Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post/Getty Images

As more states mull legalization, marijuana opponents switch gears

Without conceding defeat, anti-pot advocates shift focus toward regulation of sellers, marketers

THORNTON, Colo. — Billing herself as the “mad chemist,” Lynn Reimer stood before a group of 20-some 10th graders at Thornton High School on a recent Friday.

The former Drug Enforcement Agency employee’s PowerPoint presentation was simply titled “Drug Awareness.”

“I am not here as part of the ‘Just say no’ program, because I know it doesn’t work,” she told the kids. “Learn to make good decisions.”

After losing battles in Colorado and Washington and facing a vote in Alaska and potentially other states, drug legalization opponents are adjusting their focus. They haven’t exactly given up the fight against legalized marijuana, but they’re demanding strict regulations — such as bans on marketing and penalties for the industry when minors end up with pot. They’re asking that tax money generated by cannabis be used to pay for substance-abuse rehabilitation and education programs for young people.

Those who’ve been in the battle since the 1970s and ’80s era of “Just say no” acknowledge the shift in position — and the shift in public opinion, with three-quarters of Americans believing legal pot is inevitable. But they aren’t conceding defeat. Rather, they say a well-financed legalization movement is no match for tiny nonprofits.

“I don’t think it’s the philosophical argument that’s been lost,” said Sue Rusche, president and CEO of National Families in Action. “I think it’s the fact that the legalization folks have done such a good job of convincing Americans that marijuana is harmless, that it’s safer than alcohol.”

Marijuana legalization proponents, however, say the opposition simply faded away as the public changed its attitude toward the drug.

“It’s been quite some time since there’s been a large, citizen-led anti-marijuana effort,” said Mason Tvert, communication director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “At this point, marijuana prohibition is not very popular. [Legalization is] not something people feel like spending time and money to prevent.”

‘Just say no’

A 13th-birthday party in her Atlanta neighborhood in 1976 triggered Rusche’s concern about drug use.

Parents noticed the children acting strangely and after the party discovered evidence of marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, Rusche recalled. They were shocked into taking action.

“It was just pure anger with seeing how grown-ups were willing to exploit children to make money, and that continues to this day,” Rusche said.

Nancy Reagan advanced the cause when her husband became president, advocating the “Just say no” approach, and drug opponents found plenty of support in the 1980s. With marijuana use reaching record levels and a crack cocaine epidemic taking hold, the “war on drugs” was in full swing.

But a modicum of success in reducing drug use and a shift in generational attitudes eventually muted the movement, Rusche said, and “the legalization groups began being funded by their major funders.”

Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College who co-wrote a 2012 book on marijuana legalization, puts it a different way.

“In the 1980s we were absolutely terrified by crack and the violence in the inner cities,” he said. “That problem has essentially gone away. Cities are much, much safer.”

New movement ignites

By the late 1990s, a push was underway to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. California became the first state to approve it, in 1996. Today, 20 states plus the District of Columbia allow cannabis for medical purposes.

Financial backing from wealthy businessmen such as George Soros, Peter Lewis and John Sperling helped spur the adoption of medical pot. It also helped fund the Marijuana Policy Project, which continues to lead — and fund — legalization efforts.

Allowing medical marijuana for people suffering from chronic pain, undergoing chemotherapy and other ailments opened the door for legalization advocates.

Tvert, of the Marijuana Policy Project, moved to Colorado in 2005 fresh out of college. Medical marijuana was legal in the state, and Tvert promoted a failed ballot initiative to legalize pot in 2006.

Then, with the signal from President Barack Obama’s Justice Department that medical marijuana would not be prosecuted in states where it was legal, a dispensary network developed in Colorado and other states.

“Colorado legislators immediately chose to regulate them,” Tvert said.

That regulation — from criminal background checks for owners to strictly quantifying medical pot grown and sold — was used when Tvert and his organization helped promote the successful 2012 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana. The campaign billed the law as regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Proponents of that initiative raised more than $2 million, compared with the less than $600,000 opponents raised.

“I give the legalization proponents credit for misleading the public,” Rusche said. “It’s harder to get our message out to a disbelieving public.”

David, Goliath swap roles?

In the weeks after Colorado and Washington state voters legalized pot, marijuana opponents came together to form a new organization, Project SAM, or Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The group is led by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who has battled substance abuse and mental illness; conservative columnist David Frum; and Kevin Sabat, who served in the Drug Control Policy Office for Obama and President George W. Bush.

“The No. 1 thing that we’re trying to do is to make sure the experience in Colorado is accurately represented nationwide,” said Ben Cort, a Project SAM board member and community liaison with the University of Colorado Hospital’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Recovery.

Cort recently visited Alaska, where voters will consider legalization in August. Oregon may also have legalization on the ballot this fall. And Tvert said he expects another half-dozen states, including California, to consider legalization in 2016, a presidential election year.

Changing minds about legalized marijuana at this point is an uphill battle, Carnegie Mellon’s Caulkins said.  

“The opposition is not terribly organized,” he said. “Something like 55 percent of Americans support legalization … SAM and What About the Children are very small and don’t have any money.”

Cort agreed.

“This is so David and Goliath,” he said. “SAM’s got less than $1,000 in the bank.”

Cort blames the lack of funding for opponents on the industry that’s developed around the cannabis business.

“There’s a pretty big lobby behind this,” he said. “On our end, there’s just not a lot of financial incentives to fight it.”

Tvert countered that legalization supporters’ funding is more diverse than the original wealthy funders, some of whom were originally interested in medical marijuana, or the cannabis industry.

“There are thousands of people who contribute to this cause,” Tvert said. “Like with any issues, some can give a larger amount than others.”

Focus on kids

Meanwhile, opponents are turning their focus toward regulation and keeping marijuana away from young people.

Rusche’s But What About the Children campaign has a list of 12 provisions for legalized marijuana, including an advertising ban and heavy regulation.

Project SAM created a website to track violations of federal policy in Washington and Colorado, linking to news stories about spikes in youth use, driving violations and more.

Amanda Reiman, California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, a legalization proponent, doesn’t disagree with a regulatory approach. But she also said fears of tobacco-industry-like marketing to young people are overblown.

“I really see the future of the marijuana industry being way more like wine than like beer,” Reiman said. “You don’t see widespread advertising of wine. You don’t see billboards.”

Then there’s youth education. Reimer, the former DEA chemist, visits schools around Colorado several times a month, while operating a grant-funded nonprofit, Act on Drugs.

“Marijuana is the No. 1 reason why kids seek substance abuse treatment,” she told the students at Thornton High School.

Reimer talked about how marijuana can harm the developing brain. But she also talked about the negative impacts of energy drinks, caffeine, sugar, prescription painkillers and a host of illegal drugs.

“All these drugs are glamorized on the Internet,” Reimer said the day before her school presentation. “People watch that damned ‘Celebrity Rehab’ and think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”

Rusche and Cort said they hope other states will look closely at Colorado and Washington before considering legalizing marijuana.

“What I think will happen is, in the states that have legalized, I think there will be a backlash, ultimately,” Rusche said. “All we can do is just keep hammering home the point that this isn’t a safe drug.”

Cort is more pragmatic.

“As a recovering drug addict myself — I got sober June 15, 1996 — I’m very, very aware that not all use leads to addiction,” he said. “However, to commercialize and industrialize another vice industry without careful thought to regulation … shows a lack of insight.

“I personally don’t care at all if somebody smokes weed. They should be an adult, they should not drive, they should not let kids see them.”

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