Word Vaccine: Letter Writing as Activism

William S. Burroughs theorized that language was a virus, and Rudyard Kipling called it a drug. I prefer to think of language as a vaccine, and I try to use it to vaccinate the Canadian public against prohibitionist propaganda. When someone reads a letter in a newspaper and learns something new, they are forever changed. If you receive a powerful piece of information, your life can never be the same again.

In 2002 my wife Christine Lowe decided to quit her pharmaceuticals and switch to marijuana. I decided that we couldn’t be secretive about the decision; in fact, we needed to be very public, so I wrote my first “Letter to the Editor”, or LTE. Over the course of the next year I had a few letters published in newspapers, which encouraged me to start writing in earnest in the summer of 2003. By using a “Franken-PC” made from scrounged computer parts, and a dial-up connection, I was able to browse news stories online by topic, find the editors’ email addresses, and send off letters. From October 2003 until January 2007, a total of 287 of my letters about marijuana, prohibition, or hemp have been published in Canada. There may be a few that never made it into the LTE archive at the Media Awareness Project (MAP) website (www.mapinc.org), so the number could be over 300. It’s a big job to read and respond to so many articles from so many news sources! I’m usually up before 6:00 am every day and write until noon. Over 39 months of writing, I’ve had an average of 7.3 letters published per month; my best month ever was December 2005, with 20 publications. In 2006 I had a total of 103. But I’m not printed every time I write a letter – for every one published, I’ve sent 20 to 30 that didn’t make the cut. That means overall I have sent thousands!

Some of my letters get into the Canadian national daily papers The Globe And Mail and The National Post, while others appear in major regional dailies. Sometimes they run in small-town weeklies that have circulation as low as 4,000. Though that might not seem like a big accomplishment, the benefit with small papers is that their readers often read every page very thoroughly.

With so many newspapers and letters sent, I think it would be safe to say that at least 1.5 million people have read something I’ve written. One thing is for sure: every person who reads my letters has been “vaccinated”. They’ve learned a bit of truth. Sometimes, I will write a letter that has nothing to do with a particular article, and send it to 150 different publications across the country. These almost never run, but on occasion they do. I think of it this way: even if it doesn’t get into the newspaper, there are 150 LTE reviewers who read it and got vaccinated. The ideas expressed in the letter could be passed on from this person to many others.

Papers only want to print one-of-a-kind letters. Often the same story will run with different titles, so when you write to each publication the first line should read “To The Editor, RE:” followed by the title of the article you’re commenting on. Try to use a quote or reference from the article in the opening line or paragraph: either about the topic, or a quote. The editor and the newspaper readers now have an important connection between your letter and the article that appeared days earlier.

You want to write to newspaper and magazine editors, members of the legislature, city councils – especially those not on the legalization bus (the “canna-bus”, as it were). You can do this with postal mail, but email and websites are faster and newspapers prefer a quick response turnaround for what they publish. Editors have the right to trim your letter or modify a few words, but they cannot change the context of your submission. Remember, even if only one person reads what you send, that’s one more vaccination! At the top of the letter, put your name, address, phone number and email, because the recipient needs to be able to contact you on short notice to confirm that you are the author. Typically, bigger papers will notify you when they consider using your letter. They may even ask you to submit a small photo of yourself so it can be printed too. You can politely say no, of course – but if you’re an activist, you should get your face out there and say yes!

I often send the same letter to different editors, but I change the title and sometimes move around a few words or lines. This way, if I’m asked whether I sent the same letter to anyone else I can say, “Not that one, no.” If you read my full LTE archive you will notice that there are many similarities in what I submitted. I recycle lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire letters! I think my “same letter” record is four in one week in late 2006, in response to pot and driving news stories. I’ve also sent variations on a letter template of mine about kids, drug education, and how we live in a drug culture, which was printed eight or ten times. But you shouldn’t regularly email the same letter to dozens of different newspapers. If they find out you’ve been “mass-mailing” you might not get published again.

When you’re a regular LTE writer, it’s helpful to have a template ready with your most important facts. You need to tweak each letter to suit exact publications, but the meat and bones should be ready ahead of time. Cut and paste together a new letter, then edit and proofread before you send. Proofing is essential! When you discover spelling mistakes, missing words, or bizarre grammar in your letter after you’ve sent it in, it makes you feel foolish, and undermines the likelihood of your letter being published. As difficult as it may be, try not to insult the writer, the publication, or the people quoted. Simply comment on what they say. Never use sarcasm in letters; it never works in print. Express that the attitude, assertion, or idea is unsound, and then offer logical solutions to the premise put forth. Saying that so-and-so is an idiot or corrupt might be true, but it sidetracks your argument even if it gets published.

Also resist the urge to rant. This is sometimes difficult, but politeness will get you printed and read. Hectoring, name-calling, badgering, insulting, and dogma are inferior methods of presenting ideas, and you often lose respect with readers. Newspaper audiences are exposed to many thoughts, ideas and articles every day, but they don’t like being told what to think. People rarely concede they were wrong in the midst of a heated confrontation, but can change their views and opinions in the quiet of cold reason when they think in their own time, when it’s not about winning an argument. If you present sensible facts and options, offering the reader the choice of response, then they are allowed to come to their
own conclusion.

As for what you write: talk to your audience! Learn to speak their language. You don’t explain prisons and human rights abuses to a farmer; you explain the economics of hemp, and how it can help farming families survive. You don’t lay the “peace and love” trip on big business and government; you discuss investment opportunities, increased capital, and $3 billion in annual tax revenue. You don’t talk to hockey dads about harm reduction; you outline sensible regulation and honest education that will teach his little Gretzky to stay away from drugs. Too many activists go on and on about pot being a “Holy” or “God-given” plant, but the general public probably doesn’t care about your love of the herb, and some may even find the ideas offensive. People are more likely to be concerned about public safety, gangs, drug availability, grow-ops, and other misidentified aspects of prohibition. To get the people thinking positively about legalization, you have to show them that prohibition is the big problem – a much bigger problem… their problem. Everyone’s problem!

When writing your letter, bear in mind that the public does not care about your personal pain or poverty so only use your personal situation as an illustration, not the theme, of the letter. “Tax dollars are wasted on failed policy” is a statement backed by basic logic, and that is our best weapon. If you start talking to most people about consciousness expansion, or miracle cures, you’ll lose them ten words in. Again, what you have to say may be true, but some people just can’t – and won’t – wrap their heads around it. They want intellectual meat that rings true to their personal views. It’s about how it feels in their gut, the “truthiness” of it all. Stick to verifiable facts and basic science; each sentence should build upon the previous assertion in a clear and precise way.

Act quickly. Don’t comment on an article from last week unless it’s in response to a weekly paper. News happens. There will always be a lot more of it with each passing hour, so you need to be the first to comment. Your words are your weapon! You can build an army with a strong letter when done right, and with good timing. Don’t give the prohibitionists an inch! Vaccinate the public with the truth, and write a letter today.