Strategic Communications: SAFER
In 2004, VS Strategies Director Steve Fox observed that an impediment to changing marijuana laws was the belief, held by a majority of Americans at the time, that marijuana was as harmful as or more harmful than alcohol. Polling data demonstrated that support for marijuana legalization was much stronger among citizens who recognized that marijuana was actually less harmful than alcohol. He believed that if the public was educated about the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol, more people would view marijuana as a less harmful alternative and support for legalization would grow. So, in 2005, Steve and Mason Tvert launched SAFER (which stands for Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation) in Colorado with a goal of educating the public through extensive earned media coverage.
Over the next four years, the SAFER campaign, through campus activism, state and local ballot initiative campaigns, and numerous publicity stunts, generated approximately 1,000 newspaper articles, television clips, and radio appearances. In all cases, the “marijuana is safer than alcohol” message was front and center. This publicity helped change perceptions about marijuana in Colorado and set the stage for reforms that would come later.
Ballot Initiatives: Amendment 64 (Colorado)
In late 2010, in the wake of the success of SAFER (described above), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and other allies decided to launch a ballot initiative campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado. The lead drafters of this initiative were Steve Fox, who was at MPP at the time, and Brian Vicente, a founding partner of Vicente Sederberg LLC and principal at VS Strategies. They drafted the initiative so that it would be fair to consumers (for example, home cultivation was included) while setting a framework for a sensible regulatory structure. Once the initiative qualified for the ballot in early 2012 and officially became Amendment 64, Steve coordinated a grassroots campaign and earned media effort that relentlessly portrayed marijuana in a positive light and as a reasonable alternative to alcohol for adults. Both flyers and a billboard used during the campaign featured women saying that they preferred marijuana over alcohol along with a tagline, “Does that make me a bad person?”
In the final two months of the campaign, Steve organized weekly media events while overseeing a $1.7 million advertising campaign—funded primarily by MPP —involving television, radio, online, and robo-calls. The campaign also responded aggressively to attacks from opponents, including the mayor of Denver and the last three governors of the state. In the end, the voters of Colorado approved Amendment 64 by an impressive 55-45 margin, making Colorado the first state in the country with legal production and sale of marijuana, as well as legal home cultivation.
Ballot Initiatives: Question 2 (Nevada)
In 2016, VS Strategies was part of the core campaign team that guided Question 2, a ballot measure to regulate marijuana like alcohol, to victory in Nevada. VS Strategies coordinated all communications activity related to the campaign, including the drafting of all media releases, email alerts, and op-eds, while coordinating the campaign’s social media efforts. The firm developed the messaging for the campaign, trained spokespeople, and prepared talking points prior to public events and appearances. VS Strategies also played a significant role in the conceptualization of television ads for the campaign.
Government Relations: Amendment 64 implementation
Following the passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado, it was necessary, in 2013, to pass implementing legislation through the state legislature and to adopt new regulations for the cultivation, production, and distribution of retail marijuana. To facilitate this process, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appointed a 24-member task force to discuss and debate the various issues involved and make recommendations to the legislature and the Department of Revenue. Christian Sederberg, a founding partner of Vicente Sederberg LLC and principal at VS Strategies, represented the Amendment 64 campaign on the task force. Christian played a critical role, helping to steer the task force toward consensus on issues ranging from packaging to purchasing limits for non-residents.
When the process moved to the legislature, Jordan Wellington, who is now vice president of government relations with VS Strategies, served as the lead legislative staffer on the legislation and helped move the bills through both chambers. During the legislative session, Christian and a lobbying team coordinated by Steve Fox continued to advocate for commonsense policies. Most importantly, the team worked together at the beginning of the legislative process to determine its lobbying priorities and to come up with clear rationale for each one. Throughout the process, the team was consistent in its messaging and was able to justify its positions. By comparison, other stakeholders tended to ask for too much and had a difficult time adjusting when their full desires were not met. In the end, the legislation reflected much, if not all, of the Amendment 64 team’s priorities.