Lessons from Alaska's Proposition 2

9 min read

Those who fail to learn from the past must repeat it, we’re told, and in 40 years working for marijuana legalization (1) in four different states, I’ve seen certain problems over and over. A rapid turnover of entry-level activists often found in local work is perhaps due, not to the flighty nature of marijuana users, but to the unsatisfactory state of a movement which purports to represent them. Please, I’m not criticizing people who work selflessly to end prohibition – perhaps those most likely to read this journal! – so don’t take my remarks as unduly negative. There are important exceptions to my criticisms, but I don’t plan to describe them. I’ve been asked about lessons from Alaska’s 2004 legalization campaign, and since failure’s lessons are most costly, that’s where I’ll focus.

In mid-2004, largely due to misfortunes of other organizers, I went from Texas to Alaska to work on the final run-up to the vote on citizen-initiated Proposition 2 (Prop. 2), which would mandate regulating marijuana as Alaska regulates tobacco and alcohol, essentially legalizing cannabis commerce there. I knew the task would be challenging, not least because I would be a rank “Outsider” in a state where I had no experience and no strong movement contacts, but marijuana’s unique status there convinced me to take on what quickly became an untenable assignment. Prop. 2 drew 44.25% of the November vote, in which 60% of Alaskans supported George W. Bush’s re-election. We were lucky if we didn’t lose votes during the three month “official” campaign.

My inability to function within the seemingly jinxed campaign left me time to meet Alaskans of all ages and many walks of life, on an informal, “normal” footing. Asked what brought me to the Great State, I always said, “to help legalize marijuana for grown-ups.” While I occasionally met with some surprise, in the six months I eventually spent there, only three or four individuals disagreed with legalization; everyone else, perhaps after a few questions about the initiative, said they could support it. I formed the view that Alaska’s lengthy experience with semi-legal marijuana, protected by a strong constitution and Supreme Court, had shown that the herb is, at worst, “not as bad as alcohol”. I believe Prop. 2 could have passed, had support been consistent, principled, and self-disciplined. However, few campaigners thought it had much chance. This disconnection between the apparent support of a wide voter base, and a pessimistic campaign, was striking from the outset.

Ultimately, the problems I observed in Alaska were not unique, but echoed observations heard from activists elsewhere; indicating problems which seem endemic to the US legalization movement. In no particular order, these include:

1. Disunity and Discontinuity.

Multiple organizations with competing agendas failed to work cooperatively, much less democratically, on any important aspect of Prop. 2. Funding decisions, media, and overall direction were seldom mutually acceptable or on point. A brief unity was achieved for a campaign kick-off event, but did not long survive. Unity achieved by exclusion seldom unites. Only three individuals were at first authorized to speak for the campaign, and they seldom conferred with each other before doing so. The only slogan approved by the supposedly unified campaign was a “lowest common denominator” phrase (2); it did not spark excitement.

Supporters of earlier marijuana-related initiatives were arbitrarily and undemocratically excluded from Prop. 2 activities and decision-making because of “personality issues”. For example, a decision not to emphasize hemp in 2004 prevented its mention in campaign literature. People who asked if the initiative would allow hemp cultivation were told that Prop. 2 had “nothing to do with hemp”. Turning volunteers and potential donors away is not a recipe for success, nor is dismissing a support base built over many years. Medical patients rallied to Prop. 2, becoming effective spokespersons late in the campaign, but they were not included in campaign planning. (3)

There was serious discontinuity between previous campaign experience in Alaska and the 2004 campaign, and little opinion analysis. News reports of youth violence fueled by marijuana were used with devastating effect against Prop. 2. Supporters were caught totally off-guard by events. Yet a cursory review of Alaskan media in the preceding year reveals this as a recurring theme. (4) Unresolved issues from a 1988 legislative hearing on marijuana’s safety and effects might have been foreseen as factors in 2004, but these were not reviewed before the election. (5) Other problematic themes which might easily, and correctly, have been predicted as important were ignored by campaign planners, who consciously chose an “under the radar” approach, in order not to stimulate what they perceived as too-flamboyant support.

2. Political Isolation.

Despite overt support of three of Alaska’s recognized political parties (6) and of a major progressive coalition (7), campaign organizers never asked them, or any others, for formal endorsements, use of mailing/donor lists, mutual media efforts, speaking opportunities, or other forms of assistance; nor were representatives of any party or community organization offered planning or decision-making roles in the campaign.(8) One Democratic nominee for office, Thomas Higgens, actively supported Prop. 2, but found little significant encouragement from the campaign’s leaders; running against Alaska’s “unbeatable” senior Republican US Senator, Ted Stevens (9), he was seen as an expendable “loose cannon”.

