Amber Iris Langston became an activist at age 5. After learning her older brothers could take swimming lessons at the pool in her hometown of West Plains, Mo., but she couldn’t, she objected.
“You had to be 6,” her mother, Janice Bowden, said. “And she staged an open protest. She started wandering over to the park. She was just furious!”
Finally, her mother agreed to ask instructors to make an exception.
They did. What’s more, they changed their entire policy.
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She had won.
Amber Iris Langston loves to win. And as deputy director of Show-Me Cannabis, the group behind a drive to get voters to legalize marijuana in the state, she intends to win again. In November the group filed an initiative petition to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. This year, members will begin gathering the 165,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot in November 2016.
“If she really believes something is not a right rule, she is willing to fight about it,” her mother said. “And when she really believes in something, she puts her whole self into it.”
Langston really believes in legalizing marijuana. Four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska — and the District of Columbia have now legalized it for adult personal use. And 23 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.
“The train has definitely left the station,” she said.
But Missouri is different.
“If Missouri legalizes this in 2016, the game is over,” the downtown resident said. “It’s not like Oregon legalizing it. It’s not like Alaska. It’s like Missouri, in the middle of the heartland. Missouri! We’re right at the heart of the cultural identity of the United States.”
Because Missouri borders eight states, she said, “We’ll have a ripple effect that is more profound than so many other places.”
Drew Kurlowski, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, is not convinced the Show-Me state is the tipping point, but he does think the measure has a realistic chance of passing in 2016. In the past, he said, Republican voters would have easily scuttled such an effort.
“But that relationship is starting to break down,” he said. “In Alaska you’re seeing Republicans continuing to win elections, but you also just saw a vote for full legalization. No pun intended, but maybe (legalization supporters) are riding high on the wave of recent victories. I definitely think (this) is in the realm of possibility.”
While support for legalization hovers around 50 percent nationwide, a poll taken last February showed that such a measure would fail 51-45 percent in Missouri.
“This is not something that you could have gotten on the ballot four years ago, let alone have a close vote,” Kurlowski said. “That’s telling of what’s happening in Missouri. We’re becoming more tolerant of marijuana in general. The stigma is wearing off. This is just the beginning of this story.”
Meanwhile in Kansas, backers of a Wichita petition drive to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession say they now have more than enough signatures to put an initiative on the April 7 city election ballot. They plan to turn the signatures in this week. If approved, it would subject possession and use of marijuana to a $50 fine. Under current Wichita law, such infractions can send a user to jail for up to a year.
In 2004, Langston helped pass measures that decriminalized marijuana in Columbia and legalized it for medical use with a doctor’s prescription. A similar effort failed the year before. But after Langston became the campaign manager, “we gained like 19 percentage points,” she said.
Anthony Johnson, director of New Approach Oregon, the group that helped legalize marijuana in that state, said Langston motivated him to become an activist. The two attended the University of Missouri and worked on the Columbia campaign.
Being an activist means sacrifices. Now 37, Langston works long hours for modest pay, has lost relationships and had more than a few people un-friend her on Facebook.
She often is asked why she’s so passionate about drug reform. Is it just about getting high?
No, she said. While she has tried the drug, Langston said she finds questions about whether she still uses it “offensive” and “no one’s business.” Her passion stems from what she sees as unfair laws.
In one case, Langston said, a Missouri woman who used marijuana to control stuttering had to move to California so authorities wouldn’t take her kids. In another, a Sedalia man with three marijuana convictions was given life in prison with no chance of parole.
“This policy is a giant illness that needs to be dealt with,” she said. “And it’s not going to come from this approach of punishment, denial and degradation. I want a policy that works, is responsible and takes care of people instead of sweeping their lives under a rug.”
John C. Hagan III, an opponent, said she’s not going at it the right way.
“I think that organization is misinformed and misguided,” said Hagan, a Kansas City ophthalmologist and editor of the Missouri Medicine medical journal. “Some of them want to be part of Big Weed gearing up for tobacco-sized profits.
“Marijuana is a drug, and it should take a drug pathway for introduction into society. There are multiple studies about the medical hazards of marijuana. It affects things such as IQ development and the instances of schizophrenia.
“States like Colorado and Washington are conducting an experiment, and we would be wise to step back for a couple years and see what the effects are, both the medical and societal effects. There’s no reason for a rush to judgment.”
“Big Marijuana means dangerous cartels and criminal thugs,” she said. “We want the transparency and accountability of an open and regulated market. And in terms of being misinformed, if, as an ophthalmologist, he is interested in scientific studies there are manyfold more studies showing the positive medical benefits of using cannabis.”
One of the main reasons Langston supports legalization is social justice. Late last year she hosted a forum called “Race and the Drug War” in Kansas City, discussing how blacks have been disproportionately prosecuted despite the same marijuana use rates as whites.
But dozens of black people in the audience would have been shocked to learn that Langston is a relative of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan and its first grand wizard.
Even though Forrest later distanced himself from the group, Langston still feels the need for redemption.
“There’s probably a little bit of that,” she said.
Langston grew up believing marijuana was wrong. In college she changed after learning that hemp could be a valuable cash crop for Missouri farmers and used to make clothing, rope, paper and more.
“Our farmers can’t grow this — why?” she asked.
It made her question other things. She joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
“It doesn’t matter if you love marijuana, hate marijuana or couldn’t give a damn about marijuana,” she said. “The policy isn’t working.”
“But what about my kids?” voters ask her.
“Do you think making it illegal is keeping it out of the hands of your kids?” she said. “Because it’s easier for them to get it than for you. And if you have marijuana in an illegal system, a kid who is going somewhere to find it all of a sudden has access to meth and all these other substances because this person is a drug dealer.…
“There is no incentive not to sell to kids. When you sell alcohol, you risk your livelihood only when you sell to people under 21. Our intention is to keep it out of the hands of kids.”
Langston stayed active with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, joining its board of directors. By age 30 she became the group’s national outreach director and moved to Washington, D.C. She helped students open chapters at universities across the country.
When Northern Illinois University tried to deny students the right to open a chapter, Langston threatened to sue.
Over the next two years she traveled the world, using her knowledge of Spanish to attend a drug policy conference in Argentina and help open chapters in Bogota, Colombia.
“The thing that I took away from that experience was all these people saying, ‘We would love to implement XYZ policy, but the United States controls everything that we do in Latin America,’” she said. “We give money to these countries. Jamaica tried to legalize marijuana 15 or 20 years ago, and the U.S. said, ‘No, no, no.’ My takeaway was that I probably needed to go back and do more work in the U.S.”
Missouri made the most sense. Now she works full time for Show-Me Cannabis.
“When will federal law change?” she said. “It’s going to change when Missouri law changes.”
She believes Missourians — even conservative Missourians — eventually will vote yes.
“Because of civil liberties,” she said. “In Missouri, it’s like, ‘By God, don’t take our guns away.’ And ‘I should be able to do what I want in the privacy of my own home.’ Everybody gets that. Maybe they don’t think marijuana is good, but they get that issue. And the insane amount of money that we spend to put people in prison? It’s a terrible use of our tax revenues. And we hate taxes in Missouri.”
Those who know her say it’s a good fit.
“She’s bright and dedicated, and there aren’t a lot of people who have those qualities who are willing to dedicate their career to this issue,” said Dan Viets, a Columbia attorney and who chairs the board of the Show-Me Cannabis Foundation. “And she’s very effective because she’s female, frankly. There are a lot more guys working on this than women.”
Neill Franklin of Baltimore is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of criminal justice professionals who favor legalizing drugs to take control away from criminals and to treat drug abuse as a health problem.
He said Langston is the right messenger.
“It’s refreshing to know there are people who are doing this work not because they want to open some marijuana dispensary and get rich,” he said.
“Her motivation is righting wrongs. I mean, here’s this very intelligent young lady who could do anything she wanted and probably make a ton of money, and she has dedicated herself to this work.”