On November 7 a group of student activists gathered in a room on the University of Colorado campus to discuss strategies for how to run a marijuana legalization campaign in the 2012 elections. Five days earlier, voters in California had defeated Proposition 19 by a margin of seven points. Although the vote represented the largest percentage a US legalization measure has ever garnered (46.5 percent), many in the drug policy reform community were discouraged. Young activists who had spent the past several months encouraging students on California campuses to register, and who worked furiously in the final days to get out the vote, were exhausted. There were a lot of sullen expressions in downtown Oakland on election night. But for the students in Boulder, and in some ways for the legalization movement more broadly, the fight is just beginning.
After all the media attention heaped on the Prop 19 campaign, it should come as no surprise that the vanguard of the legalization drive in Colorado is made up of college-age activists. Motivating young voters was a central focus of the grassroots effort for Prop 19, and to a large extent it worked. In a postelection follow-up, the Public Policy Institute of California found that 62 percent of voters under 34 supported the initiative. The campaign I helped to organize through Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) printed more than 100,000 door hangers with bar codes that, when scanned by cellphones, directed students to their polling place. And we didn’t stop with California. We worked with our partners in the Just Say Now campaign to organize phone banks staffed by students from all over the country, who made thousands of calls for the low cost of several pizzas per night.
The training, preceded by the so-called Mile High Marijuana Summit in Denver, was convened in this collaborative spirit, and the participants aimed to be equally sophisticated in their approach. They discussed concepts such as tempo, decentralization, adapting to unforeseen challenges and exploiting success. Students were encouraged to "plan backward," envisioning objectives such as registering 2,000 students to vote and then stepping through a timeline of how that could be achieved. At one point the conversation turned to the possibility of direct action, as students debated infiltrating the two parties’ platform committees to push for their endorsements.
Watching these young activists voraciously consuming information about how to win an election, just days after a historic loss, was more than invigorating. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Change is coming sooner than anyone believes. And this is what it’s going to look like.
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In today’s money-soaked politics, any campaign that seeks broad legislative reform needs a healthy war chest. Funding for state marijuana initiatives has been building steadily in recent years, with Prop 19 raising the most by far. Sponsored by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, who brought some $1.5 million to the campaign, the initiative got a major boost from several large donors in the weeks leading up to election day. On October 7 the SSDP campaign received a $75,000 donation from David Bronner, co-owner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and another $25,000 from longtime DC marijuana activists Adam Eidinger and Alan Amsterdam. But that was only the tip of the late-money iceberg. That same week Napster creator Sean Parker donated $100,000 to Yes on 19, and his fellow Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz added another $70,000 to support the measure. In mid-October philanthropist Peter Lewis poured in $200,000. Billionaire financier George Soros followed in late October with $1 million.
That funding enabled the campaign to deploy sophisticated tactics and to mount a high-profile ad blitz—thirty-second spots on Comedy Central, a wraparound ad on page one of the Los Angeles Times. It also brought legitimacy in the court of public opinion. In the early 2000s, when I began my professional involvement with the marijuana reform movement, talking in the media about legalizing marijuana was generally off-limits. So we picked the fights we could win. Even though medical marijuana enjoyed 80 percent support at the time, I often struggled to be taken seriously. When your coffers are full, you don’t have that kind of problem.