Playing It Smart: Sensible Seattle and the Winning of I-75 9/26/03

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For the national media, the only thing that happened in Seattle's elections last week was the defeat of a 10-cent per cup espresso tax. But caffeine wasn't the only drug on the ballot in Seattle. By a margin of 58% to 42%, Seattle voters approved Initiative 75 (I-75), which directs Seattle police and prosecutors to make marijuana possession arrests the lowest law enforcement priority.

While not decriminalizing marijuana possession, the successful initiative should bring down the number of marijuana possession arrests in the city. Seattle police have said that the initiative will not make much difference since police only made 400 pot possession arrests last year, but 400 arrests is still more than one per day. And city attorney Tom Carr has worried publicly that defense lawyers will challenge any possession arrest as going against the will of the voters.

While Seattle law enforcement may be correct in saying that the passage of I-75 will not make a big difference in day to day policing and prosecuting, it is a huge symbolic victory for the forces of reform. Seattle voters have now gone on record as saying they do not believe it is a proper use of taxpayer funds to throw marijuana users in jail.

To get a sense of how the victory was won -- especially in the face of opposition from drug czar John Walters, who has made defeating marijuana-friendly initiatives a top priority -- DRCNet talked with some of the key players involved. What emerges is the story of a calculated, carefully crafted campaign done on a relatively low budget but using the entire panoply of modern political techniques, from coalition building to push-polling to fine-toothed voter data analysis.

Dominic Holden, head of Washington NORML and a central organizer of the annual Seattle Hempfest -- the world's largest marijuana rally with about 100,000 people attending on each of two days -- also played a key role as head of the steering committee for Sensible Seattle (, which organized the campaign for the I-75 initiative. "This was an effort that began three years ago," Holden told DRCNet. "I met with the ACLU of Washington to sit down at a roundtable about how to move forward, and we hired the ACLU's Andy Coe to write the first draft. We also hired a campaign expert, Matthew Fox, to help us work smarter," Holden said. "We created an initiative and had begun working on it in 2001, but then came September 11 and it became clear that trying to do anything not related to the war on terrorism was too unpopular, so we dropped that effort and began again with I-75 last year."

But from the beginning Holden and Sensible Seattle reached out for funding that would allow the campaign to succeed. "We formed a steering committee early on, we applied for and received grants from the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance," he explained. "We also asked the ACLU to include us in their budget this year, and they did." The cost for the initiative campaign came in a just under $200,000, said Holden, "and that included not only the big contributors but also money we raised from going door-to-door."

With a respectable war chest, Sensible Seattle was able to hire another campaign consultant, Blair Butterworth, who ran successful campaigns for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Washington Governor Gary Locke. "Butterworth really brought some discipline to the campaign," Holden said. "He told us what was safe to say, and on his recommendation we ran a stealth campaign. We had a web site and voice mail, but we decided not to actively seek media coverage."

That's because the stories kept on coming out skewed, Holden explained. "Reporters always loved the fact that I was also the director of Hempfest, which terrifies older voters, and while they would give a good chunk of the story to our side, the editors always, always found it more compelling to lead with what elected officials or law enforcement had to say, and they felt compelled to write headlines like 'Police Oppose Pot Initiative," he said. "We stopped sending out press releases, we quit seeking out the media, and in some cases, especially with the conservative press, we found ourselves too busy to respond to their interview requests."

If Sensible Seattle wasn't playing the media game, it played the coalition-building game very well. "We formed a working group with the King County Bar Association, the public defenders, city and county council members, the League of Women Voters, and the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, among others," said Holden. "We were able to bring together lots of groups that had taken a stance against the war on drugs and we gave them a chance to work on I-75. That gave the various groups the opportunity to get to know each other and work together."

That's right, said Doug Hoenig, executive director of the ACLU of Washington. "We worked with numerous organizations on this, and we were very involved in the campaign," he told DRCNet. "We helped draft the initiative, we provided some financial support, and we mobilized our volunteers for phone-banking and other grassroots organizing. But we were part of a coalition that included a number of groups working on broader drug policy issues."

One group not normally counted among the usual suspects when it comes to drug reform is the League of Women Voters, but perhaps that's because reformers aren't keeping their eyes open, said Nancy Eitreim, president of the League's Seattle chapter. "We've been working on drug policy issues since at least 1992," she told DRCNet. "We advised the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project when they did their comprehensive drug policy study that year, and took a position supporting prevention, education and treatment as a means of reducing demand for drugs. We've been at this for awhile," she reiterated.

The League's Seattle chapter, with some 750 members, has continued to examine drug policy, Eitreim said, adding that supporting I-75 was a natural for the League. "Some of our members have remained involved with the Bar Association project," she said, "but it was also the research showing that people of color and low-income people were getting arrested in disproportionate numbers for minor drug crimes like marijuana possession that got us to support the initiative when it was filed a year ago."

