The 10 Things That Led to Legalized Marijuana in Colorado

In the wake of our victory in Colorado — where 54.8 percent of the voters passed Amendment 64, a constitutional amendment to regulate marijuana like alcohol — good people are understandably clamoring to pass similar measures in their states.

Here is a listing of the ingredients of the recipe that led to the historic victory in Colorado on November 6.

1. Presidential Election: Given that no one had ever previously legalized marijuana in the history of the world, we assumed that the election in Colorado would be close — win or lose. So we intentionally chose to place our initiative on the ballot during a presidential election, which always attracts a larger proportion of young voters, who are more supportive.

2. Inclusive Drafting Process: The team that drafted the initiative went out of its way to solicit feedback from key lawyers, medical-marijuana industry players, other organizational leaders, and unaffiliated activists. As a result, there was almost no infighting, which allowed us to build a strong coalition of support across the state.

3. Years of Groundwork: Officially, the Colorado campaign was two years long; unofficially, it was eight years long. In 2004, MPP’s grants program helped launch two non-profit advocacy organizations in Colorado, SAFER and Sensible Colorado. The executive directors of these two organizations eventually became the co-proponents of Amendment 64. SAFER focused on educating the public about the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol; it did so through citywide, marijuana-related ballot initiatives in Denver in 2005 and 2007, which each garnered support from a majority of Denver voters. In 2006, SAFER coordinated a statewide ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and generated substantial debate in Colorado (while garnering 41 percent of the vote). Meanwhile, Sensible Colorado helped expand access to medical marijuana for patients. Most significantly, in 2008, Sensible Colorado spearheaded a court challenge to expand the state’s medical marijuana “caregiver” provision to allow for retail sales. All of this took planning and money.

4. Early Fundraising: The campaign cost approximately $2,300,000, more than half of which was raised prior to six months before Election Day. While we continued to receive important donations leading all the way up to November 6, the “Early Money Is Like Yeast” metaphor of EMILY’s List really is true.

5. Early Ad Buys: Because we had early money, we were able to buy our October airtime at a cheaper rate than if we had been forced to write checks for the ads in October.

6. Targeted Ads: A couple years before Election Day, public opinion polling already indicated that a majority of Colorado men supported legalization. So we directed our ads mostly toward women between the ages of 30 and 60, with some additional ads that spoke to Hispanic or conservative voters.

7. Just Three Messages: There are dozens of reasons to end marijuana prohibition, but you have time to articulate only a few. The three winning messages in Colorado were (1) police should spend their time on more important things, (2) taxing marijuana would turn a money-losing prohibition into a money-generating system, and (3) veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder should be able to use marijuana legally.

8. Correct Spokespeople: The three spokespersons for the campaign — Betty Aldworth, Mason Tvert, and Brian Vicente — stayed on message, knew the facts, and spoke from the heart. In addition, the campaign was buoyed by the likes of former Congressman Tom Tancredo (R), Tony Ryan (former Denver cop), Sean Azzariti (a Marine Corps veteran), Manuel Tarango (Spanish-language radio DJ), Susan Sarandon, and Melissa Etheridge. We didn’t allow just anyone to speak at the microphone.

9. Correct Campaign Intelligentsia: The campaign’s inner circle was composed of people like Rick Ridder and Celinda Lake, who have actually won difficult campaigns. And — given that my organization passed the medical marijuana laws in Montana (2004), Michigan (2008), and Arizona (2010) — the nuances of these campaigns carried over as institutional memory, which was embodied by MPP’s Steve Fox, who effectively served as the manager of the Colorado campaign.

10. Undercutting the Opposition: A relatively respectable consulting firm ran the opposing “No on 64” campaign and were able to generate a large number of endorsements. Because we couldn’t compete in the endorsement game, we undercut their endorsements by appearing at their events, in order to ensure that both sides of the story appeared in whatever media coverage the opposition was trying to generate.

This raises a related lesson from the Colorado campaign: High-profile opposition doesn’t matter that much. The “No on 64” campaign ran ads featuring the current governor and a pair of former governors — two of three of whom are Democrats — and the opposition received so many other endorsements that you couldn’t even print them all out on one sheet of paper. In the end, however, the people rejected the opinions of the supposedly powerful.

It’s possible that if we had skipped one or two of the above 10 steps, Colorado voters would have still passed the initiative. But if you intentionally skip one or two steps, you should have a good reason for why you’re doing so.

To that point, there are already well-meaning activists in Oregon and other states who aren’t remembering the efforts of well-meaning activists in California, who ignored the lesson of step #1 above and pushed a risky initiative during a non-presidential election in 2010, which I’m sure felt good but succeeded at failing.

The California folks spent a lot of money on Prop. 19 (which my organization supported politically but not financially), and that initiative dutifully failed in 2010. This was an initiative that would have almost surely passed on November 6 of this year, except for the problem of impatience.

So let’s move forward in other states, but let’s do so patiently and strategically. The path is there for us to follow, and I look forward to working with activists across the country to follow that path as we dismantle marijuana prohibition state by state.

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