Interview with Steve Fox (11/20/09), Marijuana Policy Project

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November 20, 2009

This is an interview conducted on November 20, 2009 with Steve Fox. Steve Fox is the Director of State Campaigns for The Marijuana Policy Project. Steve is also the co-author of Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? (Chelsea Green, August 2009).

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When was The MPP started and what type of organization is it?

The Marijuana Policy Project was founded in 1995 by Rob Kampia, who remains the organization's executive director to this day, and Chuck Thomas. It is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization dedicated to changing public policy. MPP also has a 501(c)(3) arm, the MPP Foundation, which conducts public education activities. The two organizations have more than 35 full-time staffers and a combined annual budget of more than $5 million.

How is The MPP different from The NORML?

As mentioned above, MPP is, first and foremost, a lobbying organization. We direct and coordinate lobbying and ballot initiative efforts all across the country. We invest significant resources in these efforts and use all available tactics -- from paid media to mailings to autodials to celebrity involvement -- to increase our likelihood of winning the battles we fight. Significantly, we carry out our activities in a manner that defies marijuana stereotypes. If you were to walk into our office in DC, you would have no idea what issue we were working on. You will not even see a picture of a marijuana leaf in the office or in any of our materials.

Without going into detail about NORML's great work, the organization tends to be a bit more "pro-marijuana" in its approach. And while there are NORML chapters around the country involved in lobbying efforts, the organization is not as focused on direct lobbying and ballot initiatives as MPP is.

Does The MPP trust the voters to legalize marijuana?

That's an interesting way of phrasing that question. Of course, we trust the people to enact laws that they believe will best serve them individually and as members of a greater community. And we feel that public opinion is moving solidly in our direction. This is based primarily on two factors. First, the public is slowly beginning to appreciate that the marijuana myths and propaganda put forth by the government for decades are simply not true. In many cases this knowledge comes from personal experience with the drug. The second factor is that the demographic group most opposed to a legal marijuana market -- people over the age of 60 -- are being "replaced," to put it delicately, by younger voters more supportive of our cause.


As this is a ballot initiative site, it is important to note that we are counting on the people to deal with this issue in a more thoughtful and rational way than elected officials, who in many cases still feel the need to parrot the worn out old anti-marijuana talking points and vote the way they think they need to in order to be seen as "tough on drugs." The people are simply way ahead of the politicians on this issue. We are beginning to have more success in state legislatures, on the medical marijuana front primarily, but ballot initiatives -- where they exist, of course -- are still the easier route to enacting new laws.

How many initiatives & veto referendums has The MPP done? Can list them while including the name, year and outcome of the petitions?

Tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol:

Decriminalization (from potential jail time to $100 fine):

Medical marijuana:

This doesn't include local initiatives that we funded through our grants program but didn't directly run.

The California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (2010) actually takes a step forward that hasn't been taken yet. The initiative is legalizing the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Is this the start of a new trend? How do you think the voters will decide on this issue and also how do you think that the legislatures would vote on this same issue?

The California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (2010) Initiative proposed by individuals affiliated with Oaksterdam University in Oakland is definitely a big step forward in that state -- although, as noted prior, initiatives to tax and regulate marijuana are not unprecedented. That said, it seems that this may be the first ballot initiative campaign to tax and regulate marijuana in the new era. And by new era, I refer to a more general acceptance of marijuana, as reflected in a recent Gallup poll showing support for "legalizing marijuana" at 53 percent in the west. This is part of a major trend upward in support. Since Gallup has been asking the same question for decades, we had already identified a trend suggesting support for making marijuana legal was rising at about 1 percent per year since the early 1990's. But in just the past four years support nationally jumped from 36 percent to 44 percent!

While surveys like this provide reason for optimism, MPP was actually hoping that an initiative to tax and regulate marijuana would not appear on the ballot in California in 2010. Based on anticipated voter turnout, we believed -- and still do believe -- that 2012 would have been a more logical choice. Even if the proponents of the initiative believe they can win, they must know that it is going to be close. So a few extra points, which is likely in 2012 as compared to 2010 based both on the general trend in support as well as expected turnout, could be the difference between winning and losing. That said, it looks like the initiative will be on the ballot in 2010, and if it passes they will definitely make history!


With respect to comparing the voters to state legislators, I don't think there is much of a comparison. I would say there is a 50/50 chance (perhaps better) of a ballot initiative to tax and regulate marijuana passing in a state in 2012. In the state legislatures, we may get some hearings -- as there have been recently in Massachusetts and California -- or even a study commission, as they have now in Rhode Island, but it is certainly going to be an uphill battle to get a bill to tax and regulate marijuana passed through a state legislature and signed by a governor in the next few years.

What initiatives are planned for the 2012 election?

Well, let me address 2010 first. We are currently collecting signatures to place the Arizona Medical Marijuana Question, 2010 Initiative on the general election ballot in Arizona. This is really an exciting initiative, as it would establish a far-reaching, yet tightly regulated, system of distribution in the state through state-licensed dispensaries. We also plan to assist activists in Oregon and South Dakota who are currently collecting signatures to place the Oregon Marijuana Tax Act (2010) Initiative and South Dakota Medical Marijuana Act (2010) Initiative on the November ballot in those states. There may even be a couple of additional statewide medical marijuana initiatives, but we will have to see how things play out.

It is too early for us to publicly discuss our plans for 2012, but it is going to be a very big year for marijuana policy reform at the ballot box, I can tell you that.

Has The MPP had trouble in any state making the ballot?

Not really. We did have an incident a few years ago where a campaign manager misplaced a couple of boxes of petitions, causing us to not make the ballot. But even then we immediately put our petitioners back to work and qualified for the next ballot. I can't think of another example where we did not qualify.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle(s) in gaining ballot access?

To be honest, the biggest obstacle to gaining ballot access is state legislators who feel the need to pass laws making it more difficult to qualify for the ballot. All of the additional requirements placed upon signature gathering are not really designed to improve the process; they are designed to hinder the process. But we deal with them and qualify anyway.


Pencil.png by John Wynne Jr.

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