During the US presidential elections last year, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives to allow for regulated recreational cannabis markets for those aged 21 or over – a bold move contrary to both US federal law and the international drug conventions. The results followed a highly successful, sustained campaign in favour of the initiatives and, last week, IDPC attended a roundtable discussion with Rick Ridder and Joannie Braden from RBI Strategies and Research – a leading international campaign management firm that played a pivotal role in both states. The discussion focused on the campaign strategies that were developed, and to how these might be adapted for broader campaigning use elsewhere in the world.

The Washington and Colorado campaigns had similarities and differences. Crucially, both had already passed laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana, and its supply through a network of licensed dispensaries – meaning that much of the taboo and stigma around the drug had already been broken down. However, while the campaign for regulated markets in Washington had the support of former elected officials, law enforcement officers and some of the main media outlets – the Colorado campaign received no government support. Instead, it worked in a much more “bottom-up” way, supported by community groups, young voters and civil society groups. Opposition to the bills came from right wing voters, but also from some left wing voters (either those who feared the involvement of big corporations and the tobacco industry, or those opposed to any level of regulation for the drug). Also, many medical marijuana dispensaries stood against the bills, concerned about the possible impact on their own businesses. Yet there was no well-coordinated opposition campaign in either case.

When planning the Washington and Colorado campaigns, lessons were learned from an unsuccessful bill in California a few years previous. In California, where one key demographic seemed to change their mind as the voting neared, swinging the overall vote against the regulation of cannabis – women aged 30-50. Therefore, a large investment was made in Washington and Colorado to reach these voters in particular. In order to identify the most successful messages, the campaign team conducted web tests, focus groups, poll surveys, etc.



The key messages that emerged highlighted the failure of current prohibition, the need “to have a conversation” about the issue, and the socio-economic benefits of the regulation (such as reduced prison overcrowding, the freeing up of law enforcement resources, and tax revenue – with profits going on public investments rather than to Mexican drug cartels. In Colorado, specific focus was put on the tax income being invested in building new schools – language that made it into the final amendment itself in order to tap into a key local political issue and a widely acknowledged need (to the extent that some referred to the ballot initiative as the “education bill”).

The campaigns themselves included internet advertising targeted at the key demographics, email communications, well-researched advertisements on TV and radio, and discussions in public forums and local events. Interestingly, the design and branding of the campaigns steered clear of images such as marijuana leaves, joints, cannabis smokers – and even avoided the colour green! Instead, the campaign materials featured middle-age mothers in coffee shops, health workers and law enforcement officials.

Some of the main campaigning lessons that can be learned from Washington and Colorado include:

  • the need for careful planning and research before agreeing on target groups and language (for example, many activists wanted to emphasise that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol, but it soon became clear that this message did not work with the target populations)
  • the need to provide a clear exchange – what benefits can you offer in return for someone’s vote or support (in Colorado, for example, the trade-off was a vote in return for funding for new schools)
  • the need to relate campaign language to the local context, needs and “emotional chords” – touching on the issues and debates that generate the most interest and support (in Colorado, the issue of the lack of investment in schools)

The future of regulated cannabis markets in the USA has just begun – much is still undecided and many issues remain to be resolved (following the votes in 2012, even the models being developed by Washington and Colorado differ in many ways). Other states are considering similar moves, most likely at the next presidential elections in 2016, and other countries are watching closely to see how Washington and Colorado proceed.

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