In early May, the national advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project sent out a panicked email titled “Alone, beaten down and incredulous in Boston.” MPP had been working to land a marijuana legalization measure on Massachusetts’ ballot this November, but a recent fundraising event in Boston had drawn just a single attendee. “What’s worrisome isn’t this one bad event, but that it mirrors the contributions and involvement across Massachusetts since the initiative launch,” MPP Executive Director Rob Kampia wrote in the message. “Simply put, the campaign is broke,” he noted. The organization might not have the money to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in one of the most liberal states in the U.S.
A lack of fundraising dollars in Massachusetts isn’t the only reason marijuana advocates are beginning to feel nervous. 2016 is a pivotal year for the cannabis movement, with an unprecedented 10 states potentially voting on recreational or medical marijuana reforms in November. Planned are medical marijuana initiatives in Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Montana, as well as recreational cannabis measures in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and California, the last of which would launch a legal cannabis industry in what is the world’s eighth-largest economy. But, according to campaign finance records, the 10 campaigns altogether to date have raised less than $11 million, just slightly more than marijuana advocates amassed in 2014 midterm elections to pass legalization measures in two states, Alaska and Oregon.
While it’s still relatively early in the 2016 campaign calendar, a lot more cash will be needed before November. Representatives of the national advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) estimated at a recent webinar that it would likely cost between $40 million and $50 million to win in all 10 states.
“There is a little bit of concern among people I have talked to that the movement might be trying to do too much too soon,” said Tom Angell, founder and chairman of the cannabis advocacy group Marijuana Majority, who recently wrote about the issue for Marijuana.com. “There are only so many dollars that can be raised to purchase advertising time and put together get-out-the-vote operations.” It doesn’t help that so far the growing marijuana industry has been reluctant to shoulder much of these campaigns’ costs or that anti-marijuana efforts are gaining traction. This confluence of factors has led some observers to posit that 2016 may not be the watershed year for cannabis legalization that many have predicted. Instead, it could be the year the ascendant cannabis crusade finally faces defeat.
“The marijuana movement is stretched so thin in 2016,” DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said during a presentation last month at Marijuana Business Daily’s Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Orlando, Florida. “I think what could happen in 2016 could be a harsh wake-up call.”
This year has already delivered several costly distractions for the marijuana movement. A promising effort to legalize cannabis through the Legislature in Vermont failed early last month, and legalization efforts in Maine were nearly derailed when Secretary of State Matt Dunlap refused to recognize thousands of signatures collected by the campaign until organizers appealed to the courts. And while many strategists think marijuana initiatives have a better shot during presidential election years such as 2016 because general elections draw comparatively more young people to the polls, the attention-grabbing presidential campaigns also mean it costs more money for state campaigns to get their messages heard.
Although some marijuana campaigns are confident they’re collecting enough funds to cut through the noise, others aren’t so sure.
In Arizona, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol had raised almost $1.2 million by the end of last year, and campaign representative Barrett Marson said the organization plans to raise a good deal more before the November elections. That would put it well above the $793,000 activists spent to pass medical marijuana in the state in 2010, but, then again, that measure won by fewer than 5,000 votes. “In Arizona, we are getting the support that we need,” said Marson, who added the campaign would soon be submitting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. “We haven’t set a budget yet, but we are raising money in the state and nationwide to wage a very vigorous campaign.”
In Florida, the United for Care Campaign has already submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot a measure that would greatly expand the state’s medical marijuana program, and it has reported more than $3.6 million in contributions during the past year and a half. But campaign manager Ben Pollara doesn’t expect to match the $8 million the campaign collected in support of a similar measure in 2014, which fell just short of the 60 percent voter approval needed to pass. Still, Pollara said his organization spent far less on signature gathering this time than it did two years ago. “We might raise less overall, but I believe we will end up raising more than we did during the post-petition period of the campaign in 2014,” he said. “It might be a totally irrational confidence, but I think we will be OK. I am not thrilled by how much money we have, but I am confident we will have what we need to win this campaign.”
Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, didn’t sound quite as confident that his organization will hit its goal of raising another $1.8 million on top of the $400,000 in contributions it reported at the end of last year. “We will have enough money to do the technical things, like collect signatures and hire staff, but if we don’t have enough to do advertising, to counter what we see from our opposition, we will be in tough shape,” he said. “We are optimistic that there are enough people who want prohibition to end in Massachusetts that we can raise the money that we need. But we are not banking on it. We have to let people know that just because Massachusetts is perceived as a liberal state doesn’t mean it will automatically pass a liberal measure like this.”
Maine’s pro-marijuana campaign reported a little less than $500,000 in contributions at the end of March, but campaign manager David Boyer said that’s not indicative of what it will have to promote its measure over the next few months. “Our only goal so far was to get on the ballot, and we are now on the ballot,” said Boyer, who noted that PBS travel guru and marijuana activist Rick Steves has promised to match donations to the campaign up to $50,000. “Going forward, we are going to try to raise as much as possible. We are confident we will be on the air, on the radio and have social media outreach and ads.” Those efforts might not come cheap: A failed attempt to ban bearbaiting in the 2014 midterm elections cost each side more than $2 million.
