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Is The Marijuana Movement Trying To Do Too Much In 2016?

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Voters in as many as 13 states could see major marijuana law reform measures on their ballots this November, far more than in any previous election cycle.

While that presents the legalization movement with an unprecedented opportunity to enact more new laws on one day than it ever has in a single calendar year, it has also left some seasoned activists questioning whether key organizations are trying to do too much too soon.

“I’m nervous. I am very nervous,” Troy Dayton, CEO of cannabis investment network the ArcView Group, told Marijuana.com in an interview.

There is a growing perception in the media and among political observers that national marijuana legalization is inevitable. A growing majority of American voters supports ending prohibition. More and more states are passing laws to enact medical cannabis programs or to allow all adults over 21 to use marijuana. And victories are even being regularly scored on the floor of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

“People are taking for granted the inevitability and don’t realize how precarious that sense of inevitability really is,” said Dayton, who is also a member of the board of directors of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which is taking a leading role in many of the campaigns to pass legalization initiatives that will appear on state ballots this year.

Losses at the ballot box this November could interrupt the movement’s momentum and give skittish politicians pause about continuing to sign their names on to pro-reform legislation.

The movement is “dangerously over-extended,” Ellen Flenniken of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said in a webinar last month. DPA, like MPP, has historically been a driving force in funding and organizing marijuana law reform efforts.

Like it or not, it takes money to pass laws. Get-out-the-vote efforts and advertising campaigns can be costly, particularly in larger states that have multiple media markets. And the movement only has so many resources, which may be spread too thin as more measures head toward qualifying for state ballots this year.

MPP, which is leading a legalization campaign in Massachusetts, sent out a fundraising email last week with the subject line, “Alone, beaten down, and incredulous in Boston.” The message went on to detail a high-dollar fundraising event the group held last month at which only one person showed up.

“What’s worrisome isn’t this one bad event, but that it mirrors the contributions and involvement across Massachusetts since the initiative launch,” wrote Rob Kampia, MPP’s executive director. “Simply put, the campaign is broke.”

Kampia said that without more donations, the effort might not have enough money to collect the remaining signatures it needs to qualify the measure. “In liberal Massachusetts…marijuana might not even make the November 8 ballot,” he wrote.

And even if the measure does qualify for the ballot, there’s no guarantee it will pass. While Bay State voters overwhelmingly approved measures to decriminalize marijuana in 2008 and enact a medical cannabis program in 2012, current polling on the question of full legalization shows that campaigners still have a lot of work to do.

A survey released on Saturday, for example, showed the measure trailing 43 percent to 46 percent. A coalition of the state’s most powerful elected officials, including the governor and the mayor of Boston, are organizing to defeat the initiative.

In California, where it could cost $ 10 million or more to mount a successful field effort and media campaign to pass legalization, a poll released last week found that only 50 percent of voters in the Bay Area, one of the state’s most cannabis-friendly regions, back the measure. A previous legalization effort, in 2010, was defeated by a vote of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.

Voters in Arizona are also expected to see a legalization question on their ballot this November. A medical cannabis measure barely squeaked by to enactment there in 2010, passing by a margin of only 4,340 votes in an election in which more than 1.6 million people voted.

And Arkansas could have a medical cannabis initiative on its ballot. Voters there narrowly defeated a similar measure in 2012.

Dayton, of ArcView and MPP, said that the movement needs to raise more money in order to ensure a sufficient number of victories this year.

“My guess is that we need another $ 10 million nationally to show up in the next two months for it make a big difference,” he said, adding that the money needs to come in sooner than most people realize.

“People think we have until November, but we really have until June. By early September the cost to buy ads goes up,” he said, referring to the fact that the presidential campaigns are likely to reserve much of the ad time in advance.

A big unknown factor hovering over the state marijuana law reform campaigns is how much money opponents will have to spend buying up airtime to spread anti-legalization messages.

In 2014, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson contributed more than $ 5 million to the successful effort to defeat a medical cannabis amendment on the state’s ballot that year. Mel Sembler, an Adelson ally who served as a U.S. ambassador in both Bush administrations, has pledged to raise at least $ 10 million to defeat Florida activists’ renewed effort to enact a medical cannabis law via the ballot this year.

Last year Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, one of the most influential news outlets in Nevada, a state that will have a legalization measure on its ballot this year. He has already pressured the paper’s editorial board, which has long supported marijuana law reform, to reconsider its stance.

On the pro-reform side, many people expect the emerging cannabis industry to step up and fund the campaigns, but Dayton said that won’t necessarily happen in many cases.

The media is covering the industry as though it’s doing great,” he said. “The truth is it’s still pretty nascent, and people are dealing with a lot of local and state battles” just to get existing laws implemented in a way that lets their businesses grow sustainably.

And many marijuana business license holders in states that have recently come online are still working to recoup their startup costs and don’t yet have extra pots of money to throw towards further policy reform efforts.

As Dayton laid out the problem in a recent piece for the MAPS Bulletin:

The general population of legalization advocates now think that legalization is inevitable, so they feel like they don’t need to donate or take action. Some major philanthropists who got us this far think that since the industry is now viable, it no longer needs their help. While the legal cannabis industry is starting to donate to legislation change at an increasing pace, it still provides less than 15% of all funding going into such efforts… Right now, most companies are struggling to keep up with the growing demand, so they are less motivated to invest in the creation of more opportunities.

As the industry matures, and companies develop, this will change.

In the meantime, the marijuana law movement is in need of new funding sources to step up.

If all goes according to plan, the passage of a record number of pro-reform initiatives this November could deal a death blow to prohibition. But on the other hand, a potentially devastating number of embarrassing losses could jeopardize the movement’s future success and the industry’s very existence.

Photo Courtesy of k86.

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