Pubdate: Sat, 12 Sep 2015
Source: Eastern Arizona Courier (AZ)
Copyright: 2015 Eastern Arizona Courier
Authors: Brianna Gurciullo, Karen Mawdsley and Katie Campbell, 
News21-Cronkite News


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 
fund-raising, 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 in 
Ohio this fall was "premature."

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."

Falling dominoes

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 
proved 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.

"On this issue, like all others, values are really what drive them," 
said Trumble, who specializes in reaching moderates on social issues. 
"There's a compassion value that ties into medical marijuana, and 
that's why so many people support medical marijuana."

She said she expects that as more states legalize, more Americans 
admit that they have used marijuana and the drug becomes less 
stigmatized, public opinion will continue to shift toward legalization.

"We're going to have to see really how those ballot initiatives go 
because if you run strong campaigns and pass laws and states do a 
good job of regulating marijuana, that will be the first stepping 
stone to other states having it," Trumble said. "But if a state, for 
example California, passes marijuana legalization for recreational 
and then does a poor job of regulating it, that could really set 
everything back."

Letting the states experiment

NORML's Stroup said he hopes the Obama administration will remove 
marijuana from the federal government's list of the most dangerous 
drugs. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance, which means it 
is a drug "with no currently accepted medical use and a high 
potential for abuse." Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.

Stroup said he'd like to soon see marijuana reclassified as a 
Schedule II or Schedule III drug, which wouldn't make it legal to 
possess, sell or grow, but would make it easier for researchers to 
access. Other advocates have called for removing marijuana from the 
scheduling system completely.

The president has spoken about using marijuana himself as a young 
man, and he has said he does not believe marijuana is more dangerous 
than alcohol. He's recently focused on criminal justice reform, 
calling for shorter sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

"At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then 
Congress may then reschedule marijuana," Obama said during an 
interview with Vice in March. "But I always say to folks, 
legalization or decriminalization is not a panacea."

A 2013 Justice Department memo stated that the federal government 
would only interfere under certain circumstances: if state or local 
law enforcement failed to prevent distribution of marijuana to 
minors, revenue from marijuana sales went to gangs or marijuana 
crossed into states where it remains illegal.

While Obama's administration hasn't interfered in states that have 
legalized, a future president could. That's why Stroup wants federal 
law to leave marijuana regulation to the states, "so it doesn't 
matter who's president. States are free to experiment."

Mario Moreno Zepeda, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, said the White House remains "committed to treating 
drug use as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice 
problem. The federal government opposes drug legalization because it 
runs counter to a public health and safety approach to drug policy."

"This administration's position on enforcement has been consistent: 
While the prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important 
priority, targeting individual marijuana users   especially those 
with serious illnesses and their caregivers   is not the best 
allocation of limited federal law enforcement resources," Zepeda said.

 From 'unthinkable' to 'mainstream'

Michael Correia, the director of government relations for the trade 
group National Cannabis Industry Association, said that years ago, 
members of Congress took no positions at all on marijuana. Now, they 
are beginning to support research and allowing state medical programs 
to continue operating.

Still, he said marijuana issues haven't become a major priority in 
Congress, especially among the leadership.

"Marijuana is not global warming. It's not abortion. It's not guns. 
So it's not really high up on their radar screen, but it is an 
intriguing issue, and people need to get educated on some of the 
issues before they can form an opinion," Correia said.

Dan Riffle joined the MPP in 2009, and worked as a state legislative 
analyst for three and a half years. Now the group's director of 
federal policies, he said that in Congress, marijuana "is an issue 
that's gone from being an untouchable, unthinkable, third-rail issue 
to a legitimate, mainstream topic of debate."

"It's gone from a place where we struggled to have (Congress members 
and staffers) take meetings with us, to have our phone calls 
returned, to now people reach out to us and ask us to come in and 
brief them and use us as a resource," Riffle said.

Riffle tailors his message to his audience. If he meets with a member 
of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, Riffle talks about 
the disparity in arrests between blacks and whites. If he sits down 
with a Republican who has libertarian tendencies, he drives home the 
argument that smoking pot is an individual decision.

Riffle said Congress is grappling with federal law that prohibits 
marijuana and state laws that allow its use. He said some lawmakers 
have tried to "address symptoms of that disease" with bills that 
would allow marijuana businesses to use banks, or permit Veterans 
Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana for veterans who live 
in states where it's legal.

"But then you're going to have other folks who say, 'Look, rather 
than passing seven, eight, 12 different bills depending on what the 
issue is, let's just grapple with the underlying problem,' which is 
the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws," Riffle said.

The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act   introduced by Rep. Dana 
Rohrabacher, R-Calif.   would do that by amending the Controlled 
Substances Act. It would change the federal law to protect anyone 
producing, possessing, distributing, dispensing, administering or 
delivering marijuana in states where those actions are legal. The 
bill has 14 co-sponsors, including six Republicans.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a longtime champion of marijuana law 
reform, said he anticipates the federal government will treat 
marijuana like alcohol within a decade.

"My judgment is with a new administration, with several more states 
legalizing, with public opinion solidifying, and with more and better 
research, I think in the next administration and the next Congress or 
two, we'll be in a position to just basically say, 'States, do what 
you want to do,'" Blumenauer said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom