A message that’s worked
Allen St. Pierre, who succeeded Stroup as executive director of NORML a decade ago, said advocates for marijuana law reform have drawn from the tactics of the social movements for women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights.
“We’re not trying to hardly do anything different than those groups did,” St. Pierre said. “We organized. We petitioned our government peacefully for grievances. We went to the courts and asked for relief. We’ve used science and language to cajole, persuade and effectively win what is called in the military a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.”
But it hasn’t been easy.
The MPP’s Tvert, who was a co-director of the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado, said that while the public had become more accepting of medical marijuana and supportive of removing criminal penalties for using the drug, there was still “this fear surrounding marijuana for fun.” Several ballot measures to legalize recreational use failed between 2002 and 2010.
At that time, Tvert said, activists had tried to sell one main message to voters: Marijuana prohibition is a government failure that forces marijuana into the black market, contributing to drug trafficking and violence. They argued that a legal market would allow for more control and would generate tax revenue.
That didn’t cut it.
“That just wasn’t enough,” Tvert said. “Ultimately, people were still not OK with it because they just thought it was too dangerous of a substance. You can tax anything. You can tax murder for hire. Doesn’t mean that people are going to think it should be legal. They think it’s not good for society.”
Survey results inspired legalization advocates to change tactics: Several MPP polls indicated that people were more likely to support marijuana legalization if they thought pot was less harmful than alcohol. And that became the argument behind the campaign supporting Colorado’s measure to legalize recreational marijuana, Amendment 64, which passed in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote.
Colorado became a model for the MPP's efforts in other states, which have all taken the campaign name “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.” And the lawyer who wrote Colorado’s initiative also helped draft a proposed ballot measure in Maine, said David Boyer, the group’s political director for the state.
But the Maine campaign also made tweaks to its initiative, like lowering the tax rate, to make it more appealing to voters there.
Battling with local campaigns
Different groups advocate for legalization throughout the country, and they don’t always agree on the methods or details. In fact, some local groups have started to view the MPP as an unwelcome outsider.
In Maine, the organization’s proposal competes with one backed by a local group, Legalize Maine. Both would legalize marijuana possession for those at least 21 years old and would allow home growing. But the two campaigns have failed to compromise on several differences.
Legalize Maine’s proposal would put the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in charge of regulation, while the Marijuana Policy Project’s would make the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations responsible.
Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine’s board of directors, said the two groups tried to negotiate for three months. But McCarrier said MPP’s initiative did not focus enough on farmers.
“I think that they’re looking at Maine as just another notch in their belt that will help push their national agenda,” McCarrier said. “While the Marijuana Policy Project has done a really good job at starting a conversation about marijuana legalization here in Maine and trying to push the ball around the field nationally, when it comes to marijuana legalization, they are completely out of touch with normal Mainers.”
PLAY Keith Stroup has been involved in the legalization movement since 1970, when he founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. (Photo by Karen Mawdsley | News21)
Stroup said liberalization of marijuana laws has followed a general trajectory. The Western states lead the way – reducing penalties for marijuana possession, allowing residents to use medical marijuana, or eliminating all penalties for marijuana use and creating systems for regulating pot sales. Then momentum builds on the East Coast. Progress is slower in the Midwest, and movement in the South has proven most difficult.
The increase in medical marijuana programs across the country has helped to overcome the stigma surrounding marijuana, Stroup said. More than three-quarters of people support medical marijuana use, according to a 2014 National Public Radio-Truven Health Analytics poll. But only 43 percent support legalization for recreational purposes.
MPP prefers to run ballot-initiative campaigns as opposed to pushing bills through state legislatures.
But Stroup identified the legalization movement’s next big turning point: Build enough political support to push the first full legalization measure through a state legislature. It’s an important step because only about half of the states allow citizen-initiated ballot measures.
“We have to just simply work it every year, every chance we get, bringing in good witnesses, provide elected officials with the best information, and over a period of time, as they become more comfortable with the concept, then we’ll be winning it with state legislatures,” Stroup said.
But legislative measures have drawbacks as well.
“The version of legalization we win through legislatures will necessarily be more restrictive than the versions we win by voter initiatives because with an initiative, you don't have to compromise,” Stroup said.
Tvert said that in 2016, Rhode Island and Vermont could become the first states to legalize marijuana through their state legislatures. A majority in both states support legalization, according to internal and independent polls conducted this year. Both state legislatures adjourned this year before acting on bills to legalize and regulate pot.
Public opinion on the movement’s side
Time could be the legalization movement’s greatest ally. Sixty-four percent of those between 18 and 34 years old say they support legalization, compared to 41 percent among those 55 and older, according to Gallup.
“Demographically, we knew years ago we were going to win this because young people were on our side,” Stroup said. “We used to laugh, in fact, that if necessary we had a fallback strategy. And that was we would outlive our opponents. Well, I think to some degree that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
But advocates still need to convince a significant number of Americans to support recreational legalization.
“Despite the fact that the polls make it seem like it’s really split down the middle, there is a huge group of people who are kind of fishy on it,” said Sarah Trumble, senior policy counsel at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C.
Third Way refers to this group as the “marijuana middle.” Many in this group support legalizing marijuana for medical use but not for recreational use.