Weed is now a winner.
The politics of marijuana legalization have gone from the fringes to the mainstream, catching opponents off guard and even startling some proponents with their own success.
Voters in Colorado and Washington easily passed ballot initiatives — 55% to 45% in each state — to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana.
So how did this happen? A third legalization measure stumbled badly in Oregon despite the state’s progressive leanings, with some supporters pointing to a disorganized and underfunded campaign.
What transpired in Colorado and Washington were disciplined efforts that forged alliances between liberals and tea party conservatives, often using public health arguments to advance their cause.
Proponents and analysts said both states benefited from existing medical marijuana statutes, money from national liberalization supporters and a sometimes disorganized opposition.
Tuesday’s vote on the measure in Colorado amounted to a popular revolt against the establishment. Despite opposition from the governor, attorney general and Denver’s mayor, 1.3 million Coloradans voted for Amendment 64 — which as of last count had received 50,000 more votes of approval than President Obama, who won the state by 5 percentage points.
“I think that the opponents of the amendment were taken by surprise by the degree of support and did not organize themselves until very late in the game,” said Peter Hanson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. Hanson added that the presidential campaign probably boosted the pro-marijuana youth vote and directed conservatives’ attention elsewhere.
“I’m just speculating here, but I suspect that if this amendment had been on the ballot in another year, it would have gotten more attention and the opposition would have been mobilized much more quickly,” Hanson said.
According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, pro-marijuana political action committees out-raised opponents 8 to 1 in Colorado. The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project and Ohio-based Progressive Insurance executive Peter B. Lewis contributed almost $2.1 million of $2.4 million in pro-pot donations.
The cause benefited from a high-profile endorsement from former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican and tea party favorite in a state where libertarian attitudes resonate with voters.
Mason Tvert, a sponsor of past legalization initiatives in Colorado, said he changed his strategy years ago while looking at polling data showing that people who found marijuana to be safe were more likely to support legalization.
“Our mission was to educate the public about the very simple fact that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” said Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
Polling and public-health messaging also played a crucial role in the successful but notably different effort in Washington, where backers of Initiative 502 scrupulously cultivated endorsements from prominent public officials. Seattle City Atty. Pete Holmes took the unusual step of endorsing the legalization initiative, and he first broke the decision to his wife.
“She said, ‘Oh, jeez, do you really want to do this? You know it’s going to be controversial.’ But I decided it was the right thing to do,” Holmes said. When he first took office on a promise to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, he said, he found that 59% of the cases were against African Americans in a city where blacks make up 7% of the population. After he stopped prosecuting such cases, crime rates still went down in Seattle.
As election day neared, organizers kept a wary eye on U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2010 had helped torpedo Proposition 19, a measure to legalize marijuana in California, by coming out against the initiative shortly before the vote.
“We were holding our breath for the entire month of October,” said Alison Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney and one of the architects behind Washington state’s legalization effort. “We were looking at exactly the dates that he had weighed in on Prop. 19 in the last election. I even remember the dates. We even knew the day of the week.
“It was a Friday,” she added quickly.
But this year the dates came and went, and Holder stayed silent about the initiatives, which openly conflict with federal law. Some speculated that the Obama administration, facing a tough presidential battle, opted not to risk alienating the youth vote.
So instead of a stern warning from the federal government, Washington residents heard pro-legalization appeals from a phalanx of former U.S. attorneys and law enforcement agents, health officials and a locally beloved travel writer — not exactly the stereotype of hippies in hemp necklaces and tie-dye.
The campaign hammered home three messages that seemed to have broad appeal: Police could focus on more serious crimes, marijuana taxation would raise money for the state, and regulating its sale and growth would hurt violent cartels and make the marijuana business safer.
“There was something in our messaging that resonated with Republicans, and I would say that that was a surprise,” Holcomb said. “We certainly didn’t get majority support from them, but marijuana legalization turned out to be a less polarizing issue than marriage equality.”
Holmes said it was a struggle to persuade some colleagues that legalizing marijuana had a public safety benefit, but in the end that message did get out.
When told that Washington’s winning marijuana measure had almost received more votes than Obama as of Thursday night, Holmes replied, “Wow, wow, wow.”