For veterans of the Show-Me State’s cannabis legalization movement, this week’s court decision was just another disappointment in a two-year string of letdowns—the final nail in the coffin for November hopes of legalization.
There’s no doubt emphasis will be placed on the 23 signatures the Secretary of State’s office determined New Approach Missouri came up short on. Blame will also be thrown at the twelve county prosecutors who threw extra weight behind state efforts to disqualify the measure. While these are definitely factors in the initiative’s failure, they are out of our movement’s control. We all bear some level of responsibility for the failure of this campaign, but we can avoid repeating these mistakes by taking an honest, retrospective look at them.
The biggest opposition the cannabis movement faces today is internal.
To understand the nuance involved in Missouri’s legalization efforts, we must dive into what happened over the last four years both in state and nationwide.
In 2012, the future looked promising. Show-Me Cannabis (SMC) made headlines by circulating a petition to legalize cannabis in Missouri. I worked as a volunteer Field Coordinator during the campaign, and, although we only collected half the required signatures in that cycle, we did so through 100% volunteer efforts.
Encouraged by the impressive numbers generated with limited resources, we believed the momentum built in the next four years could be enough to push us over the hump. We discussed different ways to achieve our goal: public education, grassroots fundraising and, of course, hiring a professional firm to gather signatures. To our knowledge, no citizen initiative has ever qualified for Missouri’s ballot without the help of paid signature gatherers—and there was no reason for us to believe we would be the magical exception. Regardless of our methods, we knew we had each other. The activist community was a large, growing circle of eager go-getters on the right side of history.
But something else happened that year, changing the landscape of our movement forever: Colorado legalized cannabis. What was once an activist-led movement has gradually mutated into a lucrative industry—and the movement suffers because of it.
Prior to 2012, advocates were motivated primarily by removing the ever-present threat of arrest and imprisonment for mere possession of a harmless plant. Today, the primary motivator is profit—and the loudest voices in the movement are the best-funded.
Though a handful of activists pressed for a 2014 ballot effort, the majority wanted to hold off until 2016. Presidential elections have better voter turnout, especially among young people. We knew with good public outreach and volunteer recruitment, we would have a more favorable shot at succeeding in ’16.
We doubled down on our efforts locally and state-wide. Research was commissioned on the drug task forces and community drug prevention groups opposing our efforts. A public campaign was undertaken to free Jeff Mizanskey, the only man serving a life sentence for marijuana possession in Missouri. And, of course, we recruited volunteers and raised funds in anticipation for the big campaign.
Things began to splinter internally around this time.
First, SMC abandoned its full legalization effort in favor of a medical approach when polling indicated a two-thirds majority support for medical. Full legalization polled at a tight 50%.
Still, the campaign filed initiative petition 2016-009 (full legalization) which was approved by the Secretary of State’s office, meaning they could have encouraged their grassroots army to collect signatures for this petition alongside the medical initiative. Sure, there were no funds to pay for signatures on both measures, but because SMC abandoned the full legalization bill they had already won approval for, many volunteers split off to join controversial activist Nick Raines in collecting signatures for the Missouri Cannabis Restoration and Protection Act (MCRPA).
The so-called “Tomato Model” is a well-meaning but politically hopeless concept; total legalization with zero regulation. No taxes, no age restrictions, no DUI arrests. This fringe organization had negligible momentum until SMC abandoned their own full legalization bill. Non-medical patients not covered by the medical bill and patients leery of signing up with a statewide database to obtain their cannabis had nowhere else to turn. A lack of organization, funding, strategy and political experience led to the inevitable failure of this effort. Although a tearful Nick Raines urged people to support the competing medical bill, the damage had already been done. Activists who could have been collecting for medical and full legalization petitions simultaneously were diverted to a doomed effort. Some of the more passionate MCRPA supporters actively campaigned against our efforts, severely damaging the momentum we had gained in the previous years.
As grassroots-level participation shifted away from SMC, remaining activists were eager to begin collecting signatures on any realistic proposal. Nick Raines had been collecting signatures since his petition was first certified on February 9th, 2015. I, along with several members of Mid-Missouri NORML, expressed an eagerness to collect signatures on 2016-009, which was certified nearly a month earlier on January 16th. On several occasions throughout summer and fall 2015, SMC representatives made statements reassuring anxious activists that signature collection would begin within a matter of weeks.
But those promises weren’t kept.
