Where Are They Now: Legalization Leaders 5 Years After the Vote

Brian Vicente, co-director of the Yes on 64 campaign, waits to start a news conference about the passage of legalization on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, the morning after the vote. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Five years ago today–on November 6, 2012–Washington State voters approved Initiative 502, and Colorado voters passed Amendment 64. Both measures legalized the adult use of cannabis and signaled the start of the state legalization movement that continues today.  

Back in 2012, no state had legalized recreational cannabis. California tried, and failed, with Proposition 19 in 2010.  Fewer than 20 states had legalized medical marijuana. Today eight states (plus Washington, DC) have made the adult use of cannabis legal, while 29 states have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Those numbers are expected to continue their growth. 

Even as the numbers came in, a lot of supporters were “still a little in disbelief” that night, according to this Nov. 6, 2012, report from Denver 7, the city’s ABC affiliate:

The efforts in Colorado and Washington State didn’t happen by themselves. They required years of initiative, drive, vision and leadership from political activists, advocates, sponsors and others who saw that legalization’s time had come.

We caught up with a half-dozen of those leaders and asked them to look back at their work, while looking forward at the future of the legalization movement. 

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Betty Aldworth

Aldworth: Now working with 5,000 advocates at SSDP.

In 2012: Advocacy Director, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, Colorado 

Aldworth was the campaign’s primary spokesperson. She organized grassroots supporters who worked the field, wrote letters to the editor and represented the campaign in their communities.   

Today:  Executive Director, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Washington D.C. 

'In an election, there's nothing more dangerous than believing you're going to win.'
Betty Aldworth, Amendment 64 Advocacy Director

When did you know the measure would pass? 

At about 9:15 on election night, Mason, Brian, and I were huddled around (then-Marijuana Policy Project’s government relations director) Steve Fox and his laptop where we were looking at county-by county returns. Denver was slow to come in, but Steve had been running the numbers for hours. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he knew we had it — and that’s when I knew. The AP called it 15 or 20 minutes later. The smartest people I know had been certain we would win for at least a week, but in an election there’s nothing more dangerous than believing you’re going to win.  

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How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career? 

If it weren’t for the work I did on Amendment 64, I don’t think the path to work with Students for Sensible Drug Policy would have opened to me. I was able to work on a state campaign with a national audience, see first-hand how powerful our student movement is, and demonstrate my approach to grassroots, self-governed organizing through the work. Today, I get to support 5,000 young people in 26 countries working on broad drug policy and criminal justice reforms in their communities thanks to my work on Amendment 64.  

What has surprised you about how legalization has rolled out in either state? 

I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that youth arrests and racial disparities in those arrests continue to grow. While the story has, overall, been an exceptionally positive one, those arrests demonstrate how critically important it is that we always center the communities most often targeted by the War on Drugs in all our reforms lest we continue to leave them behind. Our task now is to ensure that the examples of California and Massachusetts, where drafters thoughtfully approached these questions, and Senator Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act will provide the benchmarks upon which future reforms will improve.  

Above: Aldworth, at the 2012 victory celebration, advocated a ‘sensible, evidence-based approach.’

 

Mason Tvert

Tvert: ‘Took nothing for granted.’

In 2012: Co-director, Amendment 64 campaign 

Working for the Marijuana Policy Project, Tvert helped organize the campaign that put Colorado’s Amendment 64 on the ballot. 

Today: Vice President, Public Relations and Communications at VS Strategies, a cannabis advocacy, communications and public policy consulting firm, Denver 

When did you know the measure would pass? 

I was cautiously optimistic heading into Election Day thanks to our tracking poll, but I did not take anything for granted until the results came in that evening.    

How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career? 

'I've been surprised to see so many elected officials still dragging their feet on this issue.'
Mason Tvert, Amendment 64 advocate

It inspired a tidal wave of media coverage and public dialogue, which seemed to create a domino effect. Public support increased, momentum built at the federal level, and other states were inspired to tackle the issue in their legislatures and through ballot initiatives. The issue became more mainstream and legitimate, which meant the work I was doing became more mainstream and legitimate in the eyes of the public and particularly the media.  

What has surprised you about how legalization has rolled out in either state? 

Many elected officials have come around quite a bit, but I have been surprised to see there are still a lot who are dragging their feet on this issue. For example, it’s hard to imagine why city council members in some cities are still outlawing adult sales, forfeiting tax revenue and jobs, and forcing citizens to travel to other communities to purchase this legal product.  

Above: Mason Tvert in 2010, speaking as founder of the advocacy group Marijuana is SAFER Than Alcohol.

 

Mark Johnson

Johnson: Late poll numbers were promising.

In 2012:  Owner/Partner, Johnson Flora PLLC, Former president, Washington State Bar Association 

Vocal supporter of Washington Initiative 502  

Today: Owner/Partner at Johnson Flora Sprangers PLLC, Seattle 

When did you know the measure would pass? 

For me it was really the last few weeks of the polling. Those numbers made it look very promising. I think the final total was 55% or 56% in favor. 

How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career? 

It didn’t alter my career. I am a civil trial lawyer and cannabis law was not, and is not, a part of my practice. 

What has surprised you about how legalization has rolled out in either state? 

I am surprised at the large number and high quality of available cannabis products. It’s remarkable. 

