The Marijuana Legalization Movement Begins in the States


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Advocacy groups have poured millions of dollars into legalizing both recreational and medical marijuana in states across the country.

One of the most powerful and influential groups – Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project – was behind successful recreational measures in Alaska and Colorado, two of four states that now allow recreational use. MPP organizers hope to replicate those efforts in five other states during the 2016 elections, an undertaking they say will – if successful – prove significant for the effort to end marijuana prohibition.

One of them, Arizona, is a state that conservative icon Barry Goldwater called home. It frequently makes national headlines for controversial measures on immigration and gay rights. Voters passed the state’s medical marijuana program by the barest of margins in 2010.

“Out of the five campaigns that we’re running nationwide, Arizona’s definitely going to be the most heated, the most active,” said Carlos Alfaro, the Arizona political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. He plans to win voters by inundating the airwaves, unveiling billboards, organizing rallies and hosting debates.

It’s all part of the well-funded, well-organized machine that’s driving the effort toward ending prohibition nationwide. Proponents have found so much success because they have learned how to secure financial backing, take advantage of changing attitudes and address fears about legalization. The Marijuana Policy Project aims to add California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine to its portfolio of ballot initiative successes in 2016, along with Arizona.

Legalization efforts – many backed by other groups – could appear on the ballot in about a dozen states next year. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., already allow for medical marijuana use. Four states – Washington and Oregon, in addition to Colorado and Alaska – and the District of Columbia allow adults to smoke pot recreationally.

In Congress, lawmakers have started to take positions on pot and more have supported state medical marijuana laws. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are talking about how they would deal with marijuana if elected. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has even courted the legal marijuana industry for campaign donations.

Leaders in the pro-legalization movement said the question is no longer whether the federal government will treat marijuana like alcohol – but when. They say the question is no longer whether the states will legalize, regulate and tax marijuana sales – but how.

“I think we’re past the tipping point,” said Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, another major player in the pro-legalization effort. “There are all kinds of signs that people have figured out that prohibition is coming to an end. They may not be thrilled about it, they may not be a cheerleader for it, but when they recognize that, they begin to say, ‘OK, if we’re going to legalize marijuana, how do we do it in a responsible manner?’”

But legalization opponents don’t plan to concede any time soon.

“I don’t think that legalization is inevitable,” said Alan Shinn, the executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii. “The pro-marijuana people will say that it’s just a matter of time before marijuana is legalized. I think there’s other alternatives to legalization. We should really be taking a public health approach to this, especially with our youth.”

And that’s still a sticking point. The federal government classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The disparity between states that have liberalized their marijuana laws and the decades-old federal prohibition of its sale and use has caused confusion in law enforcement and tension in the business world. Pro-legalization groups said that’s their ultimate goal: Put so much pressure on the federal government by legalizing state by state that they can finally end the discrepancy.

“I actually consider 2016 to be what I call the game-over year because there’s a good chance that a bunch of states will legalize marijuana,” said Bill Piper, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s office of national affairs. “We’re reaching the point where the federal government is going to have no other choice than to change with the times.”

Strategic with resources

Advocacy groups have led ballot initiatives across the country, lobbied state legislatures and tried to convince members of Congress that leaving marijuana regulation to the states makes sense.

In the 1970s, NORML led the fight for marijuana law reform. Now, two other national organizations help run multimillion-dollar campaigns and station staff members across the country to support state measures that allow medical marijuana, decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug or fully legalize adult use.

The Marijuana Policy Project, founded by former NORML staffers in 1995, has emerged as a political powerhouse with its robust fundraising, effective campaign messaging and expertise in drafting ballot initiatives and legislation. The Drug Policy Alliance was founded in 2000 to end the “War on Drugs.” The group claims that marijuana arrests disproportionately impact racial minorities and drain law enforcement resources.

The groups and their state-level campaigns have benefited from billionaire philanthropists like Peter Lewis, the head of Progressive Insurance who died in 2013, and George Soros, the founder of Soros Fund Management. Both have donated millions of dollars to changing drug laws across the nation over the last 20 years.

During that time, the groups have honed their strategies.

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the MPP, said his organization targets states based on their history with marijuana law reform, the makeup of the state legislature, the governor’s position and the level of support from local advocacy groups.

And they must carefully decide where to put their money and resources.

When Rob Kampia, the group’s executive director, spoke at a National Cannabis Industry Association policy symposium in Washington, D.C., in April, he called efforts to legalize marijuana in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio “outlier initiatives” because they’re less likely to pass. He said in particular, the campaign to legalize marijuana.

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