Marijuana possession of up to 28g for personal use was decriminalized in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative passed on November 4th, 2008. I watched the returns sitting in a postpartum room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston—my first child had been born earlier that day. We had hired a courier to deliver my wife’s ballot to City Hall while she was in labor. Minor pot possession in Massachusetts is now punished by a $100 civil fine, arguably the one of the most libertarian state marijuana laws on the books prior to the 2012 legalization measures in Colorado and Washington.
In 2008, I also voted for the Libertarian ticket for President. In fact, I’ve voted for the Libertarian Party Presidential ticket in almost every election since I could legally vote, starting with Harry Browne in 1996. I’ve attended, as a Massachusetts voting delegate, every Libertarian Party National Convention since 2004. I’ve also backed many Libertarian and liberty-minded candidates for smaller offices locally and across the country. Needless to say, I became used to backing candidates that lost; I even came to accept this as part of the reality of taking radical, principled, libertarian political positions. The unfortunate reality is that Libertarians often get crushed on Election Day. After all, we’re not in anybody’s pocket, no special interests have anything to gain from electing us, and a litany of pork recipients have every reason to vote for other candidates (who will continue government’s culture of largess).
Marijuana policy has always been a key libertarian issue for me. In 2008, I made a substantial financial contribution to the Massachusetts marijuana decriminalization campaign. I donated this money under the same mentality I had for years backing Libertarian candidates: we’re probably going to lose, but we have to try. But, as Election Day got closer, the polling indicated that we were still in the lead, and I began to believe the campaign actually had a shot. Supporting a winning campaign was still a foreign experience for me, and I expected a long grind of returns on election night, with a narrow chance of winning. Instead, The Boston Globe called it for the pro-decriminalization side with only a few percent of precincts reporting. When the final results were in, we had won with a much larger percentage than most had expected (almost 63 percent of the vote). I was stunned and elated, but with a newborn baby, had no time to celebrate.
By 2012, I’d smelled the blood of marijuana prohibition in the water for four years, and I was hungry for another ballot initiative win. The main 2012 campaign that I was involved with—the Amendment 64 legalization campaign in Colorado—was the biggest prize to date. However, every prior marijuana legalization ballot initiative had gone down in defeat, and (private) doubts persisted about Amendment 64’s chances of success, even within the legalization movement. Some suggested the campaign didn’t have enough money for ads. Others argued the initiative was too generously written, for example allowing limited non-medical home growing (a freedom notably absent from the similar legalization initiative in Washington State, I-502, which I also supported and for which I have the utmost respect). And some even said (my personal favorite caveat) that Amendment 64 lacked enough endorsements from law enforcement!
However, despite the hand-wringing, the campaign’s polling data—which I obsessively analyzed on a daily basis over the weeks prior to Election Day—indicated that we were mostly likely going to win. In fact, the returns on Election Day 2012 in Colorado were very similar to the returns from 2008 in Massachusetts: major news networks called victory for our side early in the evening. We ended up winning with over 55 percent of the vote—a total that exceeded the predictions of myself and others closely involved with the campaign. I was gobsmacked to the point of tears. Years of work and tons of money had come to fruition. (I am extremely grateful to everyone who voted for, worked on, and supported the Amendment 64 campaign, especially the late Ashawna Hailey.)
It didn’t used to be this way. The history of marijuana reform is littered with philanthropists putting huge amounts of cash into losing campaigns. By 2012, numerous important marijuana reform donors (many of whom are not libertarians), disenchanted by past failures, were experiencing donor fatigue. But following major wins in Colorado and Washington, they should approach similar initiatives going forward with greater confidence, as it now appears that public sentiment has genuinely changed. Polling now heavily favors legalization in many states (even Texas!). The next major ballot initiative campaign I expect to participate in is the 2014 campaign to regulate marijuana in Alaska.
Barring a major shift in public opinion over a short time period, we are likely to see a steady drumbeat of states legalizing marijuana until the federal government is forced to abandon cannabis prohibition.
R. Antonio Ruiz is is a major donor and volunteer with the Marijuana Policy Project. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent MPP. Follow him on twitter: @annoyingcats