Pubdate: Fri, 26 Sep 2003
Source: Drug War Chronicle (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor

Playing It Smart:


For the national media, the only thing that happened in Seattle's
elections last week was the defeat of a 10-cent per cup espresso tax.
But caffeine wasn't the only drug on the ballot in Seattle. By a
margin of 58% to 42%, Seattle voters approved Initiative 75 (I-75),
which directs Seattle police and prosecutors to make marijuana
possession arrests the lowest law enforcement priority.

While not decriminalizing marijuana possession, the successful
initiative should bring down the number of marijuana possession
arrests in the city. Seattle police have said that the initiative will
not make much difference since police only made 400 pot possession
arrests last year, but 400 arrests is still more than one per day. And
city attorney Tom Carr has worried publicly that defense lawyers will
challenge any possession arrest as going against the will of the voters.

While Seattle law enforcement may be correct in saying that the
passage of I-75 will not make a big difference in day to day policing
and prosecuting, it is a huge symbolic victory for the forces of reform.

Seattle voters have now gone on record as saying they do not believe
it is a proper use of taxpayer funds to throw marijuana users in jail.

To get a sense of how the victory was won -- especially in the face of
opposition from drug czar John Walters, who has made defeating
marijuana-friendly initiatives a top priority -- DRCNet talked with
some of the key players involved.

What emerges is the story of a calculated, carefully crafted campaign
done on a relatively low budget but using the entire panoply of modern
political techniques, from coalition building to push-polling to
fine-toothed voter data analysis.

Dominic Holden, head of Washington NORML and a central organizer of
the annual Seattle Hempfest -- the world's largest marijuana rally
with about 100,000 people attending on each of two days -- also played
a key role as head of the steering committee for Sensible Seattle
(, which organized the campaign for the
I-75 initiative. "This was an effort that began three years ago,"
Holden told DRCNet. "I met with the ACLU of Washington to sit down at
a roundtable about how to move forward, and we hired the ACLU's Andy
Coe to write the first draft.

We also hired a campaign expert, Matthew Fox, to help us work
smarter," Holden said. "We created an initiative and had begun working
on it in 2001, but then came September 11 and it became clear that
trying to do anything not related to the war on terrorism was too
unpopular, so we dropped that effort and began again with I-75 last

But from the beginning Holden and Sensible Seattle reached out for
funding that would allow the campaign to succeed. "We formed a
steering committee early on, we applied for and received grants from
the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance," he
explained. "We also asked the ACLU to include us in their budget this
year, and they did." The cost for the initiative campaign came in a
just under $200,000, said Holden, "and that included not only the big
contributors but also money we raised from going door-to-door."

With a respectable war chest, Sensible Seattle was able to hire
another campaign consultant, Blair Butterworth, who ran successful
campaigns for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Washington Governor Gary
Locke. "Butterworth really brought some discipline to the campaign,"
Holden said. "He told us what was safe to say, and on his
recommendation we ran a stealth campaign. We had a web site and voice
mail, but we decided not to actively seek media coverage."

That's because the stories kept on coming out skewed, Holden
explained. "Reporters always loved the fact that I was also the
director of Hempfest, which terrifies older voters, and while they
would give a good chunk of the story to our side, the editors always,
always found it more compelling to lead with what elected officials or
law enforcement had to say, and they felt compelled to write headlines
like 'Police Oppose Pot Initiative," he said. "We stopped sending out
press releases, we quit seeking out the media, and in some cases,
especially with the conservative press, we found ourselves too busy to
respond to their interview requests."

If Sensible Seattle wasn't playing the media game, it played the
coalition-building game very well. "We formed a working group with the
King County Bar Association, the public defenders, city and county
council members, the League of Women Voters, and the Lifelong AIDS
Alliance, among others," said Holden. "We were able to bring together
lots of groups that had taken a stance against the war on drugs and we
gave them a chance to work on I-75. That gave the various groups the
opportunity to get to know each other and work together."

That's right, said Doug Hoenig, executive director of the ACLU of
Washington. "We worked with numerous organizations on this, and we
were very involved in the campaign," he told DRCNet. "We helped draft
the initiative, we provided some financial support, and we mobilized
our volunteers for phone-banking and other grassroots organizing. But
we were part of a coalition that included a number of groups working
on broader drug policy issues."

