Organizers high on effort to legalize pot

Wafts of pungent smoke and insatiable appetites are about to become more common in Colorado and Washington now that recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in some instances.

Wafts of pungent smoke and insatiable appetites are about to become more common in Colorado and Washington now that recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in some instances. In both states, people 21 and older can possess up to 1 ounce of the drug. In Colorado, a person can also grow up to six marijuana plants. It is also legal for one adult to give it to another adult.

Before both states could get to this point, it took years of outreach to get voters on board with legalizing cannabis.

Campaigns focused on people using marijuana instead of alcohol.

For the Rocky Mountain state, the key messages for organizers of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol focused on marijuana not being as harmful as most drugs, including alcohol. They also argued it was a waste of law enforcement's time to pursue cases against people who had an ounce or less in their possession. Messaging emphasized potential financial benefit to the state - a possible $60 million annually in combined revenue and savings for state and local governments in Colorado.

"We wanted to keep those funds out of the underground market in an effort to stop supporting cartels and gangs that sell marijuana," explains Mason Tvert, who co-directed the initiative to help legalize the drug.

Communications efforts were developed in-house and involved media outreach, social media, events, and advertisements.

The campaign got notable earned coverage for ads on TV and YouTube called Dear Mom and Dear Dad. The spots featured young adults pointing out the dangers of alcohol versus their perceived lack of danger associated with marijuana.

SPD pot plans

The Seattle Police Department has received notable press coverage for a blog entry on its SPD website about how the new law would work.The Marijwhatnow post, which appeared a few weeks before the initiative became law, used humor to break down the legal jargon of the initiative in a Q&A format.

One question read: “December 6 seems like a really long way away. What happens if I get caught with marijuana before then?” The answer was, “Hold your breath.”

As of December, the post got 378,000 page views and 37,000 likes on Facebook. The post received press coverage around the world, says SPD public affairs director Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

“People were taken aback by such a light-hearted approach in communicating,” he explains.

Ultimately, 55% of voters in Colorado backed Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana. Since then, the state has taken a mostly reactionary stance in promoting what citizens can do under the new law, says Mark Couch, public information officer for the state Task Force on the Implementation of Amendment 64.

"Reporters have mostly wanted to know what the state is going to do and whether we had heard from the federal government on the amendment," says Couch.

After Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the amendment in December, he received 50 media calls in a matter of days. The unit may hire a PR firm to help promote regulations around the selling of marijuana, but Hickenlooper will continue as the sole press con- tact for now.

Promotional push
In Washington, the organization Yes on I-502 was behind the promotional push to get the measure on the ballot.

The focus of its outreach was a pro-policy campaign that highlighted increased tax revenue and reduced the burden on police, according to Tonia Winchester, outreach director for the group. Washington state estimates I-502 could raise $1.9 billion in new taxes within five years.

Key to the initiative's success in garnering 55% of votes in its favor was that it had research on what residents were willing and not willing to accept.

"They weren't ready for an Amsterdam coffee shop model," says Winchester. "We presented them with something they were comfortable with."

Through media outreach, speaking engagements, and advertisements, the grassroots group was successful in raising coverage about the voting initiative. As in Colorado, the PR strategy was developed in-house.

Since it became law, the state's Liquor Control Board, which is overseeing the legalization framework, has posted information on its site and through list serves. In the months leading up to its legalization and since it became law, the department was averaging 200 media calls a month as of December.

Washington state has not yet hired a firm to help promote the regulatory framework for marijuana and is still hammering out the licensing process for potential retailers of the drug.

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