The 2014 Oregon cannabis legalization vote (known as Measure 91), looked even to its braintrust and funders too close to call.
“We were really nervous, right up to election day,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the venerable national drug policy group that sunk more than a million dollars in the initiative. “A loss here would have hurt more even than a win helps the national and international drug policy effort.”
One cannabis activist mailing list, reacting to a poll that had Measure 91 down four points a week before Election Day, even tossed out a widely-read “told you so” about the dangers of going for anything progressive in a mid-term election.
Turns out that cannabis is no longer solely a progressive issue however. In Measure 91’s twelve-point legalization victory on November 4, it was notable that conservative counties went for the initiative too. This “frankly surprised” the measure’s 37-year old chief petitioner, Anthony Johnson.
“We thought it was touch and go up until the first returns coming in,” said Measure 91’s campaign director Liz Kaufman, a legend in Oregon politics who deferred retirement to lead the campaign. We felt a lot of pressure to rally young voters.” That’s because Colorado and Washington’s marijuana legalization victories in 2012 were significantly aided by younger voter turnout.
“We felt so much pressure to get people under 50 out to vote, but we saw right from the early numbers that we were way ahead, even among older voters. This was a breakthrough.”
Such a breakthrough, in fact, that Johnson said a cannabis endorsement can and should be part of a standard stump speech used by candidates of any party interested in increased voter turnout.
This cross-demographic victory for cannabis was not limited to Oregon. It was the same around the country, including solidly Red Alaska (which legalized social adult use of cannabis with 52 percent of the vote) and the 73 percent “yes” cannabis decriminalization vote on November 4 in Santa Fe County, New Mexico. This trend seen at the polls is in alignment with a recent national Gallup poll, which reported that voters over 60 are the fastest growing group to support cannabis legalization.
On top of that, back in Oregon, “Measure 91 got more votes than our governor [Democrat John Kitzhaber, who was reelected with 49.8 percent of the vote],” Johnson said. “Legalizing and regulating cannabis is now a cross-aisle issue.”
As a statewide candidate, only Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkeley (D), the fist U.S. Senator on record as supporting cannabis legalization, came close to Measure 91’s 55.9 percent of the vote on election day, with 55.7 percent. It was such a clear mandate, when Oregon Congressman and legalization supporter Earl Blumenauer (D), himself a big winner as usual, spoke at the Measure 91 victory rally, he said that he feels empowered to further hemp and cannabis initiatives in the coming lame duck congressional session.
It sure seems like a safe issue these days, a time when even in Florida 58 percent of voters supported medicinal cannabis (in a vote that required 60% to pass). However, Kaufman pointed out the Measure 91 message was “a very conservative one. ‘Let’s stop using law enforcement resources on non-violent offences’ –– that resonated with everybody.”
A half-decade of cannabis research has long since convinced the majority of Americans that ending prohibition is one of the best policies the United States can pursue when it comes to the economy, health and public safety. The thing is, when my plane landed in Portland at noon on election day (after a 1,500-mile dash from my remote New Mexico ranch, as I had an assignment to cover the Oregon vote), nobody knew a double-digit victory was at hand for Measure 91, certainly not while every TV screen was broadcasting the U.S. Senate going to the GOP.
When I stumbled, luggage-laden, into the Measure 91 headquarters after lunch, thinking I’d be pulling out a microphone, the vibe was electrically nervous. There were whisperings that we might not even have a vote total until morning, and I was handed not a media liaison’s business card but a clipboard.
Measure 91 honcho Johnson, a gentle giant of a former high school lineman and a good friend of mine, emerged from a conference call with a white earpiece still dangling from his head. He bear-hugged me, pointed at a kid in the next room and said, “Dom will train you –– 100 votes might win it. Polls close at 8. Let me know if you need any quotes. Otherwise see you at the party.”
Then Johnson smiled an exhausted smile, spun and, looking like he was about to bust his blazer buttons across the room, ducked into a phone canvassing room to hop on another call.
And so went my next six hours. “Dom” was Dominic Andres Lopez, a 23-year-old volunteer herder and speed-canvassing trainer. In the course of our five minute chat –– it included a beginning course in flyer doorknob origami for people who weren’t home –– he told me that he hit the ground running in politics three years ago working for marriage equality. He was drawn to Measure 91 because “people of color like myself are more than twice as likely to be arrested or cited” for cannabis.