As in years past, the two largest marijuana advocacy groups, DPA and MPP, are dividing their efforts between different reform campaigns. For example, DPA is playing a large role in the big California legalization effort, while MPP is highly involved in recreational marijuana initiatives in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada (MPP suspended a medical marijuana effort in Ohio last week after legislators passed a medical cannabis law).
While MPP may be working on more concurrent state campaigns than it ever has before, Mason Tvert, the organization’s communications director, insisted it isn’t stretched too thin. “We only get involved in campaigns when we are confident we will be able to run an effective campaign and win,” he said. Still, he added that weighing in on the financial fitness of various political efforts can be a dicey prospect in the middle of campaign season. “If you say you have no money, people aren’t going to donate because they don’t think you have a chance,” he said. “If you say you have money coming out of your ears, they aren’t going to donate either.”
It doesn’t help, though, that the marijuana movement has lost one of its top contributors: Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, who reportedly donated more than $40 million to various marijuana efforts since the 1980s, died in 2013. And while new deep-pocketed donors are stepping in to fill the void, it’s unclear whether they will have the resources to guarantee victory. For example, Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, has emerged as a major benefactor for California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, having contributed more than $1 million to the campaign since it launched at the beginning of the year. But the vast majority of the additional $1.5 million the California campaign has raised this year has come from just three other donors: Californians for Sensible Reform, sponsored by the California-based marijuana tech company Weedmaps ($750,000); Drug Policy Action, DPA’s political arm ($500,000); and New Approach PAC, a political action committee founded by Lewis’ heirs ($250,000). Other than that, just six individuals have contributed small donations totaling $1,500 to the statewide effort.
Without additional grassroots fundraising, it’s unclear whether the major contributors will be able to alone shoulder the millions of dollars more it will likely take to mount a successful California campaign. (Spending on California ballot propositions frequently reaches into the tens of millions.) “This effort just hasn’t captured the hearts and minds of people,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a statewide trade group of marijuana farmers. “Most cannabis businesses can’t even get close to the level of checks these guys have been writing. So can they get to what they need?”
Meanwhile, marijuana advocates are facing increasingly well-funded and well-organized opposition.
In Massachusetts, the anti-marijuana campaign has garnered the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and House of Representatives Speaker Robert DeLeo. In California, opponents of legalization are gathering contributions from police associations, prison guard groups and the Teamsters union. In Arizona, a conservative fundraising firm announced an anonymous donor had pledged $500,000 as a matching gift for all donations the anti-legalization campaign received during the month of May. In Florida, real estate mogul Mel Sembler has pledged to raise at least $10 million to fight the state’s medical marijuana initiative, $2.5 million more than he raised to defeat a similar effort in 2014. And Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, the most prominent anti-marijuana group nationwide, just announced its political organization, SAM Action, has raised $300,000 and formed new state partnerships to fight the various 2016 marijuana initiatives.
Then there’s Sheldon Adelson, the conservative casino magnate who donated more than $5 million to help defeat Florida’s medical marijuana measure two years ago. Adelson could help fight legalization efforts this year in Massachusetts, his former home state, and in Nevada, where he runs Las Vegas Sands. Plus, he could once again support the efforts of his friend Sembler in the Sunshine State. It also might not be a coincidence that Project SAM is currently planning to hire two campaign field directors: one in Los Angeles and another in Las Vegas, Adelson’s backyard. “When you have the 11th or 12th richest man in the world gunning for you, it’s a concern,” conceded Pollara in Florida.
As the marijuana industry has flourished, SAM founder Kevin Sabet indicated he believes the cannabis movement has been exposed to new lines of attack, such as that legalization is becoming all about business bottom lines and not about social justice. “They have written these initiatives as corporate free-for-alls,” Sabet said. “The old-school pot legalizers who are not really in this for the money, a lot of them are pretty stunned and not sure what to do this year.”
But Troy Dayton, CEO of the ArcView Group, a cannabis investment network, disagrees. He said the marijuana industry isn’t very involved in the reform initiatives — and he thinks that’s a problem. “Our opposition likes to say this is ‘Big Marijuana’ trying to pass laws,” he said. “I wish that was the case. At least so far, that hasn’t really happened.”
Dayton is concerned there’s a false sense of security in the marijuana movement. “The media has done a very good job of suggesting the marijuana industry is making money hand over fist, so a lot of philanthropists who otherwise might be backing these issues are thinking, ‘Hey, there is an industry now, they will take this the rest of the way,’” he said. “But that is not really happening to enough of a degree to fundamentally move the needle.” For example, while ArcView’s members have together invested more than $70 million in various marijuana companies since 2010, the investor network has contributed only about a million dollars to various legalization initiatives in that same period.
According to Dayton, marijuana businesses are struggling with various industry headaches — such as sky-high tax rates and a lack of banking services — that make it unlikely they have loads of excess funds they can donate to political campaigns.
But, at this point, Dayton suggested he believes that is no excuse. He thinks marijuana activists and industry stakeholders alike need to realize that 2016 is the make-or-break year for cannabis reform. “I am out there pounding the pulpit, telling people, ‘Come on, folks, whether you are on the business side or the social justice side or both, now is the time. Whatever you would normally give, give three times that,’” he said. “If we win most of these initiatives, it’s really lights out on marijuana prohibition. But if we lose a significant portion of them, that could mean a much longer fight to ultimately end this disastrous policy.”