Interview: Aaron Houston of Students for Sensible Drug Policy

The battle to legalize Marijuana – for medical and now recreational use – has gone from a fringe movement to an effective and organized political campaign in the last decade. One of the people responsible for that change is Aaron Houston, the former legislative director of the Marijuana Policy Project and now the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. SSDP is a grassroots organization with campus chapters around the country, advocating changes to how government and universities drug use. The organization also actively campaigned for Proposition 19, the ballot measure in California that would have legalized Marijuana for recreational use. Prop 19 failed, but Houston still says we’re “at the beginning of the end” of Marijuana prohibition.

HeadCount: Well prop 19, I’m sure you were disappointed with the results. What do you think happened there?

Houston: I think we had a bad turnout election. It was not a good year, in terms of voter turnout for Marijuana ballot initiatives. It was a midterm election which doesn’t have as many young people voting in general, and we saw that bare out this year. Where in 2008 19 % of the electorate in California was made up of young people, this time it was less than 10%. And young [is where we find] the highest level of support. And that’s not to mention the significant and overwhelming response that the country had to Congress and the White House, in terms of who was voting. So it was probably our least preferred composition of the electorate. That being said, it really makes it quite remarkable that we got 46% of the vote.

There was opposition not just from people who don’t believe in legalization, but those who didn’t think it was a well-written law, can you describe some the arguments you ran into and what some of the opposition was?

Well interestingly in post-election polling or exit polling conducted by prominent Washington firms, we found that 30% who voted ‘No’ on the initiative actually support legal Marijuana, they just didn’t agree with the particulars of this specific initiative. It’s kind of painful, but it gives us lesson for the future. Certainly, when you have 30% of the people who opposed you actually agree in principal you have some work to do to draft this thing so that people can get behind it.

What were some of the objections people had?

Well interestingly we did have a significant and opposition from the Marijuana growing counties in the Emerald Triangle of northern California, so Humboldt and Mendecino counties voted against the initiative overall, and those are places where Marijuana growing is very much part of the culture so much so that it’s really a community activity up there. There was some extremely intense and motivated opposition from people who are frankly making a good amount of money under the current system of prohibition. In other words, growers are doing pretty well for themselves.

But if you have 30% of people who are supportive of the concept, but against the law, what were their objections other than a completely selfish “I grow Marijuana and I’m doing just fine now”? What were people saying and how does this shape potential policy and legalization laws in the future?

We had a lot of opponents who believed in legal Marijuana but who thought that the initiative would somehow give Phillip Morris and tobacco companies an edge in the legal market to come. It’s hard to counter that when it’s so plainly wrong but that was one argument we heard consistently and I have to think it did a great deal of damage.

Why is that wrong? Why wouldn’t the big corporate powers get involved if it was legal?

First of all, the tobacco companies have their hands full right now. They won’t move into anything that is to start with illegal under federal law right now. The tobacco companies were just regulated by the FDA tobacco bill that passed congress and was signed by president Obama in 2009. That legislation subjects the companies to unprecedented control by the federal government of their tobacco products. So it’s extremely unlikely that they would move into a grey legal market to try and get an edge on the Marijuana business. What would have happened if the proposition had passed it would have just been an extension of the medical Marijuana industry in California right now, which is currently not at all controlled by tobacco companies.

What about in other states? I know there were medical Marijuana initiatives in other states, what were the results in other states?

Well it was a disappointing Election Day. In Oregon and South Dakota, we had very painful losses. In California we lost, CA actually garnered the 2nd highest percentage for any legalization initiative ever. Arizona basically was split right at 50/50 [editor’s note: When all votes were counted after this interview occurred, Arizona’s legalization measure was approved by a slim margin]

So what kinds of lessons have been learned and what do you think the future holds for the legalization movement?

It’s clear that we do better in presidential election years- that’s no secret - but one of the biggest lessons we can take away from this is that we need to do a better job at reaching out to Tea Party conservatives who really support us. In their heart of hearts they support us, they just need to be given the tools to talk about this in a way that they can convince their friends and their family and they can be convinced themselves. After all we are fighting over 70 years of reefer madness propaganda here, so it takes some time to unwind.

There’s been a lot of progress up until these recent setbacks. Lets pretend it’s 10 years forward and someone looked back at 2010, where in this path would you say we are?

I’d say we’re in the beginning of the end. I’d say looking back 10 years from now we’ll find that 2010/2011 was really the beginning of a serious national conversation about continuing Marijuana prohibition. That will culminate in an agreement that what we’re doing does not work and that we need to legalize Marijuana rather urgently.

What kind of tax revenue do you think can be created by legalization?

Well [there’s] 12-14 billion dollars a year [in gross revenue] according to a Harvard economist. Probably more than that, that’s a conservative estimate, some of the less conservative estimates pegged the number around $42 billion a year. Of course, that’s keeping in mind, legal or not, it’s the nation’s number one cash crop, bigger than corn and wheat combined.

I want to talk about Colorado. People are calling it the "Green Rush." They talk about how fast the culture of Colorado changed so fast and medical legalization just took over the state. Some people regard it with great caution, saying this really is happening maybe too fast. What are your observations and understandings of what’s going on in Colorado?

I’m a native of Colorado so I have a particular place in my heart for that state and very pleased to see all the progress we’ve made there. I actually wrote the 2005 Denver initiative that passed against all odds. I would slightly disagree with your characterization in that the culture has changed rapidly; I would say that the culture has not changed it’s simply the business around it has changed so rapidly because of the culture. The culture in CO is so libertarian as opposed to moralistic or traditionalist. Colorado is even unique among the mountainous west states where there’s an even greater than usual concentration of liberty-minded people. I think there’s a very strong case to be made that it’s simply the proliferation of dispensaries in CO is really because of that unique political culture and because CO has fairly consistently or regularly has gained a spot on the list of the states with the highest per capita use. Regardless of the presence of medical Marijuana or not, it’s one of the highest using Marijuana states in the country.

Let’s talk a little bit about your organization and your background. What do you guys do and what is your game plan going forward?

The Students for Sensible Drug Policy neither condones nor condemns drug use, we just believe that the war on drugs has failed and that it’s primarily a war on us. It’s not a war against drugs; it’s a war against people. And, we fight the excesses of the drug war, and we fight the very waging of the drug war. Because we believe that it has destroyed many more lives than it has helped. I came to the job having been a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project for about 8 years and in that capacity got to talk to members of congress and people in the administration and the White House and everyday folks on the street. I’ll tell you what I found in that work is that I was kind of like a priest, in the sense that people would tell me about their Marijuana use that would probably never tell anybody else. And it gave me the sense that so many more people use Marijuana or have some story or some connection of people who have used it for medical purposes of whatever, who just don’t feel comfortable talking about it because there’s a code of silence around it in this country. It’s been a very exciting time to be involved, certainly with the department of justice guidelines that were issued last year and the DC medical Marijuana movement in Congress. I’m not discouraged by California or what happened in the other 3 states. It’s just the first day of the rest of our lives, it’s just the beginning, we’re just getting started.

Who are the other organizations that do this sort of work and how are they all niched and fit together?

Well there’s the Drug Policy Alliance, which is sort of a pre-eminent lobbying arm that focuses not just on Marijuana legalization but the broader harms of the drug war. There’s law enforcement against prohibition that recruits former policy officers and law enforcement officials to join their ranks and talk about how the drug war has failed. And there’s NORML and Marijuana Policy Project. We are really, SSDP, the only grassroots based organization focused on drug policy, not just on the campus level, all the other groups do grass roots organizing but we’re the only ones who have, as our membership, a grassroots base.