Following Tuesday’s defeat of a controversial legalization initiative in Ohio, we asked three veterans of pot initiative efforts what’s in store for next year when proposals to legalize marijuana have qualified for the ballot in Nevada, and similar measures are expected to qualify in Arizona, California, Maine and Massachusetts.
Our Shoptalkers: Jordan Lieberman, politics and public affairs lead at Audience Partners; Rick Ridder, president and co-founder of RBI Strategies & Research; and Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
C&E: Could the defeat of Ohio’s marijuana initiative on Tuesday mean legalization momentum is slowing?
Mason Tvert: The initiative in Ohio is not a very good indicator of where the country is headed on marijuana policy. It was drafted in a manner that drew sharp criticism from many who support legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use.
It was also run in an odd-year election when voter turnout is typically smaller, older and more conservative. The initiatives poised for state ballots in 2016 don’t include the widely criticized “monopoly” model proposed in Ohio, and they’ll benefit from heightened voter turnout during a presidential election year.
Rick Ridder: When you write an initiative, any initiative, the language is key. The guys who wrote the Ohio language never understood the importance of detailing how all Ohio citizens would benefit – not just a handful of ganjapaneurs.
Jordan Lieberman: There are three reasons this failed: the timing, the targeting, and the language. This amendment would find much more support if it coincided with the higher turnout associated with a presidential general election. Second, unlike most places, our Green Score targeting was not employed here. Lastly, the language of the amendment was far too aggressive and favored a handful of big growers. These ballot issues are winnable if done right. This wasn't.
C&E: Rick, how long have you been doing marijuana initiatives?
Ridder: Since 1997.
C&E: What’s changed?
Ridder: The messaging. It’s gone from medical to recreational. The second thing that’s changed is voter perception of the problems with marijuana are far diminished and the opposition has less and less credence. And funnily enough, they’re less organized than they were.
Lieberman: My first cycle was 2014. We invested in a model in 2013 and then made some friends in the industry. But I’ve had a long-time interest in this. It’s really great to do something that you’re really invested in.
Tvert: I graduated from college in 2004. I briefly worked during that election cycle primarily on just harassing a couple of congressional candidates who were voting against medical marijuana. I moved to Colorado in January of 2005 with the goal of fertilizing the ground and building public support for a future statewide initiative to legalize marijuana.
It took about seven years, which is a long time. But it’s probably the quickest path to legalizing marijuana when you look at how this got started in 1970-71.
C&E: What’s different about a marijuana initiative as opposed to just a regular ballot measure?
Tvert: We had everyone against us: the current governor, the past two governors, the attorney general, every law enforcement agency. Tons of towns and cities passed resolutions against us. That what’s the opposition focused on, and that didn’t work because people on this issue do not take their cues from authority.
It’s not like it’s a tax question where, oh well, the people who work in the government know about this stuff. It’s an issue where you inherently don’t trust authority on it. We had far fewer endorsements, but one endorsement for us is a bigger deal than 10 for them. When a governor comes out against us, but that’s what everyone assumes will happen. It’s the default. When someone comes out in favor of it, it’s a big deal.
Ridder: Particularly in the law-enforcement arena. When you have someone from law enforcement in favor of marijuana [legalization], there’s greater weight to that than your average endorsement.
C&E: Is the targeting different?
Lieberman: Yes, and it varies state by state and by polling. For GOTV, it’s typically younger voters and four of fours. There are some persuasion universes that we do hit; it’s tough. The last example that we did was African-American grandmothers, that was a swing universe [in Florida].
Ridder: Every [ballot] campaign has certain groups of individuals that are lookalikes to other campaigns’ swing voters. Women aged 30-50 are often swing voters in other campaigns, but every campaign’s different so you have to adapt appropriately.
C&E: In Colorado, what was the profile of a swing voter that you were targeting for persuasion during the 2012 initiative campaign?
Ridder: Women 30-50.
Tvert: We did a big billboard with a woman who looked like she was about 50 and wearing a cardigan and an arty necklace. It said: For many reasons, I prefer marijuana over alcohol. Does that make me a bad person? We wanted people to think that this is what a lot of adults do. Hey, that’s like my friend Jill.
C&E: Was there a different media strategy?
Tvert: There was standard paid advertising: TV and radio and some online. But the most unique thing that we did is we really focused on trying to foster inter-personal communication. We launched a whole side campaign called Talk It Up. We made an editable online letter that people who could send to their friends or family to say I support this and I hope you will.
When we had a Republican come out in support, we’d send it out saying share this with your conservative friends and family members. There was a mother who did a column and we were like, share this with any parents you know. We ended up seeing in the exit polling that like 12 percent of voters heard something positive from a friend or family member whereas in Washington [State], where they didn’t really have an effort like this, it was only 5 percent.
Ridder: In Washington State there was far more emphasis on television, cable and digital – there was more paid communications. In Uruguay [which legalized marijuana in 2014], there was an outreach program in the grassroots that included some elements of electronic media. It’s a question of balancing, but it’s also a question of management style. In Washington, it was very top down. In Colorado, it was very grassroots up.
Lieberman: You’ve got to know your audience. It’s Snapchat to college-aged kids; it’s super targeted ads to reach a narrow band of seniors. But the mood of the country has changed so rapidly, especially in the last two-three years. Overnight it feels like it’s safe for Republicans to say [marijuana’s] okay. The formula that we used in 2012 and 2014 is going to be very different in 2016 and 2018.