Thousands of politically effective groups in the United States address issues of peace, justice, public health, environmental integrity, economic opportunity, and related social and economic justice issues which interface readily with issues of marijuana prohibition; yet legalizers build few bridges and connections with them. Today, we should be connecting with peace activists, educating people about hemp biomass fuels, and clearly saying that war for oil is archaically unnecessary. The ongoing disinterest of the legalization movement nationally in building such connections is astonishing. In Anchorage, this Outsider’s suggestion to approach potentially sympathetic groups for support was dismissed with the statement, “We don’t do that up here.” (10) Well, maybe we don’t, other people did, as the two weeks preceding our defeat, when we were T-boned by a carefully-orchestrated and symbiotic avalanche of lies, amply demonstrated!

The marijuana movement must have allies; we cannot win alone.

3. The Boys’ Club.

With a few notable exceptions, where are women, and especially minorities, at every level of leadership and participation in the legalization movement? What argument is used most often to defeat us? That marijuana harms children and families. And who publicly carries this view? Too often, it is women and/or minorities. Men cannot argue effectively against “Mother”. Only another mother can! Much of the success of medical marijuana legislation has come with women’s involvement; perhaps the traditional roles of “Caregiver” or “Nurse” allow women more impact in that arena.

As for minority involvement, given the extreme effects of the drug war on minority communities in every state, legalization advocates should have long ago made it a top priority to reach out and share information with black churches, Native American and Alaskan tribal councils, Mexican-American neighborhood associations, and minority community leadership organizations. Legalization proponents should consult with these natural allies about how to end the vicious hoax of prohibition. “Drugs” are to Black America as “weapons of mass destruction” were to Iraq; a mythical and/or planted excuse for armed invasion and the loss of one-third of each generation!

In Alaska I heard, as I’ve heard it in Texas, California, and Oregon, that since most supporters of legalization (i.e., stereotypical High Times readers) are young white men, it is logical that leadership of legalization groups is largely made up of (not so young anymore) white men. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy for defeat, an excuse for egotistical posturing and the exercise of control by fellows who fancy themselves players of some Great Game. More than one male colleague in Anchorage tried – unsuccessfully – to explain to me why women are better seen than heard! But I won’t blame men. The Black liberation movement saw some Black women refuse community leadership roles in order not to emasculate Black men any more than white society had done. The legalization movement, in contrast, is permeated with a reactionary cultural norm of 1960’s psuedo-hip society which specifically opposed “chicks'” political awakening. In Alaska, otherwise bright women told me “the boys” needed to be allowed to make campaign decisions, even when they were wrong. While there are some darn good reasons for women’s caution in openly opposing prohibition (see Lack of Pride below), we need articulate, courageous women to overcome them, not excuse and perpetuate them. Otherwise, the fight is lost.

I would be very remiss not to state here that women activists were responsible for almost all the high points of my Alaskan experience. Extraordinary women, including a respected scientist, Native Alaskan artists and writers, courageous medical patients, attorneys, legislative candidates, journalists and others worked hard for Prop. 2, and kept me from leaving too soon.

4. Lack of Local Control; Funding.

When funding for vital media efforts, mailings, travel, and staff is controlled by a national or other non-local organization without local input, errors are magnified by the miles in between. Media decisions made in New York resulted in terrible television in Alaska — producing ugly, incomprehensible, and unintentionally comic ads which baffled voters. Meanwhile, Alaskan producers who offered imaginative, high-quality video at no cost were dismissed; they reportedly had “personality problems.” The same lack of process gave us slick, costly mailers that said little, and rejected substantive, locally-produced pieces countering opposition claims.

If national or other non-local organizations help fund state legalization efforts, they must let go the purse-strings and trust local organizers at some point. And local forces must show that they can use funds intelligently! Such relationships are seldom forged in the final weeks of a campaign.

In addition, ways must be found to break the pattern of a few large contributors making decisions by virtue of the funds they control. Money cannot be the only standard for “sitting at the table”; it is not the only thing needed for political success.

5. Ethics; Manners.

The legalization movement, having no other agreed-upon goals or values, opens itself to an “ends justifies the means” mentality which is at least overtly unacceptable in other political formations. Agreement on a single issue is seldom the basis for ongoing cooperation; other common values must emerge in principled, long-term relationships. This is tied to the lack of funding diversity mentioned above. Too, an ongoing lack of responsible members for non-profit boards and other governing entities, people who’ve done similar tasks in other groups or have relevant life experience, can lead to mismanagement, misrepresentation, undemocratic structures and decision-making, and eventually, disillusionment. In Alaska, to mention but one very minor example of the pervasive lack of responsibility, no review process ensured that campaign literature carried legally required language. Even without serious financial malfeasance (11), or sexual predation – and it is my belief that the Prop. 2 campaign avoided those problems, at least – there is a pervasive lack of confidence that malfeasance could not easily occur, and suspicions are easily aroused.

