SAFER Colorado's Rocky Mountain High-jinx

SAFER’s bid to legalize cannabis in Colorado was the top activist effort of 2006!


Could two people legalize marijuana in a state with more than three million people by relying on a rental car and less than a couple hundred thousand dollars? That hypothesis was tested last year when Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) Colorado tried to expand on its 2005 legalization victory in Denver by running a ballot initiative to make private adult marijuana use and possession legal statewide.

Not surprisingly, the final answer to the question was a “No.” But that in no way means the campaign was unsuccessful. With a bare-bones budget, we garnered more than two-fifths of the vote (41.08 percent), representing more than 635,000 total votes. It also made marijuana policy reform one of the most widely debated topics in the state. Most importantly, it allowed SAFER to further its mission of educating the public about the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol. After all, marijuana laws are not going to change overnight (i.e. in a single election) – people’s attitudes need to change first. Too many still believe the propaganda and myths the government and anti-marijuana zealots have been spreading for nearly three-quarters of a century. Until the public wakes up to the fact that marijuana is not “the demon weed” the government has made it out to be – and is actually less harmful to the user and society than alcohol – we are destined to be stuck with the current system of prohibition.

There is also little chance marijuana laws will change if supporters of reform sit back quietly and wait for the tide to turn. We need supporters to be open about their support for marijuana legalization and we need people to be active and vocal. Only then can we expect true progress.

This is a story about progress.

From campus to Colorado
The statewide effort to legalize marijuana did not arise out of Colorado’s thin air. Rather, it was the result of a yearlong endeavor that grew organically from a small campus effort. When SAFER launched this pilot project, no one – not even those who organized the effort – could have envisioned that the group would be coordinating a statewide ballot initiative campaign the following year.

Back in January 2005, SAFER kicked off its public education campaign on the campuses of the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU) and Colorado State University (CSU). The mission was to raise public awareness about the fact that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol in terms of addictiveness, deaths caused, and the likelihood of violent incidents occurring after use. Our decision to start in Colorado was based in large part on two highly publicized alcohol overdose deaths at CU and CSU just four months earlier, as well as a history of rioting and other alcohol-related problems on and around the state’s college campuses.

SAFER coordinated student referenda campaigns at CU and CSU, working with students to pass measures calling on the administrations to make university penalties for marijuana no greater than those for alcohol. In doing so, we immediately made marijuana a major topic of discussion both on the campuses and in off-campus media around the state. The referenda passed by healthy margins at both CU (68-32) and CSU (56-44).

Following the success on campus, we decided to bring the SAFER message to a larger audience, and up the stakes with a ballot initiative for the November 2005 municipal election to make adult marijuana possession legal under Denver city ordinances. The goal of the campaign was to stimulate a citywide debate about whether it makes sense to prohibit adults from making the rational choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol, if that is what they prefer. The general notion was that such a measure would not be passable, but a loss at the polls would be a fair trade-off for the much-needed public debate.

SAFER’s Membership Coordinator Evan Ackerfeld and I handled the bulk of the signature collecting in-house. We collected nearly 13,000 signatures – about 5,500 were necessary – and the measure was placed on the November 2005 ballot as Initiative 100 (I-100). This gave us just the platform we needed to take our message to the people of Denver. SAFER was in the news repeatedly during the months leading up to the election. We leaked our plans to put up a controversial billboard implying passage of the initiative would reduce domestic and community violence by allowing adults to use marijuana instead of alcohol. Although the billboard, featuring the face of a visibly battered woman with her abuser lurking in the background, was never installed, the image appeared in major newspapers and on multiple television newscasts. The press followed the story for more than a week and it culminated in a billboard going up with just a quotation from a study showing alcohol is more likely to contribute to domestic violence than marijuana. As a result of the whole charade, the media attentively covered this very simple message whereas they typically would not have given it the time of day.

