By Kevin Sabet
The marijuana movement received a big jolt last November. No, it wasn’t another celebrity endorsement or cable news special glorifying the drug. Rather, in the midst of what we’ve been told was an inevitable march to victory, marijuana lost. And it lost big.
Many of us interested in this off-year Ohio race were expecting to be up all night. But at 8:32 p.m. Nov. 3, the Associated Press recorded one of the biggest losses ever for pot, as voters rejected legalization there by more than 2-1. (Full disclosure: The organization I head up, SAM, played a role in the campaign and defeat through our affiliate partners.)
Sure, the question was asked in a year no one usually votes, taking place in a sensible Midwestern state not known for its indulgences. Most of us thought it would lose, despite the victory “polls” constantly trumpeted out by the legalizers , but none of us thought it would lose this big.
What does that tell us for the 2016 races, when five states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine — are likely to have ballot questions on full legalization? A lot. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Big business wants to take over the marijuana movement — and voters don’t like that, even if profiteers do.
The Ohio initiative would have legalized a constitutionally mandated oligopoly for a few dozen investors to make millions on marijuana. The “No” campaign quickly pivoted from “marijuana is bad” to “marijuana monopolies with people making tons of cash are bad” — and it worked. The Ohio election was the first that tested the “Big Marijuana” message out. Groups like SAM have been saying it now for years, and videos showing the parallels are out there on social media, but it had not been tested out in a real campaign.
Money isn’t everything.
The pro side in Ohio spent more than $12 million to convince Buckeye voters that legalizing a pot monopoly was a good thing, and they still lost bad. While it’s true that money is required to get political messages out, especially when spent in a smart(er) way via targeted social media campaigns, Ohio proved that money isn’t everything.
The “no” side, while gathering an impressive group of organizations to oppose the measure, didn’t even pass the $1-million spending mark. But the message of opposing Big Pot stuck, and the amount of free media gained was remarkable. Every article mentioned the investor scheme.
Marijuana legalization isn’t inevitable.
The five states up for grabs in 2016 are critical, and voters will decide pot’s fate in an important presidential election year. But, all five states have different critical issues.
The granddaddy of the 2016 states, California will once again vote on legalized pot. In 2010, despite outspending the opposition by more than 5-1, voters soundly rejected a marijuana measure. This year, some traditional activists (notably the Reform CA folks) were pushed out by the billionaire Napster-founder Sean Parker, who is pouring his fortune into legalized pot via the “Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act.” Parker’s net worth will likely take the effort a long way, but given the importance of the Hispanic voter bloc, a group of people traditionally against legalization, the campaign won’t be a cakewalk.
A state known for sin and vice — Nevada — might seem the perfect one to try legalizing pot. Except for one man: Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire is dead-set against legalization, and he put his money where his mouth is in 2014 when he helped narrowly defeat a pot initiative in Florida. This time around, legalizers are gunning for his home state, but there’s talk of a well-respected state legislator and a handful of other bipartisan officials coming out against Nevada’s initiative. Stay tuned.
In Arizona, a legalization push has barely gotten off the ground, but is already finding opposition. And in Massachusetts, Democrat Attorney General Maura Healey and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker both oppose the initiative. In Maine, legalizers are trying to sanction pot smoking “social clubs,” though a recent conference highlighted dissension among traditional allies.
If we have learned anything from the brief time marijuana has been legal in Colorado, it is this: We have now entered the age of ‘corporate cannabis’ — slick advertising, child-friendly product placement.
In all of these states, laws are being written largely by lobbyists who have one goal — to make money. And one does not get rich in the drug business from casual users. They must rely on heavy users.
If we have learned anything from the brief time marijuana has been legal in Colorado it is this: We have now entered the age of ‘corporate cannabis’ — slick advertising, child-friendly product placement and companies that spend more on PR and lawyers than they do creating safe products.
The sky may not fall if legalization passes in these states, but voters should ask themselves something before getting into the ballot box. Are your relationships enhanced when your friends or family are smoking marijuana? Does marijuana make for safer roads? Better workplaces? Smarter students?
Despite strong evidence to the contrary, we are being told pot will fund our schools, get rid of drug cartels and cure cancer, all at once. And worst of all, we’re being sold this false dichotomy — that our only choices for drug policy are legalize or lock ‘em up. Promote Pot Tarts or fund private prisons. Give a kid a criminal record for holding a joint or allow another addictive industry to take over meetings in state capitals.
But that is false. No one I know wants to see a young kid marred forever because he happened to get caught with a joint in his pocket. But the alternative to that is not simply to ignore an unhealthy, unproductive behavior and promote its use. With the increasing research linking mental illness and marijuana, we at least should press the pause button before going any further.
We can’t build a great, compassionate society by promoting addiction for profit.
Kevin Sabet served in the Obama administration as senior advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011 and is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. SAM has issued a report providing recommendations on addressing medical marijuana.