But Sensible Seattle did more than avoid reporters and build broad coalitions. It did polling and used the results to craft its message, Holden said. "We spent $14,000 on Seattle's leading polling firm to have them ask voters what they thought of I-75, and we presented a series of messages to see which voters responded to. That was smart, because it showed us which messages worked," he explained. "We also tested possible counter-messages from the opposition to see which were most powerful, and that, too, proved to be extremely useful. That is the power of polling." (Most effective opposition messages, said Holden: "It sends the wrong message to kids" and "What about drugged drivers?" Most effective pro-initiative message: "People are still going to jail for pot.")

Polling also helped the coalition figure out who voters liked and didn't like and craft its message accordingly. "It was clear to us that we needed spokespeople who looked more like our electorate than I do," said Holden. "Our electorate, especially in a primary election, is older. We polled on responses to individuals, and we found that voters loathed Bush and Ashcroft, but respected the ACLU of Washington and the King County Bar Association. The KCBA had the credibility, the gravitas, to avoid being seen as too controversial. (KCBA Drug Policy Project director Roger Goodman was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.)

"Oh, they really hate Bush out here," said Holden. "Little old ladies on the bus will spontaneously burst into diatribes about how bad he is. So when drug czar Walter came up to campaign against us, that didn't help the opposition. In fact, because of our polling, we created a mailer that had a photo of John Ashcroft paired against two smiling older people. 'Who's right about I-75?', that mailing asked."

(One thing Walters' visit accomplished was to provoke the Marijuana Policy Project to once again challenge him to debate --anywhere, anytime -- on marijuana policy. "The real issue," Walters told a September 10 meeting in Seattle, "is should we legalize marijuana. Let's have a national debate on that." The Marijuana Policy Project has taken up that challenge (, but has yet to receive a response, said MPP Communications Director Bruce Mirken.)

That mailer was one of three commissioned by the campaign. The second mailer featured medical marijuana patients, while the third mailer asked whether police should be allowed to focus on violent crimes and whether tax dollars couldn't be better spent. "The mailers were laid out by a campaign literature professional," said Holden. "It cost more money, but it was worth it to have campaign materials with a professional look and feel."

Campaign adviser Butterworth made sure those mailers were sent to appropriate households, Holden said. "He hired a local database firm to look at Seattle voters -- and even non-voters," he explained. "We used the data to target out mailings to hit where they would do the most good. We also used a Midwest phone bank company to call friendly voters before the election, as well as using volunteers."

Sensible Seattle's financial approach also seems very sensible. While it was unafraid to spend money for political necessities, it kept operating expenses low. "We don't have an office," said Holden. "The office is a cell phone I carry with me. That costs us $350 a year, and we don't pay for office space, or staff, or computers."

While Holden and the rest of Sensible Seattle are pleased with their immediate result, they also see the I-75 victory as a stepping-stone (gateway?) to larger victories in the future. "This vote sent a message that voters don't want to throw pot-smokers in jail," said the Washington ACLU's Hoenig, "but it also sends a more general message of discontent with the way the war on drugs is being waged. We had the drug czar, the city attorney, the police chief all opposed, the two major dailies editorialized against us, but the public didn't buy their arguments. This gives a lot of encouragement to anyone concerned about changing course in the war on drugs."

As for Holden, he told DRCNet he hoped the lessons learned in Seattle could be applied elsewhere, but that reformers needed to plan carefully. "This was a big challenge, especially in the current climate," he said. "I'm not certain something like this would work in every city. It was the right thing at the right time in Seattle, but it could ultimately be a big drain of energy and resources if you fail. You need to consider that carefully. And when in doubt, start with a poll."

-- END --
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Issue #304, 9/26/03 Editorial: Patients vs. Prosecutors | Pain Doctor Arrests Provoke Backlash -- Group Urges FDA to Stop Cooperating With Justice Department | Cheryl Miller Memorial Project Does DC | Hawaii Meth Mania: Drug Summit, Media Push Target "Ice" | Playing It Smart: Sensible Seattle and the Winning of I-75 | Newsbrief: Dr. Hurwitz Indicted, Jailed in Campaign Against Pain Doctors | Newsbrief: MAPS-Sponsored Ecstasy Research Wins Final FDA Approval | Newsbrief: Rio de Janeiro Jails Stuffed With Drug Offenders | Newsbrief: UN Warns Stimulants "Public Enemy Number One," Cites Flawed Science, Attacks "Liberalization" | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Cannabis Tolerance Showing Up in India | Newsbrief: Canadian Government to Appeal BC Marijuana Legalization Ruling | Newsbrief: Drug War Sparking Death Squad Killings Again in Philippines | Newsbrief: Ashcroft Says No Plea Bargains in Latest Bid to Send America to Prison Forever | Newsbrief: Mandatory Minimum Sentences Unfair, Says Supreme Court Justice | This Week in History | Current Action Alerts: Medical Marijuana, Plan Colombia, HEA, Ashcroft's Attack on Judicial Discretion | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | Errata: Last Week's Corrupt Cops Story | The Reformer's Calendar

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