Colorado Legalization Used as Blueprint for Other States

Colorado Legalization Used as Blueprint for Other States

Colorado Legalization Used as Blueprint for Other States

Just days after guiding a Colorado marijuana-legalization initiative to an unprecedented victory, longtime Denver marijuana activist Mason Tvert scored another win: a new job.

Tvert is now the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the national lobbying group that is the parent organization for Tvert’s SAFER Colorado and was the main funder for Colorado’s Amendment 64.

“I’m simply in a new role there, where I will be able to work on these issues around the nation,” Tvert said.

Tvert’s move underscores the national interest focused on Colorado in the wake of Amendment 64′s passage. Not only are marijuana activists around the country eager to see how legalization will work in the state, they are looking forward to take what worked about the Colorado campaign and export it nationally.

“Let’s move forward in other states, but let’s do so patiently and strategically,” MPP executive director Rob Kampia wrote in a commentary on The Huffington Post about three weeks after the election. “The path is there for us to follow.”

It’s an ambitious itinerary.

At a marijuana business conference in Denver the day after the election, Kampia outlined a campaign to advance marijuana-friendly laws in 14 states.

The sequential strategy will look familiar to Coloradans: first, pass a medical-marijuana law; then put dispensaries in place; then go for recreational legalization.

Looking to presidential election yearKampia said his organization is pushing medical-marijuana laws in New York, Illinois and New Hampshire, along with contemplating a ballot initiative in Idaho. MPP is working for dispensary laws in Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Hawaii, Kampia said. He is hopeful the legislatures in Rhode Island and Vermont will pass marijuana-legalization bills.

But the true test for marijuana activists will come in 2016, the next presidential election year. That is when Kampia hopes to run legalization initiatives in California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maine.

“There’s a lot of young voters who only come out for presidential elections,” Kampia said at the conference. “The reason we had such a large margin of victory in Colorado and Washington was because it was a presidential election.”

In his Huffington Post commentary, Kampia outlined other factors behind the successful Colorado campaign. Initiatives must be drafted inclusively and come after years of groundwork, he wrote. Their campaigns should stick to a simple message, focusing, for instance, on potential tax revenues or allocation of law enforcement resources.

And he stressed the importance of raising money early to buy ads early. That last strategy enabled the pro-64 campaign to buy television ad spots when they were relatively cheap and plentiful; opponents, meanwhile, found that TV ad spaces were too few and too expensive to make a difference by the time they had money for them.

“We were smarter and more organized than them on that issue,” Brian Vicente, another leader of the pro-64 campaign, said about TV ads.

Marijuana opponents, though, are also learning lessons from the defeats in Colorado and Washington.

“I’d say the No. 1 lesson we learned was that we need more resources to get the message out that the only alternative to current policies isn’t legalization,” Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug-policy adviser who was against Amendment 64, wrote in an e-mail. “To be against legalization surely is not to mean that you are OK with the status quo.”

The problem for marijuana opponents, though, is money. The No on 64 campaign raised just shy of $700,000 during the campaign. That’s only about a quarter of the $2.5 million the two main campaigns backing Amendment 64 raised. Other groups contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars more in support of Amendment 64.

And much of that pro-64 money came from out of state. Eighty-eight percent of the monetary contributions to the two main pro-64 committees were from outside Colorado — suggesting that the fundraising haul is replicable in other states.

By contrast, the anti-64 campaign relied more on local money, gathering 55 percent of its funding from inside Colorado.

Legalization opponents say they are disadvantaged in other ways too. The most powerful endorsers against marijuana legalization — in Colorado, they included Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General John Suthers — are often hamstrung by their day jobs in how much they can campaign.

“The government does not spend any money fighting ballot initiatives,” said Calvina Fay, the executive director of Florida-based Save Our Society From Drugs. The organization was the biggest single donor to the No on 64 campaign, giving about $285,000.

Sabet said the legalization victories in Colorado and Washington have “rudely awakened” marijuana opponents, who are now working to form stronger organizations to fight back against legalization.

Individual state laws are a challenge, but legalization advocates face other challenges in exporting the Colorado model.

For starters, only 24 states have a citizen-initiative process. And each of those states comes with its own unique stew of local laws and politics that prevents simply taking a standardized campaign from state to state.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, for instance, prevented activists in Colorado from directly including an excise tax in Amendment 64, as activists in Washington did in their initiative. Meanwhile, the Washington initiative doesn’t allow people to grow marijuana in their homes, as the Colorado measure does.

“The biggest impact this is going to have is the amount of discussion it has forced around the nation,” Tvert said.

While Tvert believes increased conversation about marijuana policy inevitably leads to increased support for marijuana reform, Sabet isn’t so sure. Widespread support for more lenient marijuana laws in the late 1970s hit a backlash, he said. It could be that the experiences of Colorado and Washington with legal marijuana will provide fodder for those arguing against greater acceptance of the drug.

“Time will tell if legalization will follow the same crash-and-burn course,” Sabet wrote in an e-mail, “or if it will succeed to a greater degree in other states and nationally.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, or

(Colorado Legalization Used as Blueprint for Other States)