The press also reported on SAFER’s multiple protests in front of the office of Denver’s ultra-popular mayor, John Hickenlooper. Since Hickenlooper happens to be the owner of the largest brewpub in the country, we publicly labeled him a “drug dealer” and noted that he sold a drug more dangerous than marijuana. When the mayor’s chief of staff was quoted in the newspaper saying he was going to send our campaign “Oreos and Doritos” to satisfy our munchies, we were out in front of his office the next day with a body-bag stuffed with a fake alcohol-overdose victim and a huge pile of Oreos and Doritos. It was a scrumptious opportunity to point out the potential harm of alcohol (death) versus the potential harm of marijuana (the munchies), and the press literally ate it up. The Denver campaign was also blessed with a terrific foil in Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. He not only generated headlines by pulling our “Make Denver SAFER” campaign signs out of the ground, but also gave the media an opportunity to arrange televised one-on-one debates. He continually made a fool of himself while trying to posture as a tough-on-crime urban cowboy, and I helped things along by repeatedly asking him in public why it was okay for him to swill scotch but not okay for others to hit a joint.

Before Denver’s Election Day, we were proud of a job well done. We had made marijuana legalization a prime topic of conversation in the city and been faithful to our strategy of discussing the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol whenever possible. We were prepared to accept defeat at the polls and move on. But then a funny thing happened… When the votes were tallied, I-100 received nearly 54 percent of the vote. Denver became the first city in the country to eliminate all penalties for adult possession of marijuana.

The passage of the initiative produced a groundswell of national and even international media attention, including articles in the USA Today, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Times, as well as an Associated Press story that appeared in papers around the country and abroad. I also did live interviews on MSNBC (with my pard’ner Charlie Brown, of course) and on FOX News Channel. References to the victory were the talk of late-night television and the office water cooler as a result of all the media attention. The SAFER message was out and marijuana was in the news. We just had to keep it there.

House Money
In the wake of the Denver victory, SAFER initially planned to return to its campus-based roots by focusing most of its energy on launching efforts at universities around the country. The reaction of Denver officials to the passage of I-100, however, forced us to reconsider those plans. Law enforcement officials in the city declared their hands were tied by state law, and stated they would continue citing Denver residents for marijuana possession under state law. Although police did not have to cite people, and city attorneys did not have to prosecute those cases, they apparently could and would do so. This presented an opportunity. If city officials were going to claim their hands were tied by state law, we were justified in launching an initiative campaign to change the state law, so the city could respect the will of its people without having to ignore state law. Like the Denver campaign, we did not expect we could win this battle, but we were completely confident that we would be able to generate widespread media coverage of our message throughout the state, and perhaps even the nation. More specifically, we would force more Coloradoans to think about the fact that the government steers adults toward using alcohol instead of marijuana for no logical or healthy reason.

In late December 2005, SAFER held a press conference in front of the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver to announce its intention to coordinate a statewide marijuana legalization campaign. As expected, the media came out in force. The next day, one of the state’s two largest papers, the Rocky Mountain News, ran a banner headline on the front page declaring “State Pot Law Push.” The accompanying article included reactions from Colorado Governor Bill Owens (R) and Attorney General John Suthers (R). Suthers, in particular, said that he welcomed a “head-on, outright debate about legalization.” That’s funny – so did we!

The day of the announcement we submitted the language of the initiative to the Colorado Legislative Council. Given our primary interest in stimulating a debate about the wisdom of punishing adults for using marijuana, we sought to have the simplest initiative language possible. In the end, we followed the same model we used in Denver and simply proposed adding five words to the statute that currently prohibits “the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana” so it would only apply to those “under 21 years of age” if the measure passed. There would no longer be any penalty associated with private use and possession by those 21 and older. A simple trick of languag to change law. (Little did we know our opponents would use the simplicity of language to ambush us later on...)

The Signature Drive
Having a statewide debate on marijuana legalization and educating people about marijuana seemed like a great idea, but there was still a huge wall looming in our path: qualifying for the ballot. We now faced the daunting task of collecting nearly 70,000 valid signatures of registered voters around the state. We knew we actually had to collect at least 110,000 – or, more realistically, at least 120,000 – if we wanted to have any chance of qualifying for the ballot.

