacco versus marijuana, informs the reader that “it could be you” that is arrested on marijuana charges, and urges the reader to “send a buck” to the NORML campaign. This ad seems to be an effective persuasive attempt, but this example epitomizes the problems inherent in the campaign.

This ad falls victim to the “catch-all” philosophy that pervades NORML’s advertisements and literature. Instead of detailing the medical aspects of cannabis/hemp, as the opening line of text indicates it will do, the advertisement wanders through unconvincing highlights of the entire cannabis/hemp issue. And this ad appears in only one magazine with a limited circulation whose audience is likely to already be favorable to the goals of NORML and generally well-informed about the issue. Knowledge about the circulation demographics of a publication like High Times should indicate to NORML that they need a harder hitting advertisement in a spot like the one in which this ad appeared.

Another channel of communication used by NORML is that of rallies and conventions (See Appendix B, Doc. s 2, 3, 4). An enormous amount of time, energy and planning goes into these kinds of events, but they only achieve minimal results. The main purpose of these events is to increase public awareness about the issue of re-legalization, in addition to disseminating factual information to the public at large. Again, these events tend to attract only those individuals who have already been exposed to the issue and the many restrictions on the quantity and quality of persuasive message channels at an event such as a large scale outdoor rally leaves much to be desired.

The budgetary restrictions of NORML demand that every persuasive situation be maximized. Currently, the NORML campaign is not reaching anywhere near the full capacity of its potential audience.


The debate over the re-legalization of cannabis/hemp involves a myriad of people and organizations, all of whom, together, can be considered a “public.” The public for the “Marijuana War”40 (see Appendix E, Doc.9) can be described by what James Gruning calls a “Hot—Issue Public,” a public active on a single issue that involves nearly everyone in the population “and that has received extensive media coverage.”41 By the very nature of laws, they ultimately affect all of society. And not even a war as significant as Operation Desert Storm received as much media attention as The War on Drugs.

Gruning goes on to mention another public relevant to the NORML campaign, the “Mass Public Attentive Public.” This public is defined by Cobb & Elder (1972) as being a “generally informed and interested stratum of the population... that comes disproportionately from more educated and higher income groups.”42 The definition of this public directly correlates with the groups of citizens and corporations who initiated the prohibition of cannabis/hemp and continue the campaign against it today.

Within the huge scope of these publics, NORML has been unable or unwilling to clearly define its target audience. Currently, NORML attempts to reach every segment of the hot-issue public, an impossible task with their budget, and in doing so, squanders their precious resources on marginal persuasive attempts that fail to persuade anyone but those members of the public who are highly persuadable regarding this issue.

The Campaign of NORML is in direct competition with the DFA campaign that at one time reached 92% of American teens.43 This fact demands that NORML make the utmost of its potential persuasive situations and to do this they must have a clearly defined target audience or set of target audiences——this is crucial to the success of the NORML campaign.

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