High Hopes: The Marijuana Movement's 2014 Playbook

With big victories in Washington and Colorado behind it, the legalization lobby is adjusting to new legitimacy and widening its ambitions.
Seattle hosted the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in September. Washington state was one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

After years in the political wilderness, marijuana lobbyists find themselves in a strange position as 2014 approaches: Suddenly their power and support are growing, lawmakers are courting them, and the prospects look brighter to build on major progress the movement made in 2012.

Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana, the first states to do so. Those victories have bestowed new legitimacy on the cannabis community, giving it a better field on which to fight. By engaging in political-money games, endorsing candidates, confederating cannabis-related businesses, and old-fashioned lobbying, the pot movement is working to expand the playing field to more states and confront the federal government’s long-standing and entrenched opposition to marijuana infrastructure head on. Campaigners hope to make legalization the sort of social issue candidates have to take a stand on, just as gay marriage and abortion before it became crucial litmus tests.

“We have a bunch of stereotypes about the marijuana movement and lobbying effort as a bunch of college kids who want to smoke weed,” says John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The marijuana lobby is coming out of the shadows from this avant-garde movement to people who are thinking about legalization in a very rational, serious, and empirical way.”

Public opinion about marijuana use has evolved rapidly in just a few years. Only 32 percent of the population views getting high as morally wrong, down 18 percent since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. The same study found almost half of the population has tried cannabis at one point and support for legalization is soaring. For the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of Americans support legalization.

Erik Altieri, director of communications for NORML, the elder statesman of the legalization movement since the 1970s, says the biggest shift is in the public psyche. “Marijuana legislation has gone from something very abstract and something you may have supported to something very real and also possible,” he says. “And it’s happening.”

The movement is often compared to the early stages of the fight for marriage equality, where five years ago there were only two states where same-sex marriage was legal and now there are 16. The legalization movement is growing not just in power but size, there are four major national groups lobbying for legalization, each with its own associated PAC.

“They have been successful, and success breeds success in the lobbying world,” Hudak says. “They were successful in Colorado and Washington and that brings them up to a new level of legitimacy.”

The lobbyists’ accomplishments are also getting legislators’ attention. Since proving the issue can win at the polls in November—after years of disappointments, like the failure of California’s Proposition 19 in 2010—pro-legalization PACs say they’re suddenly in the strange position of fielding calls from local, state, and federal lawmakers seeking support.

“It was almost a tectonic shift immediately after election day in 2012,” Altieri says of NORML PAC’s relationship with lawmakers. “Our phones began ringing off the hooks with legislators wanting to endorse the issues.”

One of them is Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, who asked the organization for support in his run for U.S. House in the Philadelphia area. “[NORML’s support] helps in the traditional ways … they do fundraising and they donate and they do email lists and members who they contact are told to vote for me,” Leach explains. NORML PAC has so far donated $1,000 to his campaign—a tiny portion of Leach’s campaign budget, though the group says it plans to contribute further if he wins the Democratic primary. A legalization supporter, Leach is a natural ally for NORML. “I just happen to feel that prohibition is a pernicious, cruel policy and they do as well, so we have found some opportunities to work against it together,” he says.

In dollar terms, the impact of this spending pales in comparison to well-known players like the Koch brothers, big labor, or even trade lobbies like the National Restaurant Association. Larger groups like the Marijuana Policy Project dole out a couple thousand to state and federal candidates they support, while other PACs like NORML’s typically delve out contributions in $500 increments, depending on the race. What’s more important from candidates’ standpoint is the symbolic effect: A donation from cannabis PACs certifies the office seeker as a forward-thinking marijuana-legislation reformer.

“I get emails and calls from members of Congress daily who want our support,” says Dan Riffle, director of federal policy at the Marijuana Policy Project. “We’ll probably spend about six figures per cycle supporting candidates who support our issues and defeating candidates who are opposed to marijuana reform.”

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Miranda Green is a writer based in Washington. She was previously a reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast and an associate producer at ABC7/Newschannel 8.

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