CAMPAIGNS: MPP's marijuana legalization push goes up in smoke

PR Team: Marijuana Policy Project (Washington, DC) Campaign: Getting Question 9 onto the ballot and into the law books Time Frame: Spring 2002-November 5, 2002 Budget: $2 million

PR Team: Marijuana Policy Project (Washington, DC) Campaign: Getting Question 9 onto the ballot and into the law books Time Frame: Spring 2002-November 5, 2002 Budget: $2 million

A record number of states put marijuana-reform initiatives on their ballots in 2002, but the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national organization that "works to minimize the harm associated with marijuana," couldn't be everywhere at once. It chose instead to concentrate its time and resources on a handful of places where victory seemed within reach. One of the most promising was Nevada. But the MPP didn't just help win votes for Nevada's initiative; it helped word it and get it on the ballot. What eventually came to be known as Question 9 would not only have made it legal to possess and use - in the privacy of an adult's home - up to three ounces of marijuana, it would have compelled the state to devise a system of legal distribution. Additional provisions called for allotting cheaper marijuana to seriously ill residents, and common-sense laws against driving under the influence or smoking in public. The first challenge was to get Question 9 on the ballot, which required gathering signatures. The second challenge was to convince voters to back the most sweeping marijuana reform in American history. Strategy "It's important to be on the ground," says MPP communications director Bruce Mirken, so the first move was to send director of state policies Billy Rogers from MPP headquarters in Washington, DC to set up shop in Nevada. "We don't have any regional offices," explains Mirken. The idea at every level was to run a campaign to counter public impressions of marijuana reformers as lawless drug addicts. Hence Rogers called his group Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement (NRLE). The first objective was to obtain the signatures; only then could they worry about changing the law. Tactics Rogers began collecting signatures, canvassing areas where young, liberal, registered voters could be found. But rather than go the usual volunteer route, the MPP sprang for professional signature gatherers. "In some ways, they're better simply because they don't have to stop gathering signatures to go to work," explains Mirken. The first objective was easily met when NRLE submitted 107,000 signatures - almost twice the required number. Then came the campaigning. Get-out-the-vote drives were coupled with aggressive media relations and all the advertising one can get with a total budget of just $2 million. NRLE intentionally shifted the focus away from drugs and toward law enforcement. "This initiative will allow the police to spend more time going after murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals, rather than wasting valuable resources hunting down tens of thousands of nonviolent marijuana users," Rogers was quoted as saying. They also emphasized that the current law forced patients using marijuana for medicine to purchase it from criminals. Results Question 9 was soundly defeated, 39% to 61%. Mirken places the blame on two factors. First was the very expensive, last-minute "scare" campaign run by White House drug czar John Walters. A series of ads about "the horrors of marijuana," ostensibly unrelated to the election, appeared in the waning days of the campaign, and NRLE didn't have the cash to counter them. But beyond that, Mirken speaks of "a wave of Republicanism and conservatism," that seemed to sweep the entire country on Election Day 2002. In what some interpreted as a rebuke to liberalism, Republicans retook the Senate, and increased their hold on the House at a time when Democrats traditionally would have prevailed. Statistically speaking, Republicans and conservatives are much less likely to back marijuana reform of any kind. Future It's far too early to begin thinking about referendums for 2004, says Mirken, but he says to be on the lookout for the MPP in your state.

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