One group not normally counted among the usual suspects when it comes
to drug reform is the League of Women Voters, but perhaps that's
because reformers aren't keeping their eyes open, said Nancy Eitreim,
president of the League's Seattle chapter. "We've been working on drug
policy issues since at least 1992," she told DRCNet. "We advised the
King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project when they did their
comprehensive drug policy study that year, and took a position
supporting prevention, education and treatment as a means of reducing
demand for drugs.

We've been at this for awhile," she reiterated.

The League's Seattle chapter, with some 750 members, has continued to
examine drug policy, Eitreim said, adding that supporting I-75 was a
natural for the League. "Some of our members have remained involved
with the Bar Association project," she said, "but it was also the
research showing that people of color and low-income people were
getting arrested in disproportionate numbers for minor drug crimes
like marijuana possession that got us to support the initiative when
it was filed a year ago."

But Sensible Seattle did more than avoid reporters and build broad
coalitions. It did polling and used the results to craft its message,
Holden said. "We spent $14,000 on Seattle's leading polling firm to
have them ask voters what they thought of I-75, and we presented a
series of messages to see which voters responded to. That was smart,
because it showed us which messages worked," he explained. "We also
tested possible counter-messages from the opposition to see which were
most powerful, and that, too, proved to be extremely useful.

That is the power of polling."
(Most effective opposition messages, said Holden: "It sends the wrong
message to kids" and "What about drugged drivers?" Most effective
pro-initiative message: "People are still going to jail for pot.")

Polling also helped the coalition figure out who voters liked and
didn't like and craft its message accordingly. "It was clear to us
that we needed spokespeople who looked more like our electorate than I
do," said Holden. "Our electorate, especially in a primary election,
is older.

We polled on responses to individuals, and we found that voters
loathed Bush and Ashcroft, but respected the ACLU of Washington and
the King County Bar Association. The KCBA had the credibility, the
gravitas, to avoid being seen as too controversial. (KCBA Drug Policy
Project director Roger Goodman was on vacation this week and
unavailable for comment.)

"Oh, they really hate Bush out here," said Holden. "Little old ladies
on the bus will spontaneously burst into diatribes about how bad he
is. So when drug czar Walter came up to campaign against us, that
didn't help the opposition. In fact, because of our polling, we
created a mailer that had a photo of John Ashcroft paired against two
smiling older people. 'Who's right about I-75?', that mailing asked."

(One thing Walters' visit accomplished was to provoke the Marijuana
Policy Project to once again challenge him to debate --anywhere,
anytime -- on marijuana policy. "The real issue," Walters told a
September 10 meeting in Seattle, "is should we legalize marijuana.

Let's have a national debate on that." The Marijuana Policy Project
has taken up that challenge (, but
has yet to receive a response, said MPP Communications Director Bruce

That mailer was one of three commissioned by the campaign.

The second mailer featured medical marijuana patients, while the third
mailer asked whether police should be allowed to focus on violent
crimes and whether tax dollars couldn't be better spent. "The mailers
were laid out by a campaign literature professional," said Holden. "It
cost more money, but it was worth it to have campaign materials with a
professional look and feel."

Campaign adviser Butterworth made sure those mailers were sent to
appropriate households, Holden said. "He hired a local database firm
to look at Seattle voters -- and even non-voters," he explained. "We
used the data to target out mailings to hit where they would do the
most good. We also used a Midwest phone bank company to call friendly
voters before the election, as well as using volunteers."

Sensible Seattle's financial approach also seems very

While it was unafraid to spend money for political necessities, it
kept operating expenses low. "We don't have an office," said Holden.
"The office is a cell phone I carry with me. That costs us $350 a
year, and we don't pay for office space, or staff, or computers."

While Holden and the rest of Sensible Seattle are pleased with their
immediate result, they also see the I-75 victory as a stepping-stone
(gateway?) to larger victories in the future. "This vote sent a
message that voters don't want to throw pot-smokers in jail," said the
Washington ACLU's Hoenig, "but it also sends a more general message of
discontent with the way the war on drugs is being waged.

We had the drug czar, the city attorney, the police chief all opposed,
the two major dailies editorialized against us, but the public didn't
buy their arguments.

This gives a lot of encouragement to anyone concerned about changing
course in the war on drugs."

As for Holden, he told DRCNet he hoped the lessons learned in Seattle
could be applied elsewhere, but that reformers needed to plan
carefully. "This was a big challenge, especially in the current
climate," he said. "I'm not certain something like this would work in
every city. It was the right thing at the right time in Seattle, but
it could ultimately be a big drain of energy and resources if you
fail. You need to consider that carefully. And when in doubt, start
with a poll." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake