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Is legal marijuana heading to your state's ballot? Read California treatment advocates' playbook

February 10, 2016
by Sherry Daley
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Based on its experience in advocacy around California's anticipated November 2016 ballot initiative on marijuana legalization, here are some recommendations from the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP) to treatment advocates in other states facing recreational use initiatives.

1. Start early.

Initiative processes are by nature less inclusive of the public than the legislative process. There are no hearings, no requirements for public input, and no requirements for stakeholder meetings. Even in states where legalization efforts are in the distant future, it is important to engage those behind the movement. Know their constituencies; watch their legislation; meet with them.

Be prepared with documentation to support treatment. Drafters of these initiatives, like the public in general, are likely to be undereducated about treatment and overconfident about the lack of effect legalization will have on addiction. Opinions are important, but hard evidence presented well is key to success. Information needs to be in-depth, but digestible. CCAPP used a series of fact sheets and letters where recommendations were made and references were provided to support them. Sometimes even basic terminology used by professionals in the alcohol and other drug (AOD) field was used incorrectly by marijuana initiative drafters in California, demonstrating their inexperience in drafting policy for this area.

2. Monitor key alliances.

For initiatives to be successful, there are precursors to watch for. In California, the lieutenant governor formalizing involvement was one such development. Medical marijuana statutes also draw opposing parties together in the policy arena. When administrators begin preparing functional elements for a possible implementation, such as reformation of medical marijuana policies, alliances begin to form that pave the way for an initiative.

Monitoring the publications of groups that stand to benefit from revenue is also helpful. Local government, research universities, law enforcement and schools all can signal a change in acceptance level that could indicate a warmer climate for an initiative.

3. Make frenemies.

Having an opposing position on legalization does not exempt an organization from affecting the drafting of a legalization initiative. Although many AOD treatment advocates oppose legalization, a negative or hostile relationship with the proponents will yield poor results. If the organization is seen as exhibiting unmovable opposition, there is no incentive for drafters to listen. A neutral approach to the language regarding revenue, as opposed to the concept of legalization, is imperative to a good working relationship.

Steer clear of accusatioins about what an initiative may or may not do to your state. During the drafting period, you are an advocate serving people in treatment who may stand to gain or lose under the terms of the language contained in the initiative. Hostile statements about “ruining the state,” “creating endless suffering for addicts,” and so forth are not conducive to positive construction of an initiative. Bear in mind at all times that if the initiative is drafted poorly, your organization can oppose it when it really matters, during the campaign.

4. Know your process.

Be aware that when an initiative is submitted to the state authority for the ballot, there will be little that can be done to change it, so waiting until you can see it “in print” is too late to have an impact. To be successful, marijuana supporters must negotiate with multiple parties who have tremendous political strength and financial interests. AOD interests can expect to be near the bottom of the list when it comes to being heard.

Most states have websites where initiative processes and deadlines can be viewed. Knowing these deadlines will assist in knowing when input should be timed. Consulting with an advocacy firm is also a way to understand the parties and processes in your state. CCAPP partners with state and federal advocates year-round, making access to important information readily available. CCAPP lobbyist Louie Brown of Kahn, Soares and Conway helped guide the association from beginning to end. Having high-quality representation also means that CCAPP will be ready when the legislature embarks on legislation to clarify and implement the initiative, should it pass.

5. Build an army.

Coalition building is an important step in the process. CCAPP collaborated with many organizations to build support for a treatment-friendly initiative. Tom Renfree (County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California), Al Senella (California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives), Rusty Selix (California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies) and Robert Harris (California Society of Addiction Medicine) helped form the core for a united front with the proponents. Although some differences existed in coalition members' responses to the preliminary draft of the initiative, a unified document addressing treatment was developed and submitted.

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