Complicating matters significantly was the fact that the campaign had almost no money on hand and very few promising fundraising prospects. Moreover, one marijuana policy expert advised us that we should ultimately expect to pay close to three dollars per signature collected. We knew heading into the signature drive that we would never raise anywhere near $300,000. Instead, we had to place a great deal of faith in the enthusiasm and dedication of our volunteers around Colorado. They did not let us down. Hundreds of individuals around the state collected signatures for free, and a significant handful of others helped out by collecting signatures for very little compensation (around 50 cents per signature). One particular newcomer to marijuana reform, “Hot” Scott Lofgren, proved to be a true warrior and brought in more than 13,000 signatures! These signatures, along with the signatures collected by the two-person campaign staff, accounted for approximately half of all of those we eventually submitted to the state. The rest were brought in through professional signature collectors, who helped put us well over the top.

In the end, we submitted more than 130,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office on August 7th 2006, and amazingly we spent less than one dollar per signature to complete the drive. About nine days later, the Secretary of State’s office announced that the “Colorado Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative” had qualified for the ballot and would appear as Amendment 44. Now the fun would begin!

Our Opponents: Not Fun
Unfortunately, the start of the campaign season was marred by the kind of dirty tricks long associated with the war against marijuana and efforts to reform marijuana policy. In this instance our opponents turned out to be a group of opportunistic elected officials and staff members out to stack the deck against us in order to maintain the marijuana status quo.

In years in which statewide elections are held, the Colorado state government distributes an election guide known as the “Blue Book” to all registered voters in the state. This book, which is approved by the bipartisan Legislative Council and drafted by Legislative Council staff, provides information about all of the referenda and initiatives on the ballot. For each initiative this includes a summary, and arguments for and against. During the drafting of this guide, opponents of our initiative, including the director of a White House drug enforcement organization, strongly urged the Legislative Council to include language in the summary of Amendment 44 stating the initiative would make it legal for adults to transfer marijuana to anyone 15 years of age or older. The politicians were more than willing to comply despite the fact that it would remain a felony for an adult to give any amount of marijuana to a minor. Even after it was pointed out that the Blue Book would deliver factually inaccurate information to voters, Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff (D) refused to consider changing it. We filed suit in court to prevent the Blue Book from being printed with the false information, and a judge agreed to hear our case and ordered the Legislative Council to secure an attorney for a hearing that day. The legislators dodged the judicial review bullet, however, and the judge decided he could not hear the case because it might be perceived as meddling in legislative affairs. A number of publications, including the conservative-leaning editorial board of the Rocky Mountain News, strongly criticized the Legislative Council for including “false” and “misleading” language in the Blue Book. Although it was nice to have the mainstream media on our side, it did not make up for the fact that the government had once again gone out of its way to deceive the public about an effort to change marijuana laws. The Blue Book was distributed to all voters in the state with the misleading language, and, as we expected, our opponents called attention to “legalizing marijuana for 15 year-olds” throughout the rest of the campaign.

Big Bangs for Few Bucks
Given the campaign’s limited budget – we ultimately spent less than $60,000 after the signature drive – we primarily sought to educate the voting public through earned media. In order to generate coverage, we staged a series of press events and other stunts and spent a limited amount of money on creative advertising. Getting the media to pay attention during a campaign season that included a race for governor, congressional races, and other major ballot initiatives was certainly a challenge, but overall we fared quite well.

A number of our press events – including one that featured parents, professionals and children in favor of ending marijuana prohibition – garnered prominent press coverage. This was not a sight you see every day: a bunch of pissed-off parents led by a prominent Republican activist and mother demanding marijuana be legalized and saying, “What about the children?” Television coverage and photos showed mothers holding their toddlers and had quotes from parents about the importance of being honest with their children about the harms of marijuana and alcohol. We called the organization Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana Prohibition (GOCAMP) in response to a committee organized to oppose Amendment 44 called Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana (GOCAM). Let’s just say they did not think the ensuing confusion over the two names was funny, and they moved their primary operations to a different committee shortly afterward.

Not all of our events were so wholesome, though. In late September, I challenged Mayor Hickenlooper and Pete Coors – the chairman of Coors Brewing Company and an active political figure in the state – to a drug duel. I requested they meet me in front of a Denver city building at high noon where I would take a hit of marijuana for every alcoholic drink they consumed. As you might have guessed, Hickenlooper and Coors did not show up. But the media did, and they could not help but write about pot in comparison to alcohol and our assertion that Hick and Coors would have puked their brains out or died before I felt the urge to take a nap.

