The Secret Ingredients for Marijuana Legalization: Moms and Hispanics

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Victories in Colorado and Washington were driven by previous failures across the nation that taught cannabis campaigners where to target their efforts.

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Jake Dimmock tends plants at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

A few days before last Tuesday's election, New Approach Washington, the group pushing a ballot issue to legalize marijuana in the state, posted its final ad of the campaign. The spot featured a "Washington mom" -- a woman in her mid-40s, sitting on her porch, flanked by pumpkins -- who took the viewer through the assorted restrictions and benefits both minors and businesses would see once the measure, Initiative 502, was implemented: ID checks.Fewer profits for the cartels. Increased funds for schools. More time for police to "focus on violent crime instead." In short, all of the top concerns that an average mom in the Evergreen State would seem to have about making pot legal.

But New Approach's ad was about more than just capturing the votes of a major demographic -- the same one that helped reelect President Obama and the one that kept GOP Senate hopefuls Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin at bay. Legalization advocates have found that female support tends to be a leading indicator for marijuana measures. In the case of both California's 2010 and Colorado's 2006 votes, sagging support among women preceded a collapse in men's support too. In California, for instance, support from women saw a 14-point swing against legalization over the final six weeks, dragging support from men under 50 percent.

"Historically, as soon as women really start to create a [gender] gap, a marijuana measure gets killed," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "If women get weak-kneed, the men will start to drop."

Armed with that knowledge about why previous attempts had failed, campaigns in both Washington and Colorado set out to court women. Their efforts appear to have paid off. Both states approved measures legalizing marijuana with the backing of some 55 percent of the electorate. That was stronger than even proponents expected -- they had been cautiously optimistic about the Washington vote, but the Colorado measure appeared to be fading down the stretch. (Advocates in Oregon, where a marijuana-legalization measure failed on Tuesday, faced larger problems than merely enlisting females -- too little time to canvass, too few funds to spend.)

"We definitely wanted to reach women. We were very much focused on not being a pro-pot campaign but a pro-policy campaign."

Convincing women -- mothers, especially -- that legalization wasn't simply about stoners and libertarians was essential to ending blanket prohibition. They needed to be assured this was sound policy and that their children would not be affected.

"We definitely wanted to reach [women]," says Tonia Winchester, the outreach director behind the Yes on I-502 camp. "We were very much focused on not being a pro-pot campaign but a pro-policy campaign, showing that we could shift resources from incarcerating and focus on programs we knew would work."

With the female demographic in mind, both states went about crafting campaigns tailored to assuaging concerns like family safety and preventing access to drugs for children. In addition to emphasizing the basic premise of a tax-and-regulate system -- that is, that all marijuana would only be available through licensed dealers -- Washington ensured that a tight per se DUID policy dictating that a driver may carry no more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, would be included as part of I-502 (per se DUID laws make it illegal to drive with a certain amount of a controlled substance in the blood, regardless of whether impairment is apparent). By delineating a maximum threshold for drug level in the blood system, female support in Washington, according to St. Pierre and Winchester, remained strong.

While a similar per se DUID bill died in the Colorado Legislature earlier this year -- it is already illegal within Colorado to drive while intoxicated, but there is no specific threshold for drug levels in blood -- Mason Tvert, director of the state's pro-legalization campaign, made sure his campaign emphasized how Amendment 64's passage would benefit both public health and public coffers.

"We ran a very smart campaign: highlighting the benefits of keeping marijuana out of hands of young people, really generating tax revenue to benefit state and public schools, allowing law enforcement officials to focus on more serious crimes," Tvert says. "I think women, just like most men, agreed these were compelling reasons."

The numbers back up Tvert's claim. While the majority of women ended up opposing Colorado's unsuccessful 2006 legalization attempt, bringing men with them and eliminating any chance of victory, pre-election polling during this election cycle showed support from women not simply remaining steady, but growing.

Exit polls confirmed what pre-election surveys suggested: Support from women remained above water, with 53 percent backing Amendment 64's passage. And Washington, with its tighter restrictions, saw the same percentage of female support -- 53 percent of women backed I-502, with only 47 percent opposing. "You look at the numbers, and you can see that women remained constant," St. Pierre notes. "Both campaigns looked at the data and strategy from what turned out to be an expensive failed experiment in California in 2010, so both camps took certain aspects of that -- the needs to address home cultivation and DUIDs, especially -- and applied them, tested them in their own focus and polling groups, and found them sufficient."

However, women aren't the sole demographic pro-legalization camps eyed. After all, much as Obama's reelection showed that the Anglo-Christian-male bloc has become insufficient for victory -- if, as David Simon wrote, "there is no normal" -- marijuana backers understood they'd need to cultivate their own coalition of communities.

Perhaps predictably, a strong majority of the under-65 crowd showed support for measures in both states, leaving seniors as the sole age-based demographic demurring. The big surprise came in the ethnic breakdown. While there isn't sufficient polling on non-whites in Washington to draw conclusions, Colorado -- where the white population split on the measure -- saw Latinos support legalization at a 70 percent rate, double the national rate among the group.

Indeed, the state's Latinos, who made up 14 percent of the electorate, were polling negatively up through the beginning of October. A strong tradition of social conservatism, in addition to misplaced concerns about an increased market for cartels, kept Latinos reticent to pass any outright legalization, but a concerted effort from Tvert's team -- as well as an endorsement from the Colorado Latino Forum, the most influential Hispanic organization in the state -- convinced the swelling populace to support the measure's passage. "Marijuana prohibition really has a tradition of discrimination against the Latino community," Tvert says. "They're still arrested at a disproportionate rate in Colorado, so they recognize this, for their community, this is probably a civil rights issue."

Winchester says her organization also focused efforts on campaigning in Washington's Latino community, meaning that women, youth, and minorities -- the triumvirate that sealed Obama's second term -- played a similarly pivotal role in ending marijuana prohibition in both states.

But that wasn't all: Washington, which also legalized gay marriage on Tuesday, presented a prime example for studying the demographic overlap and distance between marijuana and marriage equality efforts. Both causes carry strong progressive parallels, and the demographic breakdown -- by age, especially -- was similar. There is, however, one stark difference: While 85 percent of registered Republicans opposed gay marriage, only 67 percent decided against marijuana. Democrats saw similar shifts, with 82 percent for gay marriage but only 70 percent supporting marijuana.

"There are plenty of Republicans who look like they support [marijuana legalization]," St. Pierre says. "We have to keep learning who these groups are, and making sure we're able to get them to come to our side."

Now that his organization has arrived at the hemp-lined embankments on the far side of the Rubicon, St. Pierre noted the momentum and demographics were firmly on legalizers' sides. With the victories -- and with the new numbers from a Washington Post national survey showing that 48 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, the highest number in the history of the poll -- St. Pierre laid out a handful of states that he thinks may be the next to pass outright marijuana legalization, including Vermont and Maine, as well as second attempts in California and Oregon.

He also noted that the pro-pot camp has discovered a relatively limited method of legalization in Washington, with its per se policy and continued ban on home cultivation, and a relatively open method in Colorado. "I'll be meeting with Mason and Alison [Holcomb, head of Yes on I-502] ... to try to figure out exactly how to take what they did and replicate it in the next state," he says. "We found both a liberal approach, in Colorado, and a conservative approach, in Washington. We found two paths that work."

When asked how the victories made him feel, St. Pierre was blunt, laughing, "I wish I could say I was high. Our proponents had an 80-year start, and each state will require something different. Now that we know what works, and just have to figure out how this all is going to be applied."

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Casey Michel is a reporter with the Houston Press and a former Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Guernica, and The Tuqay.

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