C&E: Has the taboo for consultants working a marijuana initiative gone away?
Lieberman: It’s never been taboo for Democrats. But for Republicans, yeah. It’s been very challenging.
Ridder: It’s pretty dramatic. In 1997, when somebody called to say would you be willing to do this. We did sit around and say, gee, is this going to hurt our business? At which point we said we didn’t care. But we were doing congressionals; we were involved in presidential campaigns. Would people want to be associated with a consultant who was doing medical marijuana? It took us about 10 minutes to say that’s not the issue. The issue is can we by passing this provide some form of medical pain relief to individuals? We all said yes, so why not?
I can tell you after 2012 the number of phone calls I received from other consultants asking how they get involved in this issue, as well as members of Congress and presidential candidates wanting to be briefed on this issue, was dramatic.
Frankly, the political establishment has been way behind public sentiment on this issue. And it is shocking to me that maybe some of them are catching up and some are still running scared.
Tvert: I had the good fortune of immediate success so I didn’t have the time to be deterred. We ran the first legalization initiative in 2005 in the city of Denver, really as a public education campaign. We had no expectation that we’d win it. And people gave us a lot of crap about that.
They said, this is not how you do it. You’re going to set us back when you lose. But we came from the perspective that you don’t win unless you force the discussion. But we won and Denver became the first city in the world to legalize marijuana. So when I’m doing the rounds on all the national television stations I didn’t have time to think, am I going to be marginalized?
In terms of respect, I’ve been referred to in editorials as juvenile and possibly even disgraceful. But I was named the Denver Post’s top political thinker of the year for 2012, which was selected by the editorial board. Would they ever have considered someone working on this issue for that before?
There’s also the question of being the guy who lost. Marijuana campaigns were considered losers. That would be the concern – not wanting to be part of a losing campaign. Up until 2012, legalization initiatives had all lost.
C&E: Can other state marijuana campaigns replicate what Colorado did?
Tvert: I played a large part in overseeing Alaska [which voted to legalize marijuana in 2014] and we had TalkItUpAlaska.org like we had TalkItUpColorado.org and we’re hopefully going to have TalkItUpArizona.org. Yes, we are very much going to be using a lot of the same things. We know they work.
C&E: What about other initiative campaigns?
Tvert: It’s similar to marriage equality. In both cases, you’re trying to address a long-held belief system. People have grown up their whole lives being told marijuana’s bad. Just like people have lived their whole lives being told that gay marriage is wrong. Coming out of the closet, in both cases, works.
You need people to think, I know someone who uses marijuana and they’re not bad. With marijuana, it’s even easier because you don’t have to come out as a consumer, you just have to come out in support of it.
But this is something’s that’s against the government and there’s a fear there. We would collect signatures and people would say, I can’t sign that. I’m attorney or I work for the city. I’ll be on a list. There’s no fear of being on a list in support of gay marriage but there is fear that you’re going to be looked at as a criminal [if you support marijuana legalization].
Ridder: I think that the biggest advantage that the marijuana issue has is that it is completely non-partisan. This is a classic case of where the Left meets the Right and both sides are moving towards the center. I got tremendous heat from my Democratic friends when Tom Tancredo came out in support of marijuana legalization Amendment 64. Why? You actually agree with what he says.
There is such a hardening within our community of political consultants that you have to be Left or Right or Republican or Democrat. That makes it difficult to communicate that this is an issue that doesn’t have any party affiliation. Just like any other ballot initiative.
Lieberman: It’s not that Republicans are that much more opposed to decriminalization. It’s that Republicans are so much older. It’s an age thing, more than party affiliation.
Ridder: If you do any kind of regression analysis on this issue, it almost directly correlates to age and to some extent rural versus urban.
C&E: Did you learn anything from your work on the marijuana initiative?
Lieberman: Working for a bipartisan team is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s really refreshing to work on an issue that’s a generational issue more than a partisan issue. It’s one place that makes you hopeful for the future.
C&E: Did the marijuana victories in Colorado and Washington State reveal the secret sauce for winning ballot elections?
Tvert: I went from college to working on marijuana policy reform. I haven’t worked on anything else. I don’t know.
Ridder: If you walk into any campaign and you think you have the secret formula, that means your secret formula is probably going to be rotten. You can’t approach any campaign thinking: this is how we’re going to win, without first looking at research, the political environment that exists.
You need to figure out what is the need for the yes vote and what is the benefit structure for the voter. In Colorado and Washington State, it was as much about giving money to schools for construction or for other social activities. We took the message that marijuana is bad and used it against itself in a judo fashion to say, here’s the benefit. The lessons can be used as guide posts but should not be used as rules.
Lieberman: The challenge is making it interesting. I have no idea how to make schools, roads and taxes interesting.
C&E: So what’s next?
Tvert: We are very involved in supporting the initiatives in Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts, and we work in state legislatures around the country and also in Congress.
Ridder: I’m currently trying to [repair] a little glitch in our law that has the voters once again voting on marijuana taxation issues in Colorado.
Lieberman: I assume most states will legalize this. Your fights are going to be how to unionize the staff, how do we tax it.
Tvert: I’m getting out. I’m going on to right to die — the next issue that pisses people off.