Another possible “first” in marijuana reform came when we held a demonstration outside of the DEA headquarters in Denver during the announcement of a 38-person marijuana bust. We held up old-fashioned “WANTED” posters featuring Hickenlooper and Coors and announced we had conducted our own investigation, which had found there were more than 300 dealers of a far more dangerous drug operating around Denver with the government’s blessing – liquor stores. The press grilled the DEA on whether the 38-person bust was coordinated to affect the election, and the agent in charge of the office openly acknowledged they had intended to “send a message.” In the end, a good chunk of the coverage that normally would have gone to the DEA’s ravings about super high-potency pot went to our event instead.

With respect to our paid advertising, we once again used billboards as our primary tactic. But we knew a couple of boring billboards would only convey our message to those who saw them. Hence, we opted for boards that were controversial enough to generate news coverage so the message would reach much farther. For example, one billboard was placed in the Grand Junction media market reading, “Marijuana: It’s like alcohol… but without the violence or the hangover.” This certainly turned a lot of heads out on the Western Slope, a conservative part of the state, but it was only the beginning.

A second billboard was erected in Denver and took the marijuana and alcohol comparison even further. For this one we took a page right out of Coors’ “sex sells” handbook. It featured a bikini-clad woman lying across the bottom with huge text reading, “Marijuana: No Hangovers. No Violence. No Carbs!” It was so intriguing and original that the Rocky Mountain News ran an image of the entire billboard stretching all the way across one of the paper’s pages. As a paid advertisement the space probably would have cost thousands of dollars, but we were more than happy to see it in there as “news” for free.

A third billboard, which also went up in Denver, featured a quote from one of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) ever-ridiculous anti-marijuana television advertisements. The ONDCP ad titled “Pete’s Couch” includes a quote implying that using marijuana and then sitting on your friend’s couch is the “safest thing in the world.” Obviously the purpose of the ad is to call marijuana consumers lazy and/or losers, but we decided to put a different spin on it. We threw a picture of Drug Czar John Walters’s face on the billboard and had the words, “I call marijuana use the ‘safest thing in the world,” coming out of his mouth in a little quote bubble. Perhaps this billboard would have attracted media attention on its own, but we would also be blessed by an incredible instance of serendipity. The very day the billboard was installed, the Drug Czar came to Denver to award a grant to the state – and to attack our initiative, of course – and due to the timing of the unveiling it was impossible for the press to ignore. Moreover, the quote from the billboard became a major part of the media coverage and Walters was forced to explain why he was in Colorado calling marijuana a menace to society when his office was on national TV telling people getting high and staying home was the “safest thing in the world.” Watching him stumble for the right words to express his anger and frustration was easily worth the few thousand dollars spent on that one billboard.

Our final paid advertising venture produced substantial dividends. On the weekend before the election, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were visiting Colorado for last-minute congressional campaign fundraisers. Since they had been so kind to sic the ONDCP, DEA and RMHIDTA (Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) crews on the initiative, we thought it would be proper to greet them with newspaper advertisements in the cities where they were staying.

We ran an ad in the Greeley Tribune with a picture of Bush and the text, “In 1972, this man tried to fight his dad when he was drunk. Just one more reason to vote YES on 44.” In the Colorado Springs Gazette, a similar ad with a picture of Cheney read, “Shot his friend in the face after drinking. Just one more reason to vote YES on 44.”

These ads were re-printed in the Denver Post as news and documented in an Associated Press story that appeared on news Web sites and blogs around the United States and abroad. The image of the Cheney ad was the “most e-mailed photo” on Yahoo! News for more than 48 hours, and the Bush ad was ranked as high as fifth. In fact, the ads caused such a stir that White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked to comment on them aboard Air Force One, to which he replied the White House thought they were “snarky and juvenile.”

We irritated the Bush White House? Now that’s a “Mission Accomplished!”

The Enemy Within
Drug Czar John Walters wasn’t the only anti-marijuana crusader to travel to Colorado to oppose the initiative during the campaign. In fact, the out-of-state anti-marijuana efforts in Colorado probably exceeded any such effort on the part of drug warriors in the past.

During the course of the campaign, we were graced by the presence of: ONDCP Deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns, former Deputy Drug Czar Andrea Barthwell, befuddled DAMMADD (Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers) Director Steve Steiner, and both Calvina Fay and David Krahl of the Florida-based Save our Society from Drugs, and Drug Free America Foundation.

