Marijuana advocates notched three big victories on Tuesday, but they’re just gearing up.
Emboldened by their Election Day victories in Alaska, Oregon and D.C., supporters of legalization are optimistic for the future. We asked a few of them which states will be targeted next for legalization and what lessons they’ve learned from the four successful state campaigns so far.
“The stage is now set for 2016, when measures to regulate marijuana like alcohol are expected to appear on ballots in at least five states,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which was instrumental in passing legalization in Colorado and bankrolled the successful campaign in Alaska. The group contributed about 84 percent of the nearly $900,000 raised by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, which successfully lobbied for passage of the ballot measure in Alaska.
The five states where MPP has established committees to push similar ballot measures in 2016 are Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. An independent Democratic activist in Mississippi is also pursuing a ballot measure there. The measures there will likely mimic the Colorado model, as the measures in Oregon and Alaska did. (The measure passed by voters in Washington in 2012 is typically viewed by advocates as more restrictive than Colorado’s.)
But the group also plans to work to help shepherd legalization through a state legislature for the first time, with a particular focus on Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Delaware, Hawaii, and Maryland. New Hampshire’s state House in January became the first legislative body in the country to approve legalization, though the effort ultimately reached a dead end. That state, Rhode Island and Vermont may see action soonest among that group.
The upcoming push to legalize in those nearly dozen states will no doubt draw heavily on lessons learned during the successful campaigns so far, which fall roughly into two categories, Tvert said. Advocates in Alaska and Colorado felt they needed to focus on disarming fears about the harm of marijuana early by drawing the comparison to alcohol, while Oregon and Washington played it safer by arguing that legalization is safer than prohibition.
“Our goal from the beginning was to get this message across that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol so that when that last month comes around, and the opponents are trying to scare people away from marijuana by saying it’s so dangerous, their reaction will be to say ‘yeah, but it’s less harmful than alcohol,’” he said.
In Oregon, the campaign tended to focus on the ills of prohibition, offering legalization as a safer alternative. What worked? Peter Zuckerman, communications director of the successful Yes on 91 campaign, said legalization advocates were smart to avoid marijuana leaf imagery, wear suits when appearing on TV, and pursue endorsements from unusual or unexpected individuals and groups. His group aired ads featuring Washington’s King County Sheriff John Urquhart, local mothers, and a former top state official in charge of mental health and addiction services. Support from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the social media-savvy group of moms backing the measure helped, too, he said. The campaign might have seen more success by starting earlier and encouraging supporters to quote news sources in voter pamphlet statements, he added.
There are lessons to learn from failure, too. While all the legalization measures were approved on Election Day, a measure to allow medical marijuana in Florida failed to gain the 60 percent share of the vote necessary for passage, though it did earn majority support. The campaign there could have promoted the patients who would have benefitted more and been less reactive, said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority.
“They spent a lot of time trying to undercut the opposition’s arguments about the so-called loopholes in Amendment 2 and from what I saw they really didn’t do enough of a job of telling the story of the patients who are going to be helped by this,” Angell said.
It’s that same emotionality that the yes campaign should have played on that opponents credit for their successful campaign against it.
“I think you have to show people why it’s personally relevant to them,” said Calvina Fay, chairman of the Drug Free Amendment Foundation which opposed the measure. “If you don’t care about the issue you don’t pick up the sword and fight, so to speak.”
That measure received 57.6 percent of the vote in Florida.
Summary of the measures
Alaska Measure 2 (Passed, 52 percent)
Possession: Up to an ounce.
Home-growing: Up to six marijuana plants, three of them flowering.
Sales: The measure authorizes four kinds of businesses: cultivators, who will grow pot; manufacturing facilities, which will produce extracts and products; testing facilities for quality control; and retail stores.
Timeline: The measure takes effect 90 days after being certified by the lieutenant governor. Rules for marijuana businesses must be drafted nine months after that. The Marijuana Policy Project reports that the state expects certification late this month, meaning business rules can be expected by September.
Oregon Measure 91 (Passed, 56 percent)
Possession: Up to an eight ounces.
Home-growing: Up to four marijuana plants.
Sales: Under the measure the state will regulate four types of businesses: producers, who grow marijuana for wholesale; processors, who produce extracts and products; wholesalers, who may purchase marijuana and products to sell to retailers and non-customers; and retailers.
Timeline: Rulemaking can begin as soon as the results are certified on Dec. 4. Possession and home cultivation for adults becomes legal on July 1. The state will begin accepting applications for marijuana businesses on Jan. 4, 2016.
D.C. Initiative 71 (Passed, 65 percent)
Possession: Up to an two ounces.
Home-growing: Up to six marijuana plants, three of them mature.
Sales: The measure does not legalize sale of marijuana.
Timeline: The measure must be submitted to Congress for a 30-day review period, though Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser suggested she would not want to submit the measure without accompanying legislation to regulate sales.