By John Schroyer
Legalization campaigns are ramping up in the key cannabis battleground states of Oregon and Florida, where marijuana supporters are about to bring out the big guns.
In Oregon, organizers behind an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana announced a $2.3 million advertising purchase, which could be a record-setting amount for any pro-marijuana campaign in the United States.
In Florida, a “burst of ads” will hit TV screens soon promoting an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the country’s fourth-largest state by population.
The pro-cannabis camps in each state will use different messages to drum up support, but both plan to focus their ads on the general public rather than on the business community.
Still, advocates say existing companies and entrepreneurs nonetheless will play an important role in generating support for the measures and bolstering the legalization campaigns.
“Whenever I hear about some multimillion dollar business plan for medical marijuana in Florida, I try reach out to them and say, ‘Listen, we need your help with the campaign, because if you want to invest in a business in this state, there’s nowhere to invest if we don’t win,'” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of United for Care, the main organization behind the Florida MMJ push. “And a lot of them have (contributed to the campaign).”
Big Ad Bucks in Oregon
Legalization backers in Oregon hope to dominate the discussion about marijuana legalization in the state.
The recent $2.3 million television ad buy is on par with the cost of the entire campaign for Amendment 64, the successful 2012 Colorado recreational marijuana initiative.
“I think the campaign ended up being in the $2-$3 million range,” said Mason Tvert, one of the architects of Amendment 64. But that figure included all expenses, including payroll for campaign staffers as well as the petition drive in addition to advertising.
The Oregon initiative, called Measure 91, would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, putting oversight of the industry under the control of the state’s liquor control agency.
Peter Zuckerman – communications director for New Approach Oregon, the main group behind the legalization push – said the campaign will “spend as much money as we need. We’re going to do what it takes to win.”
The latest campaign contribution reports show that New Approach and other backers have raised much less than the $2.3 million to be spent on TV ads, however. As of Aug. 19, the campaign had raised only $881,000 and reported a balance deficit of more than $43,000, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s website.
Nevertheless, the campaign has reserved airtime on Oregon TV stations, said Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner for New Approach.
“We have a fundraising plan in place that we believe in. That fundraising plan shows that this ad buy is possible, and we are working hard to achieve that goal,” Johnson said.
The measure has the support of many professionals in the state’s growing medical marijuana industry, and some MMJ industry leaders could pump significant sums into the campaign.
So far, New Approach has focused on a message of undercutting the black market and boosting tax revenue to pay for programs such as drug abuse treatment and law enforcement.
That message seems to be resonating: Polling in Oregon has consistently found a majority of voters back Measure 91.
The only organized opposition committee registered with the Oregon secretary of state’s office – No on 91 – just filed its registration on Aug. 13 and so far has reported no financial contributions. The Oregon District Attorneys Association, the Oregon Sheriffs Association and several other groups have also gone on record against Measure 91.
Countering the Opposition in Florida
The strategy in Florida is a bit different.
Campaign leaders will focus their upcoming advertising spots on what they say is a sacrosanct relationship — that of the doctor and the patient.
“We’re going to try and personalize this as much as possible” with upcoming ads, said Pollara of United for Care, which has raised nearly $6 million for the MMJ legalization campaign. “This is about delivering a treatment option to very sick people. If it ends up being an economic boon to the state, that’s fantastic, but that’s not why we’re running this campaign.”
The business community, however, is playing a big role. Plenty of investors, hopeful dispensary owners and out-of-state MMJ businesses are already lining up in anticipation that Amendment 2 will be approved in November, and Pollara has used that to his campaign’s advantage.
Some donors to the legalization effort include Miami-based Complete Hydoponics, which has given $35,000 to the campaign; marijuana technology firm the Ghost Group, which has donated $20,000; and Scott Dittman, the CEO of FusionPharm, who has tossed in $20,000.
Opposition to the medical marijuana legalization effort is well-funded, however.
The Drug Free Florida Committee has raised just under $3 million to fight the amendment, including a $2.5 million donation from Nevada casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
The campaign is developing ads that actually paint the industry a negative light, warning voters that MMJ legalization will lead to an abundance of “pot docs” and “pot shops” across the state, according to the Sun Sentinel.
At the same time, a key business group has come out against the measure. The Florida Chamber of Commerce issued a press release recently blasting Amendment 2 for providing civil and criminal immunity to marijuana growers and retailers. The chamber also claimed the amendment would make Florida “ground zero for pot docs, much like the pill mill epidemic.”
Still, the vast majority of Floridians are in favor of medical marijuana at this point.
Although Florida election law requires any state constitutional amendment to get at least 60% of the vote to pass, Amendment 2 has been polling well above that mark for months.
“I’d rather be in this campaign than the Rick Scott campaign,” Pollara quipped, alluding to the fact that polling numbers for Florida’s governor – who is locked in a tight reelection campaign this year – are much less favorable than those for Amendment 2.
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]