In late 2014, I was part of a group of activists who formed Mid-Missouri NORML. Our sole intention was to build support and raise funds for the full legalization campaign we were eyeing since 2012. We were officially chartered in January 2015 and expected to be gathering signatures in short time. In the early part of 2015, attendance was healthy with about a dozen activists regularly showing up for weekly board meetings. But as summer wore on, SMC leadership delayed submitting their medical initiative while ignoring suggestions to have activists begin collection on 2016-009. At our board meetings, Dan Viets assured us many times the board was about to start collecting. At one meeting in late August, he promised petitions would be ready to go “by homecoming weekend.” But by that time, our board no longer gave weight to these promises. Unsurprisingly, homecoming came and went without any petition to gather on.
The most flabbergasting reason the bill stalled was because SMC was trying to negotiate a collaboration with Springfield-based surgeon and attorney Brad Bradshaw, who expressed intentions of running a medical cannabis campaign during his run for Lt. Governor. SMC saw an opportunity to collaborate with a big political player and gain much-needed funding to pay signature gatherers. Negotiations broke down, however, when Bradshaw refused to incorporate a home-grow provision in his bill and insisted on an insanely high tax rate of 75% on retail medical sales.
Despite Bradshaw showing no signs of giving in, the negotiations dragged on for months. Although SMC is to be commended for refusing to abandon a home cultivation clause and sensible tax rate, they wasted too much time trying to change a made-up mind. Bradshaw eventually filed his own medical cannabis bill but abandoned the effort—along with his campaign for Lt. Governor—on January 28th, 2016.
State organizers finally filed a medical bill on October 8th. Only seven months remained until the signature gathering deadline, and the bill still hadn’t been approved for circulation.
As fall turned to winter, it became apparent the campaign was totally out of the hands of grassroots activists. Negotiations took place in closed meetings and every piece of news came as a surprise to all but a privileged few. The medical initiative filed in October was brought forth by a brand new group: New Approach Missouri (NAM).
NAM was intended to be the campaign arm of Missouri’s medical legalization effort. It was a Missouri version of New Approach Oregon, the organization that successfully legalized recreational cannabis in 2014. Behind it was a man few Missourians had heard of until a Newsweek article published November 25th, 2015: Travis Maurer.
The cover story centered around Maurer, the self-proclaimed “mastermind” behind Oregon’s historic victory, claiming he would lead Missouri to legalize medical cannabis in 2016. It even named Maurer as the sole founder of Show-Me Cannabis, which was news to many of us who worked with the organization since its infancy in 2010. It seemed Maurer ran and influenced SMC from his home in Oregon the entire time, paying employees like John Payne and Amber Langston to run day-to-day operations in Missouri.
Soon, it became apparent why Maurer kept a low profile for so long.
Less than two months after the Newsweek story ran, Maurer was served a lawsuit in Multnomah County, Oregon accusing him of embezzling funds from the Weed Blog, a cannabis news site in which he was a minority shareholder. He was also sued by prominent Minnesota activist Randy Quast for allegedly taking funds meant to open a dispensary and grow operation in Oregon and spending them on his own personal debts. Although these lawsuits are still pending, Maurer’s reputation was shattered almost as soon as it had been manufactured. His wife, Leah, who was also mentioned in the lawsuits, quietly resigned from the SMC Board of Directors, though no public statement was made about her resignation from NAM or whether she was at all involved with its board.
The Maulers’ fall from grace distracted attention from NAM finally receiving approval to circulate their medical petition on December 22nd, 2015. NAM didn’t announce this or start gathering signatures until early January—right before news of the Quast lawsuit broke.
By the time the dust settled with Leah Maurer’s resignation at the beginning of February, less than four months remained for the campaign to gather signatures.
To further complicate matters, the campaign de-prioritized the fourth congressional district to save money. Signatures cost a premium rate there and the campaign thought they could do better in the third, where signatures were cheaper. This last-minute decision caused disappointment and morale loss among grassroots activists in the fourth—a key district including Columbia (home to two NORML chapters) and Sedalia (home of the most recognizable face of the state campaign: Jeff Mizanskey).
With this news, the last bit of motivation in central Missouri evaporated. Mid-MO NORML was lucky to get four people to show up to weekly board meetings. Columbia fell off the campaign’s map while Jefferson City became a stronghold for MCRPA organizers.
Even after all these blunders, setbacks and embarrassments, NAM managed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot. Despite all flaws, the organization should no doubt be commended for these monumental and unprecedented efforts.
But their fatal mistake was their lack of any safety net.
No back-up districts were collecting and they were defeated by falling short of the mark in the second district. After local election authorities invalidated close to 11,000 signatures, the campaign came roughly 2,200 signatures short of the requirement. The second district, which includes parts of Jefferson, St. Louis and St. Charles counties, is considered by many Missouri politicos to be one of the most corrupt regions in the state. In fact, just last week Bruce Franks Jr. beat incumbent Penny Hubbard in a landslide re-do election after it was discovered hundreds of absentee ballots were fraudulently cast for Hubbard. Is it any surprise that the medical cannabis petition was invalidated in the same part of the state?
