Budding Prospects: Youth Activists Push Marijuana Reform

Budding Prospects: Youth Activists Push Marijuana Reform

Budding Prospects: Youth Activists Push Marijuana Reform

Fueled by serious funds, young advocates of legalization are poised for big gains.


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.

* * *

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.

A side benefit of running a marijuana campaign with mainstream credibility is that it brings the issue into the light. Being a marijuana lobbyist is kind of like being a priest. People will tell you things about their marijuana use they would never tell anyone else. It fosters the sense that a great many more people use it than admit it. As more people talk honestly about their recreational use of marijuana, the barriers to honest discussion will erode.

It is misleading to claim, however, as some opponents do, that the cannabis movement is entirely sustained by "well-funded legalizers." Large donors are responding to, not creating, the energy that fuels the cannabis campaign. The money is just catching up with the momentous political opportunity. What we need now is better preparation, with multiyear plans focused on training activists in targeted states—the sorts of tactics employed by top Democratic and Republican strategists. That requires an investment in the future.

* * *

Colorado’s political culture is strongly liberty-oriented, and the state consistently ranks near the top of the list for per-capita marijuana use. This stature was not lost on legislators, who this year made it the first state to regulate the wholesale production and retail distribution of medical marijuana.

The state legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but its cannabis culture didn’t blossom until last year, when the Justice Department issued guidelines for federal prosecutors in states with medical marijuana laws. In an October 19, 2009, memo Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal resources would not be spent on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

This decision did not come out of thin air; it was the result of a long struggle by cannabis campaigners to persuade leaders to align policy with evolving public standards on the issue. California voters leaped into the fray fourteen years ago with Proposition 215, the first state ballot initiative in the country to allow medical marijuana. Over the years an increasing number of states added their own laws providing for use with a physician’s recommendation, giving those states’ residents a chance to see firsthand that legal marijuana will not cause the sky to fall. (Today fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical use.)

By 2007 a mainstream political consensus around medical marijuana laws had formed, at least among leading Democrats. During the primaries, every Democratic presidential candidate supported an end to federal raids on medical marijuana patients, further propelling the issue into the realm of serious policy discussion. Starting in the presidential interregnum in late 2008, Obama’s staff conducted three rounds of voting on the official transition team website, asking users to submit ideas and vote on them. In all three rounds—during which millions of Americans participated—questions related to taxing and regulating marijuana were the top-voted questions.

Even before Obama’s inauguration, his staff could see opportunity in the marijuana constituency. In February 2009, during the president’s first weeks in office, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro affirmed that Obama intended to make good on his campaign promise to restrict federal raids. In earlier times, we could have reasonably expected a serious backlash. This time around, none came—but then again, neither did the guidelines. On April 2, 2009, I testified before the House subcommittee that handles Justice Department appropriations, urging Congress to ask the department to issue the promised policy. And in June, I worked with Congressman Maurice Hinchey and other Congressional leaders to get the full House Appropriations Committee to do the same.

Once the threat of enforcing the Controlled Substances Act was removed, storefront dispensaries in Colorado proliferated. According to the Denver Post, the state has collected more than $2.2 million in sales tax from dispensaries this year. And now that medical marijuana is practically a given in the state, legalization is up for discussion. This is where the activists at the Colorado campaign training come in. They aim to push that discussion to the center of debate in 2012, and recent trends suggest that they’ll have a good shot at success. According to a 2009 America Votes poll, 45 percent of "surge voters" in Colorado will be more interested in voting if marijuana legalization is on the ballot. Also, marijuana initiatives have tended to do better in presidential election years: five of the six most recent winning statewide voter initiatives relaxing marijuana penalties were passed in such years.

* * *

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the government came close to significantly revising federal marijuana statutes in 1978. At the time the Carter administration expressed support for decriminalizing the possession and transfer of small amounts of marijuana, as did Senator Ted Kennedy, then chair of the Judiciary Committee. Kennedy even successfully pushed for the inclusion of a marijuana decriminalization provision in the 1978 crime bill.

Decriminalization laws seemed the wisest route back then, but the current debate should focus on legalization. Although decriminalization laws keep possessors of marijuana from being arrested, thus freeing police time and resources, they do nothing to control or diminish the power of criminal organizations that move and sell marijuana. Legalization could be a fatal blow to drug cartels, since by some estimates 70 percent of their profits come from marijuana sales alone.

For the first time in history, the legalization movement is poised to make state-based marijuana regulation a mainstream position. Because libertarian-leaning GOP voters, including Tea Partyers, generally support allowing states to decide their own marijuana policies, the 2012 presidential primary will be unlike any in recent memory. Assuming that the majority of GOP presidential contenders adopt socially conservative positions early in the race (i.e., against marijuana regulation), a plurality of voters with libertarian tendencies will be up for grabs and could swing some states’ primary elections. Even Sarah Palin has called marijuana a "minimal problem."

The most telling difference between now and thirty years ago, when the marijuana reform movement last stood at the brink of major success, is that tens of millions of Americans live in states that allow the use of marijuana, and they don’t seem to mind it. The sky has not fallen, and the silenced majority is speaking out.

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