The surprising comeback story behind Oregon's marijuana legalization victory

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Oregonians love weed. I mean, this is the town that brought us Portlandia and a sports team called the Blazers.

So in a sense, it's not surprising that voters in the state passed a ballot initiative Tuesday to allow the cultivation, possession and sale of the drug.

The path to victory, however, wasn't always so clear. A similar effort in 2012 suffered a convincing defeat and poll numbers days before the vote showed a toss up.


What changed in two years? A few things:

Big money

Back in 2012, marijuana legalization was on the ballot in three states: Colorado, Washington and Oregon. If any of the three legalized the drug, it would be a groundbreaking moment.

The campaigns in Colorado and Washington raised $3 million and $6 million respectively. In Oregon, however, cash was harder to come by: the lead organization there had raised only $67,000.

The funds made a big difference. While Colorado and Washington waged sophisticated campaigns and blitzed voters with television ads, Oregon was limited to a mellower approach.


The measures in Colorado and Washington passed, but Oregon voters didn't bite: the ballot initiative was defeated with 53 percent opposed and 47 percent in favor.

Times have changed. The campaign this time around, Yes on 91, had raised more than $3.9 million toward its cause by the end of October, according to campaign finance records. Roughly half of that came from Drug Policy Action, a national lobbying group backed by liberal billionaire George Soros.


Better ballot measure

Part of the reason major donors stayed away from the Oregon campaign in 2012 was the ballot measure itself. The proposed law would have allowed individuals to grow and possess an unlimited amount of marijuana and was considered less restrictive than the initiatives in Colorado and Washington.


The law that passed on Tuesday — Measure 91 — spells out more rigid guidelines for personal use and government regulation. Adults will be able to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana and grow up to four plants. Another big difference: whereas the previous measure would have created a "cannabis commission" to oversee marijuana regulations, the initiative this time around cedes control to the state's liquor control agency.


Paul Stanford, a longtime Oregon marijuana activist who ran the campaign for the failed 2012 ballot initiative, tried a similarly liberal pitch earlier this year, but it didn't attract outside donations. "I liked ours better, but the big multimillionaire funders out there didn’t," he told Williamette Week in June.

Pro campaign

All the money flowing into Oregon allowed activists to run a professional campaign — less Bohemian and more Beltway.


Staffers and volunteers for New Approach Oregon, the group leading the effort, were out in full force in the weeks before the election, according Director Anthony Johnson. "Voters that are likely to support us across all demographics are getting phone calls, messages on social media and getting their doors knocked on," he told Fusion in late October.

Johnson would not reveal how many workers the campaign employed or how many voters it contacted, but its reach can be gauged on social media. The group's Facebook page collected more than 50,000 followers and dozens of photos promoted the initiative circulated on Instagram in the days preceding the vote.


Youth turnout was important. Young people support marijuana legalization in big numbers, but don't typically vote in midterm elections. The campaign hoped to connect with them online and on college campuses, where organizers chalked up sidewalks to remind people to vote, as well as through word-of-mouth.

On YouTube, an ad featuring "Shirtless Ryan" — bookish, squared-jawed, manly and barechested — explained why marijuana legalization was a safe and sensible choice, all the while winking at stoners who might be watching. "Reading is really sexy," he says, turning the pages of Tina Fey's Bossypants. "But you know what else is sexy? Taxing the revenue and using it for education. That's why I'm voting yes on Measure 91."

In Johnson's view, millennials have a social impetus for backing legal pot. "Young people are most likely to feel the brunt of these arrests and convictions that can hinder their career and employment opportunities," he said.


Since millennials turn out in such low numbers for midterm elections, the campaign's broader message was geared toward older people — perhaps not sold on legalization, but more likely to vote.

Television ads populated by graying ex-cops and judges aimed to convince undecided voters. In late October, a coalition of moms stood in front of cameras to make the case for legal pot, not because they wanted easier access to weed, but because they wanted more regulation.


The message was conservative by the standards of 1960s-style cannabis activism, but in a midterm election, such an approach might have been the only way cobble together enough votes for a victory. "In no way are we pro marijuana," Johnson told Fusion in the runup to the vote. "We're simply pro regulation and pro better policy for Oregon."

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`