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Budding Prospects: Youth Activists Push Marijuana Reform

Fueled by serious funds, young advocates of legalization are poised for big gains.

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That funding enabled the campaign to deploy sophisticated tactics and to mount a high-profile ad blitz—thirty-second spots on Comedy Central, a wraparound ad on page one of the Los Angeles Times. It also brought legitimacy in the court of public opinion. In the early 2000s, when I began my professional involvement with the marijuana reform movement, talking in the media about legalizing marijuana was generally off-limits. So we picked the fights we could win. Even though medical marijuana enjoyed 80 percent support at the time, I often struggled to be taken seriously. When your coffers are full, you don't have that kind of problem.

A side benefit of running a marijuana campaign with mainstream credibility is that it brings the issue into the light. Being a marijuana lobbyist is kind of like being a priest. People will tell you things about their marijuana use they would never tell anyone else. It fosters the sense that a great many more people use it than admit it. As more people talk honestly about their recreational use of marijuana, the barriers to honest discussion will erode.

It is misleading to claim, however, as some opponents do, that the cannabis movement is entirely sustained by "well-funded legalizers." Large donors are responding to, not creating, the energy that fuels the cannabis campaign. The money is just catching up with the momentous political opportunity. What we need now is better preparation, with multiyear plans focused on training activists in targeted states—the sorts of tactics employed by top Democratic and Republican strategists. That requires an investment in the future.

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Colorado's political culture is strongly liberty-oriented, and the state consistently ranks near the top of the list for per-capita marijuana use. This stature was not lost on legislators, who this year made it the first state to regulate the wholesale production and retail distribution of medical marijuana.

The state legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but its cannabis culture didn't blossom until last year, when the Justice Department issued guidelines for federal prosecutors in states with medical marijuana laws. In an October 19, 2009, memo Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal resources would not be spent on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

This decision did not come out of thin air; it was the result of a long struggle by cannabis campaigners to persuade leaders to align policy with evolving public standards on the issue. California voters leaped into the fray fourteen years ago with Proposition 215, the first state ballot initiative in the country to allow medical marijuana. Over the years an increasing number of states added their own laws providing for use with a physician's recommendation, giving those states' residents a chance to see firsthand that legal marijuana will not cause the sky to fall. (Today fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical use.)

By 2007 a mainstream political consensus around medical marijuana laws had formed, at least among leading Democrats. During the primaries, every Democratic presidential candidate supported an end to federal raids on medical marijuana patients, further propelling the issue into the realm of serious policy discussion. Starting in the presidential interregnum in late 2008, Obama's staff conducted three rounds of voting on the official transition team website, asking users to submit ideas and vote on them. In all three rounds—during which millions of Americans participated—questions related to taxing and regulating marijuana were the top-voted questions.

Even before Obama's inauguration, his staff could see opportunity in the marijuana constituency. In February 2009, during the president's first weeks in office, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro affirmed that Obama intended to make good on his campaign promise to restrict federal raids. In earlier times, we could have reasonably expected a serious backlash. This time around, none came—but then again, neither did the guidelines. On April 2, 2009, I testified before the House subcommittee that handles Justice Department appropriations, urging Congress to ask the department to issue the promised policy. And in June, I worked with Congressman Maurice Hinchey and other Congressional leaders to get the full House Appropriations Committee to do the same.

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