In truth, the script wasn’t important. In Portland, getting someone to vote probably meant getting her to vote for Measure 91. So when Lopez turned me loose into the lingering autumnal yellows and reds of Portland’s maples and oaks –– “the turf,” as canvassers call it –– with a 62-year-old retired nurse named Carol, our spiel was simple: Knock, knock. “Nice pitbull. Have you voted?” Our turf was determined by up-to-the-minute, publicly available data on which registered voters hadn’t yet hit the polls.
“You’re lucky I’m breaking you in on a nice day,” Carol said a few minutes after the walk across my first lawn had soaked my shoes. She was oblivious and brash –– just an AARP member on a mission. “I retired to support this cause,” she said, tapping an Oregon Trail–era knocker. “It’s important.” She checked her clipboard. “OK, so this lady is a 46-year-old Democrat.”
At 7:45 I was back at Measure 91 HQ, near the Portland Moda Center. Now, five hours later than I imagined, I really was pulling out my microphone. One way or another, we would know within a day. But it could be a rough one. Wild rumors were still flying around the office, most but not all of them optimistic. But before I had my gear connected, Johnson appeared where I was lingering at the bagels, smiling a different smile than his early afternoon one.
“Are we gonna know the results tonight?” I asked him as he stood on a chair to thank the troops. He nodded, and an hour later I watched him in front of a huge election results screen at a Portland nightclub hugging his wife Sarah Duff. Measure 91 was way ahead, en route to a wider margin of victory than Colorado and Washington’s 2012 legalization victories.
Johnson, who hadn’t taken a day off in two months, told me a few minutes after the official declaration of victory, “I’m thinking right now of a high school buddy of mine whose life was ruined by a small cannabis possession charge. I’m thinking of all of those who had to suffer the wrongs of cannabis prohibition. I’m thinking of my own mother-in-law, Martha Duff.”
The senior Duff was in the room, beaming. I knew the backstory: in 2004, Martha, now 65, had her Missouri home invaded by two deputies without a warrant, and found herself shackled to her dining room chair thanks to three cannabis plants in her garden (which she happened to be cultivating for a dementia patient and a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and polio).
After we waved to Martha, Johnson continued. “I’m thinking we’re going to shock the world in 2016 with victories in places like California, Maine, Missouri,” (his birth state) “and New Mexico,” (my home state).
I don’t think the world is going to be shocked. Pleased, maybe. What the 2014 election showed is that, regardless of any direction the country is taking, cannabis’ time has come. The real fun begins when we see which States Righters in Congress are going to act like true conservatives and leave Washington, D.C.’s overwhelming 70 percent November 4 cannabis legalization alone (Congress has jurisdiction over District of Columbia legislation, with a 30 day review period likely to be completed by next March). If they do, it should be a short journey to the next key step in ending the drug war: removal of the cannabis plant from the federal Controlled Substances Act to allow states to regulate.
Internationally, the November cannabis legalization votes are having significant reverberation as well. This in advance of the much-anticipated 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Narcotic Drugs in New York. UNGASS was convened at the request of the presidents of Mexico, Columbia and Venezuela. Non-governmental organizations like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) want to see changes to the three conventions that govern international drug law that will allow individual nations to choose their own drug policy. The DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann, speaking from Mexico, told me that he’s not convinced that international conventions will be altered at UNGASS. But, he said, “The train has left the station and these election results in the States speak loudly.”
I myself have done two European speaking tours and one round of UN testimony in the past year, and all anyone wants to talk about is Colorado, Washington, and the coming second wave (that’s now reality). Folks across the Pond tend to greet me, an American, as a drug policy liberator, and all I can say is: Our sea change has revitalized my own patriotism, and it’s only fair –– we got us into this Drug War mess. It makes sense that, along with places like Uruguay, Portugal and Spain, we’re helping get us out of it.
Meanwhile back in Oregon come Wednesday morning, having no terrifying polls and whacked out opposition lies to face for the first time since Labor Day, Johnson and Sarah Duff were not yet focusing on the planet-wide ramifications of the Measure 91 vote. They were thinking about sleep. When I popped in for a “has it sunk in yet?” interview before my return to my goats, Martha Duff was more than willing to give me her take on the fallout of Oregon’s cannabis legalization. “Soon no one is going to be handcuffed to their dining room chair for cannabis.”
Doug Fine is an investigative journalist, solar-powered goat herder and bestselling author of Farewell, My Subaru, Too High to Fail, and, most recently, Hemp Bound, which provides a model for a locavore, post-prohibition hemp economy. Books, films, United Nations testimony: Dougfine.com Twitter: @organiccowboy