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Alison Holcomb

Holcomb: People knew prohibition was a failed policy.

In 2012:  Campaign Director, Criminal Justice & Drug Policy Reforms, ACLU 

Holcomb drafted Initiative 502 and was head of the campaign that led to its passage. 

Today: Director of Strategy, ACLU of Washington, Seattle  

When did you know the measure would pass? 

'Providing people an opportunity to take direct action to change bad policies was inspiring in ways I'd never imagined.'
Alison Holcomb, Campaign Director, Washington's I-502

I’ll never forget the moment, standing at the podium at our election night party with several microphones, recorders and cameras aimed at me.  Our deputy campaign director Tonia Winchester had handed me her phone with the initial returns downloaded from the Secretary of State, and we were badly underwater.  Struggling to maintain my composure and optimism, I shared the glum news with the room and started explaining how it was early yet, there were still a lot of votes to be counted, yada, yada, yada … and then our friend and amazing harm reduction advocate Kris Nyrop charged the podium and handed me his phone.  “You’re not looking at the King County results.  We’re winning!”  He was right.  The Secretary of State numbers didn’t yet include King County, where initial returns had us leading well over 60 percent.  I knew then we had it in the bag.  

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How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career?  

Writing a ballot initiative and running a statewide campaign marked a significant change from my prior career as a litigator.  Providing people an opportunity to take direct action to change bad policies having widespread negative impacts in their communities was inspiring in ways I’d never imagined.  Since November 2012, I’ve dedicated myself to political and policy advocacy for major systems change. 

What has surprised you about the way legalization has rolled out? 

Honestly, not a lot.  We knew the sky wasn’t going to fall, and also that there would be bumps in the path moving forward.  People understood that treating cannabis use as a crime was a failed policy, and also that we’d have to work together to develop and refine new policies in uncharted territory. 

Above: Holcomb getting out the vote in Seattle, August 2012.  

 

Brian Vicente

Vicente: Staring down 80 years of prohibition.

In 2012: Partner/Founding Member, Vicente Sederberg LLC 

Vicente was co-director of the Amendment 64 campaign and one of the measure’s primary authors. 

Today: Partner, Vicente Sederberg LLC/ Principal, VS Strategies, Denver 

When did you know the measure would pass? 

As someone who has devoted his entire professional career to legalization, I was always cautiously optimistic that legalization would occur in my lifetime.  The fact that I was part of the team that accomplished this milestone is humbling.  During the campaign and the years of challenging advocacy work prior, we were staring down 80 years of Prohibition laws.  So, to think that a team of young idealists from Colorado could dismantle that longstanding policy was a stretch.  I was skeptical about our chances until the final hours before the win.  I’ll never forget our team and supporters watching the results roll in at the election night party.  It was electric and we knew we had just made history.   

'I conducted about a dozen media interviews  daily for the following six months.  The level of national and international interest was astounding.'
Brian Vicente, Co-author, Colorado's Amendment 64

How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career? 

Legalizing marijuana had a dramatic effect on my life and career.  Overnight, this issue and advocates such as myself became “mainstream”.  The issue that we had fought so hard for was suddenly being discussed on talk shows, news sources, and by mainstream politicians.  I conducted about a dozen media interviews daily for the following six months.  The level of national and international interest was astounding.  As one of the chief authors of the law, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the details and intent with elected officials and influencers from Australia to Slovenia, as those countries consider implementing the “Colorado model”.  My law practice has grown as well. I started doing marijuana legal work in my basement in Capitol Hill, Denver in 2004.  Our firm now has over fifty staff and four offices around the country and we strive daily to continue to be “thought leaders” in the Post-Prohibition world. 

What has surprised you about how legalization has rolled out in either state? 

I was shocked by the level of institutional support that marijuana legalization received quickly in Colorado.  Remember, nearly every elected officials in the state officially opposed the measure. So to have them immediately contact our office and volunteer their support with implementing it was very important and powerful.  I have also been very happy to see opiate deaths go down in states, like Colorado, that legalize marijuana.  That is a major positive that I did not see coming.  Finally, it has been wonderful to see much of the stigma around adult marijuana use and medical marijuana begin to dissipate.  We still have a long way to go, but I’m glad that more and more adults, both sick and healthy, are looking to use marijuana instead of far more harmful substances like alcohol or opiates.  

Above: Vicente laying the groundwork among activists at Seattle’s Hempfest in the summer of 2010.
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Pete Holmes

Holmes: Activism can change bad policy.

In 2012: Seattle City Attorney 

An outspoken critic of the War on Drugs, Holmes became a primary sponsor of Initiative 502. 

Today: Seattle City Attorney 

When did you know the measure would pass? 

About 8 p.m. that Tuesday night. I was always optimistic but never confident. 

How did its passage change or alter the direction of your life or career? 

It confirmed for me that political activism can change bad policy when legal action falls short. 

What has surprised you about how legalization has rolled out in either state? 

I’m surprised how well it’s worked out here; it’s surpassed our expectations. Given the new administration in D.C., I would rather be an entrepreneur in Washington state than in Colorado.  I’m glad we don’t have home grows now, although we will eventually. I don’t think Attorney General Sessions will target Washington, unless he goes after every state. 

Above: Holmes opens the legal era in Washington with a purchase at Cannabis City, Seattle, July 2014.