Local Feds, such as DEA Special Agent Jeff Sweetin and RMHIDTA Director Tom Gorman, were outspoken critics of the initiative. Despite the fact that they are charged with coordinating drug enforcement efforts in Colorado and three other states (MT, UT and WY), they somehow found the time to traverse the state to debate and give presentations, as well as pen a number of opinion pieces in local newspapers.

On the state level, the governor, the lieutenant governor, and many members of the Colorado law enforcement community publicly expressed opposition to the initiative. No one in the state was more actively opposed to Amendment 44, however, than Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. As I previously mentioned, he wanted a “head-on” debate over legalization. That desire became a reality when I went one-on-one with him in a debate televised on the local NBC affiliate.

This debate was really no contest. With the SAFER theme dominating the discussion, Suthers was unable to demonize marijuana in the way most opponents of reform have in the past. When he was asked why adults should not be able to choose to use a less harmful substance instead of alcohol, he repeatedly admonished that the only safe alternative to alcohol was sobriety.

This would not be the end of my feud with Suthers. The culmination of our many encounters throughout the campaign occurred a week and a half before Election Day when he joined Governor Bill Owens and a small army of uniformed law enforcement officials on the steps of the State Capitol to express their opposition to Amendment 44. Lo and behold, a small army of Amendment 44 supporters wearing neon green campaign shirts and waving green campaign signs was there to greet them. Even members of the press had to comment on how impressive the showing of protestors was for a weekday morning. While good-natured heckling and assorted jeers welcomed the various speakers, the full wrath of the assembled supporters greeted the last speaker – our good friend Mr. Suthers. As soon as he started to speak, the crowd chanted, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. You say drink. We say no,” and “What do we want? A safer choice. When do we want it? Now!” These chants continued throughout the entire four-minute statement by Suthers, and, as a result, not one of his lies could be heard, or appeared on the evening news.

The campaign took some flack on the conservative radio talk shows and from the editors of the Rocky Mountain News, who defended the governor’s assertion that we might as well have been “wearing brown shirts instead of green shirts.” Regardless, we are proud that our supporters had the courage to stand up to the kind of law enforcement officials who have been part of a decades-long coordinated effort to harass, intimidate, and punish individuals for simply using marijuana. Members of the government who defend marijuana prohibition have been given a free pass for far too long. If we have to take actions that warrant referrals to fascism, so be it if it actually brings down the true fascism that is the war on marijuana users.

The Results Are In
The Amendment 44 campaign came to an end on November 7th 2006: Election Day. Based on the early and absentee voting tallies that initially came in, we knew we were not going to win the election. It did appear, however, that we would clear the 40 percent threshold we hoped to attain. When all of the votes were finally tabulated – which took much longer than expected because of serious voting problems in Denver – the initiative received 636,938 votes or 41.08 percent.

Looking beyond the simple 41 percent figure, there were some incredibly positive signs in the voting. Of greatest significance was the fact that the initiative received a majority share of the vote in 14 of Colorado’s 63 counties, including an even greater percentage of the vote in Denver, the state capitol, than in 2005. There was also evidence that the initiative may have inspired many younger people to get to the polls. In Larimer County, home of Colorado State University, students working on the campaign registered about 1,000 new voters – more than any other group in the county. Turnout in Larimer correspondingly rose from 50 percent in 2002 to 74 percent in 2006, and there is little doubt the combination of on-campus polling places and marijuana had something to do with it.

We also garnered a significant amount of intelligence that will benefit the reform movement as it pushes forward in Colorado and beyond. We discovered which elected officials, counties, and publications were sympathetic to the cause, and we were able to glean the concerns of those who opposed us. We also had more than 1,000 people sign up to volunteer in Colorado, many of whom now have their first, or additional, experience in elections and are already excited about a possible initiative launched for 2008.

In the end, with a small financial investment backed by plenty of energy and enthusiasm on the ground, we were able to build the foundation of a grassroots movement. and delivered a much-needed message to the public: not only that marijuana is safer than alcohol, but also that there is, and will continue to be, a serious national debate on ending marijuana prohibition. This was not a loss for us. It was definitely progress!

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