After a hard-fought legal battle to overturn invalidated signatures, the courts determined the campaign was still 23 signatures short. Unfortunately for NAM and the citizens of Missouri, they cannot appeal that decision in time to make the September 27th ballot deadline.
When big organizations spend a couple million dollars running a political campaign, activists are often left out of the decision-making process. This can leave us feeling disempowered, marginalized and ignored. It’s difficult to determine what action to take when you feel your efforts are fruitless. However, there are a number of things we as a community should insist on in the coming years:
1) Include a recreational option
This is a no-brainer to keep grassroots activists involved. Although no state has legalized recreationally without going medical first, the moment non-patients lose a recreational option, they will go elsewhere—usually to fringe groups pushing initiatives with no chance of passing. This wasted passion could be organized at minimal cost and effort to the campaign. This will only aid momentum. If the activists who left SMC/NAM when it abandoned full legalization had been encouraged and empowered, gathering those 23 extra signatures would have been laughably easy. When you make efforts to reach out to grassroots activists, there’s a better chance they will support all your efforts, including the ever-important fundraisers. Giving people options builds trust. Alienation breeds resentment and drives supporters away.
2) No pay-to-play backroom deals
This is the quickest way to sink grassroots support and public trust in any organization. Pay-to-play politics breeds corruption and discourages transparency. If a few people are looking to get rich off a law passing, the public is less likely to support an issue they otherwise favor. Last year, Ohio proved it takes more than money alone to win. When the loudest opposition to a legalization campaign is a group of cannabis users, it may be worth re-evaluating your strategy.
3) Don’t wait on big money to start gathering
This was the single biggest failure of our campaign. Instead of launching a volunteer effort and having gatherers on the ground to build momentum for big money asks, the strategy was to court big donors one-by-one. Why did SMC leadership allow Brad Bradshaw to hold the entire state movement hostage with no real promise of contribution or collaboration? If a big donor doesn’t want to get on board in the early stages, press forward without them. If a campaign is worth its salt, big money will line up to be a part of it. As it stands, national players like the Drug Policy Alliance will likely think twice before supporting further Missouri efforts. If we could have shown better organization and collaboration in-state, we wouldn’t have been so beholden to out-of-state help.
4) Get in where you fit in
This was the hardest lesson for me. I spent years showing up to all the key functions, building relationships with the movers and shakers in the state movement, hoping to be given more responsibilities. But positions in high-level organizations are not granted based on eagerness. If a dishonest organization cannot trust you to join their team and support their corruption, they aren’t going to let you in on the backroom meetings. Make the best of it.
Every activist wants to be the one who finally legalized cannabis where they live, but it takes far more than one person. It takes a committed coalition of tens of thousands of people to pull off a successful statewide campaign. Maybe your role is standing on the street corner screaming into a megaphone, writing letters to cannabis prisoners in your state, talking to your family about cannabis or anonymously leaving a pamphlet for a friend to find on their own.
The smallest political acts are often taken for granted, but real change comes once all these acts harmonize into a true movement. Don’t wait on an organization to come along and “legitimize” your actions, and don’t be discouraged if your actions are denounced by these same power players. Only you can decide the right thing to do.
5) If it makes laws better, support it
There’s nothing to be gained by having a stiff neck when every one of your politically unreasonable demands aren’t met by a bill. No law is perfect. Despite lax state and local laws in some lucky parts of the country, we still have a long way to go before we can celebrate an end to this misguided war. It won’t happen overnight or with just one bill. People who say a limited cannabis legalization bill can’t later be changed might as well give up on changing any of the current laws; after all, the hardest part is chipping away at the 80-year-old laws now in existence.
6) Don’t feel guilty for seeking asylum in a legal state
It will be a long time before Missouri has another chance to improve its laws. For patients, every day is a battle risking the health and freedom of themselves and their families. If you feel Missouri’s current laws threaten your ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness, you can still help future efforts from the relative safety of a legal state. Share your story. Make small contributions to activist organizations and state campaigns. Five dollar contributions add up quickly when we all chip in.
Whatever your opinion of this court decision, one thing is clear: We cannot be victorious until we find common ground and unite. It’s more important than ever to make your voice heard. Research your local laws. Introduce yourself to local and state representatives. Let them know this is no longer a fringe issue. Cannabis users are everywhere. If you don’t use cannabis, you know someone who does—even if you aren’t aware of it. This is a mainstream issue now, and the oppression of cannabis users is something that will no longer be tolerated.
Keep your chins up and your eyes on the prize. We’re all in this together.