One easy way for manipulative people to gain power in organizations is by being rude and offensive to others. Allowing such tactics to succeed validates an amoral stance; ignoring office bullying proclaims that “might makes right”. Potential activists may be turned off either by the bullying, or by the cowardice which permits it to prevail; either way, the manipulator has a clear field.

Again, this is said with great respect for responsible, honest activists who fill vital positions and take on necessary tasks; but we need many more well-formed new activists, and instead it seems that everywhere, the same people do the same things, over and over. How do we grow our movement to be as potent as Alaska’s famous Matanuska Valley strains? Until we can clone our best activists, another approach is needed!

6. Lack of Pride.

Because marijuana is illegal, because it is stigmatized, because a lot of people who smoked cannabis 40 years ago gave it up for so-called maturity and clean urine, because marijuana prohibition can’t exist without informers, because too many good people have lost everything when they’ve gotten careless or cocky or trusted the wrong person, because we don’t band together to defend every run-of-the mill pot bust, and because secrecy is necessary to safe consumption, too many marijuana consumers are cowed and silent. Our values, and even our symbols – important for group identity, especially groups perceived as minorities – have been commercialized, ridiculed, stigmatized and marginalized, rendering many potential supporters socially invisible. Of Prop. 2’s official spokespersons, the most consistently effective was a Republican attorney whose religious views prohibit ingestion of any stimulants or drugs; the two who were clearly, in the parlance, “experienced”, often seemed sheepishly embarrassed to be speaking for legalization.

Successful public advocacy of marijuana legalization requires a strong, proud self-image in each person who stands up to be counted, and working to move those who can’t quite stand up yet. Legalization organizations must represent all of us, or will never represent enough of us. Acceptance of sloppy analysis, undemocratic processes, self-aggrandizing attitudes (12) and autocratic, back-room decisions must end. Grassroots activists must demand and model rigorous thinking, transparent accountability, broad inclusion in decision-making at all levels, coalition building, and a reconnection to the “roots” values which flow from informed use of cannabis, one of what ayahuasca researcher Dennis McKenna calls “the great plant teachers”. Marijuana users and legalization advocates are not space cadets, ne’er-do-wells, or irrelevant relics. We are not couch potatoes, criminals, or victims. We are not neglectful parents. Having the right to teach one’s maturing children about responsible, educated use of cannabis is a rite we must claim and define! Are we capable of organizing for success? The next two years, offering an opportunity for effective national anti-prohibition work, may provide an answer.

Three analytical reports on Alaska’s Prop. 2 – examining what victory might have brought economically, the media climate as it influenced and reflected the campaign, and how scientific information may be perceived and presented in a legislative forum – are available online. (13) I hope that they may be useful to the activists who will end prohibition.


(1) “Legalization” here means the complete dismantling of prohibition. Cannabis is one plant with a thousand uses, and only one policy, legalization, can safeguard human beings’ access to its benefits.

(2) “Yes on 2!”

(3) Prop. 2 wouldn’t have afforded any particular benefit to Alaska’s medical marijuana users, already protected by state law.

(4) See http://awizardslife.com/AKMediaAnalysis.pdf.

(5) See http://awizardslife.com/88AKHouseReport%20Analysis.pdf

(6) Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Moderate Republican Party.

(7) Alaskans for Peace.

(8) At least three employees of campaign organizations were identified with specific political parties, as was the campaign’s legal counsel. However, none of these individuals were associated with Prop. 2 as members of political parties, but as individuals. Similarly, the campaign had excellent contacts among Native American activists,who were nonetheless seriously underutilized. Thus, no coalition politics was advanced.

(9) Stevens has since been implicated in major scandals involving misuse of his considerable Senatorial powers, some of which were raised in Higgens’ state-stumping grassroots campaign..

(10) On my own, I approached several groups with whom I could muster some friend-of-a-friend connection, but found such efforts less than fruitful. Marijuana activism does not always enjoy a good reputation among other social activists, and coalitions are not built in six weeks.

(11) As distinct from poor decisions, lack of planning, and some kind of weird mojo curse which dogged us mercilessly.

(12) It is annoying to see credit for a strong showing claimed by a national organization whose participation was late and limited; the more so when no credit is given to the local forces who succeeded in putting Prop. 2 on the ballot, and nearly carried it, against the prevailing wisdom — and stated wishes — of the larger movement.

(13) See http://awizardslife.com/ARREconomicReport1004.pdf, as well as the reports cited in (3) and (4) above.