Tuesday, June 18 2013 7:51 PM EDT2013-06-18 23:51:58 GMT
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(RNN) - In November, voters in Colorado, Washington and Oregon will consider legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Although similar initiatives have failed in the past, this time the groups fighting to legalize pot are well-organized, professional and backed by high-dollar donors willing to outspend the competition.
In Colorado, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has produced several advertisements that hammer home the idea that marijuana is healthier than alcohol. The campaign's website points to medical studies that claim marijuana, unlike alcohol, has not been linked to cancer, brain damage, addiction or high healthcare costs.
In an online video ad campaign, CRMLA has young adults explaining to their parents they prefer marijuana to alcohol. In one of the ads, titled Dear Mom, a 20-something woman tells her mother marijuana is "better for my body, I don't get hungover and honestly I feel safer around marijuana users."
In Washington, the approach is different. Rather than comparing marijuana to alcohol, New Approach Washington is focusing on the pragmatics of legalization, arguing prohibition of marijuana does more harm than good, by wasting tax dollars on law enforcement while making criminal organizations rich.
That message is conveyed through a popular television commercial where a suburban mom-type says, "I don't like it personally, but it's time for a conversation about legalizing marijuana. It's a multi-million dollar industry in Washington state, and we get no benefit."
She goes on to describe the possible benefits of legalization through saved law enforcement dollars and extra tax revenue.
These efforts appear to be working. In Washington, 50 percent of voters say marijuana should be legal while 38 percent say it should not, according to an Elway Research poll. And in Colorado, a Denver Post poll showed 51 percent of Coloradans were in favor of legalization, while 41 percent opposed it.
But like any political measure, getting a message out is not free – that's where the money comes in.
CRMLA was given nearly $1.2 million from the Marijuana Policy Project, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., as well as more than $800,000 by Peter Lewis, the founder and chairman of Progressive Insurance. Lewis has been a vocal proponent of marijuana legalization for several years and donated millions to legalization efforts around the country.
MPP's million-dollar contribution helped to pay for CRMLA staff and the production of its advertisements.
"We want to help get a message out there and stimulate people," said Steve Fox, director of state campaigns for MPP. "People have been hearing a lot of propaganda for about 30 to 40 years."
In total, groups in Colorado fighting to get marijuana legalized have a war chest of $2.5 million. In contrast, the only visible group opposing the marijuana ballot, SMART Colorado, has been given less than $200,000 - most of it from Save Our Society, a Florida-based anti-drug group.
SMART Colorado did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, the effort to legalize marijuana is being fought with a bankroll of between $4 and $5 million, according to Alison Holcomb, campaign director for NAW and drug policy director for the state's ACLU.
NAW's major donors also include Peter Lewis as well as the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit. But NAW also has several significant donors from within the state, including famed travel writer and public television producer Rick Steves, philanthropist Harriet Bullit and Seattle businessman Bill Clapp.
"There's a number of local donors who, exactly like the majority of Americans, are coming forward and saying that 'I'm ready to try something new, and that doesn't mean I'm a stoner,'" Holcomb said.
NAW used those funds to put $1 million into television advertising during August, and hope to put triple that amount into the weeks preceding the November vote.
With their big budgets, both campaigns are working hard to get the "nontraditional" voter on their side. In this case, the prized voters are women.
"Across the board, women tend to be less supportive of legalization and regulation than men," Holcomb said. "And we definitely want to talk to women, especially those in the age ranges of being moms."
Mason Tvert, the head of CRMLA, also pointed out female voters will be needed.
"We're not relying entirely on college-aged voters," he said. "We're looking at women ages 30 to 55."
Holcomb explained one of the biggest concerns of marijuana legalization is what impact it will have on children. A focus of their coming ad blitz would be to convince women legalization and regulation means improved safety for children, she said.
A common argument among pro-legalization proponents is regulating marijuana would mean fewer kids were able to get it because they would need an I.D. for purchase, just like alcohol.
Although the money has been pouring in for both campaigns, the effort to get to this point did not happen overnight.
CRMLA's Tvert began a push toward legalization in 2005 on college campuses and eventually moved into ballot boxes. Successful efforts have included the elimination of arrests for small amounts of marijuana in the city of Denver and a state-wide law to allow medical marijuana.
The slowly but surely evolution of marijuana legislation is what has helped change people's attitudes towards the drug, Tvert said.
"Whether it's medical or non-medical, as there's more legislation coming up and more general assemblies around the country, there's more public dialogue," Tvert said.
He added when people hear the issues and the facts, they tend to agree it's irrational to keep marijuana illegal and treat people as criminals for using a substance less harmful than alcohol.
"So ultimately, we are seeing support for ending marijuana prohibition increase dramatically over the last decade, 15 years, and it's a result of people hearing more facts than ever before," Tvert said.
In Oregon, the effort to legalize marijuana has not had the financial backing seen in Colorado and Washington. The Associated Press reported the campaign behind the Oregon Tax Act has a mere $1,800 in its bank account after raising only $32,000.
A suspected reason for the lack of support there is the blemished financial background of the main petitioner, Paul Stanford. He has been sued by marijuana donors in the past who alleged he stole money.
Despite the lack of funding, a July poll showed Oregon voters evenly divided, with 43 percent in favor of legalization, 46 percent opposed to it, and 11 percent not sure.
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