“We didn’t use to do this stuff. I cover a lot of infectious diseases — I’m writing about HPV now — and we never would have covered stuff like that before. It was considered marginal for a long time. I think it’s fuelled by the consumer movement. A lot of the credit goes to the people with AIDS, and then breast cancer got onto it. And to its credit the medical profession — which used to be a chummy boy’s club — realized that the best way to answer that demand is to do it through the press.”
Globe and Mail health writer
Three principles for movement building
Canada’s growing medical marijuana movement now includes everyone from cancer patients and arthritis suffers, to those with HIV/AIDS, back pain, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, seizure disorders and diabetes, along with all the healthcare professionals, researchers and growers who support them.
While at first glance it might look like a dissimilar group, the current picture is reminiscent of the powerful health movements of a generation ago. First, there are a growing number of people willing to speak out about their lived experience of illness and pain. Like the AIDS activists of the 1980s and 1990s, their identities are often shaped by these experiences and they come to activism through a direct, felt experience of illness.
But while a collective identity alone may be enough to form a support group or a self-help group, it’s not enough to jump-start a movement.
A movement needs to serve a broader social purpose that views inequalities and the uneven distribution of resources as responsible for the causes. In short, a collective experience of illness and pain begins the process of transforming a personal trouble into a social problem.
Secondly, like women with breast cancer who fought against the surgeons dragging their feet for decades before lumpectomies replaced outdated mastectomies, people who identify with the medical marijuana movement are also challenging existing medical/scientific knowledge. When little was known about AIDS, activists had to engage the scientific community in order to spur medicine and government to act quickly enough, and with adequate knowledge. Even health movements that focus on already understood and treatable diseases are dependent upon science. For example, asthma activists who demand better transportation planning for inner cities and who seek better quality affordable housing, do so knowing that the scientific evidence linking outdoor and indoor air quality to asthma attacks supports them.
Third, successful movements involve activists collaborating with scientists and health professionals in pursuing treatment, prevention, research and expanded funding. Such challenges also characterize the environmental movement, anti-nuclear movements, and the climate change movements.
Like the health activists before them, today’s medical marijuana movement leaders have identified problems with a broad spectrum of illnesses resulting in pain and disabilities, and defined some solutions, including better knowledge about, access to and research for medical marijuana.
But will they be able to transform their illness experiences from a personal trouble to a social problem?
What’s blocking momentum for the medical marijuana movement is both its strengths and its weaknesses. It’s suffering from the polarized opinions of the medical community, a diffuse and poorly defined patient base, and government regulatory bureaucracy in start-up phase, highly politicized environment and intense global media interest. All these powerful forces can be leveraged for action by applying the frames used elsewhere in social change.
Galvanizing and framing the medical marijuana movement in Canada
The breast cancer movement was built on the powerful pictures of women’s post-surgical bodies and compelling stories. As demonstrated in every Run for the Cure and Pink-ribbon laced campaign, charities and organizations are keenly aware of the emotional cues triggered by stories. Proud survivor or sad victim narratives drive action much more effectively than rational reasons. Grassroots organizations and their Fortune 500 brand sponsors like Nike and CIBC invest in strong story telling to inspire action and belief. They have a clear call to action – donate, participate, or write – and make it easy for people to participate thru social networking/sharing across 3 major networks – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube
Applying these lessons to the medical marijuana movement could reframe the diversity of stories as a galvanizing Tipping Point.
Because what medical marijuana patients, researchers, doctors, nurses, and the industry have in common is more powerful than what separates them. The common goals of the medical marijuana movement, healthcare professionals and government regulators, as well as those advocating for a national pain strategy is relief of pain. The unifying power is a passionate commitment to relieve unnecessary suffering, improve and apply knowledge, and finally, wherever appropriate to reduce use of opiate-based painkillers. These goals are clearly articulated in the National Pain Strategy – a strategy that’s been circling the drain for several years, in need of a compelling advocacy effort. The orphaned National Pain strategy could well be the North Star for the fledgling movement.
The War on Pain
As Globe and Mail policy reporter, Andre Picard wrote in March, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/chronic-pain-patients-collateral-damage-of-drug-abuse-policy/article551590/
We pay far too little attention to the effectiveness of medications used for legitimate purposes like pain control. At the same time, we fret incessantly about drug abuse while doing virtually nothing to prevent or treat addiction. Worse yet, we behave as if these challenges are somehow unrelated when, in fact, they are intricately linked.
The OxyContin story (OxyContin alone kills an estimated 1,000 people a year in Canada) is a prime example of this public-policy hash and underscores the crying need for a plan, a strategy. We need a War on Pain a lot more than we need a War on Drugs.
Picard is right that we need a war on pain. But right now, it’s a war in need of champions. The War on Pain and its potential allies in the medical marijuana movement could find some much needed help in the emerging business sector.
How to make it work
The concept of “Ubuntu” — I am because you are — is fundamental to doing business across the African continent. Many multinational corporations are taking advantage of the concept of doing good in business to build authentic corporate reputations by serving a public good as well as a private interest for profit. These companies are responding to a seismic shift in social awareness as consumers’ values change,
The enormous success Movember – which encourages men to grow mustaches over the course of November and use their facial hair as conversation starters to raise awareness of—and money for—men’s health causes, like research to treat testicular and prostate cancers, has attracted sponsors like Discovery, Wheaties and 7 for All Mankind. Gillette, the charity’s “grooming partner,”. It’s also shown that connecting with the right cause can be a powerful way to create an emotional tie between products and consumers. Over time, people associate a brand with a positive cause and even regularly share social networking comments about or purchase a brand because of its affiliation with the cause they support.
A “Call to Arms” for the National Pain Strategy
In picking up on the Call to Arms for the National Pain Strategy, I’m offering some advice to the medical marijuana industry sector from a steely-eyed veteran of the breast cancer movement and a thousand advocacy campaigns.
1. When you position your brand as a throw back to “Wayne’s World” and the “stoner culture era” you’re flaunting the rules and disrespecting public opinion. You’re signalling you’ve got your eye on the long game when you hope marijuana is legalized and the market explodes with recreational users. You don’t need to worry about the long game. Play with your reputation and your chances of surviving in a competitive market will be crushed. To paraphrase a recent article in the CMAJ, reconsider that choice of “stoner” culture name if you want to be taken seriously.
2. Decide if you’re in the business to serve the best interests of Canadians, or just your shareholders. Then bing your business story and values to life through a core set of programs or initiatives that primarily focus on what your company stands for that brings added value to Canadians beyond just your products/services.
3. Right now the only legitimate market is the medical marijuana market. Help to build demand for excellence in pain control by demonstrating your company’s understanding and support for a comprehensive National Pain Strategy that will include advancing understanding about the risks and benefits of medical marijuana.