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Big donation to legal marijuana campaign means ambitious new voter outreach plans

Laurel Andrews
Campaign activity in support or opposition of the ballot measure to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana has been off to a slow start in 2014, but that may soon change with a large infusion of cash from the national advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. Images_of_Money photo / cc via Flickr

Five months before voters head to the polls on Aug. 19 to decide whether to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Alaska, campaign activity has remained relatively subdued. That may soon change, however, as the campaign sponsoring the initiative plans to ramp up its voter outreach efforts with a new infusion of funds.

Contributions to the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the organization sponsoring the initiative, have been trickling in since June 2013. But on March 13, the campaign reported by far its largest contribution to date, a check from the Marijuana Policy Project for $210,000.

The money was a planned contribution from MPP, wrote Taylor Bickford with Strategies 360, spokesperson for the campaign. The funds will be channeled toward an “aggressive campaign” to mobilize voters that will include TV and radio advertisements and direct mailing, Bickford wrote. “This is an important issue that Alaskans support, and the campaign is committed to raising and spending whatever it takes to win in August.”

To date, the campaign has received $246,191.84, largely from MPP. In addition, MPP has spent $147,493.07 on campaign activities and sent one staff member, Chris Rempert, up to Alaska to coordinate volunteer and field activities.

Based out of Washington, D.C., MPP describes itself as a lobbying organization with 125,000 members and supporters. The organization’s 2014 strategic plan includes efforts to pass medical marijuana laws in Minnesota and New York, attempts to legalize marijuana through legislative action in a handful of states, and trying to get legalization initiatives on the 2016 ballots in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Meanwhile, opposition to Alaska’s legalization measure has been somewhat muted thus far. Opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana has participated in media interviews and sent member Ben Cort to a panel debate at the University of Alaska Anchorage in March to discuss the initiative. SAM describes itself as a project of the Policy Solutions Lab, a consulting firm led by co-founder Kevin Sabet. It opposes incarceration of marijuana users and legalization of marijuana. The organization has not filed as an official group in Alaska with the Alaska Public Office Commission.

SAM did not return requests for comment on Wednesday, however Sabet told Alaska Dispatch in January that he had been approached by a “handful of leaders” in Alaska’s medical and scientific communities expressing their concern over the legalization of marijuana in Alaska.

“This is all homegrown,” Sabet said in January, referring to SAM's efforts in Alaska. He declined to name the Alaskans who contacted his group, but said that they would be available in coming months. So far, though, the only organization to be named as a partner is the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

ATNI represents 57 tribes in the Northwestern United States. In Alaska, 2013 ATNI members were the Village of Kasaan, Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and the community of Metlakatla, a spokesperson at ATNI said Wednesday.

“Member Tribes strive for drug-free communities in order to provide safe and healthy environments for their tribal members including the most vulnerable, the children,” ATNI Executive Director Terri Parr W said in a SAM press release. “In working toward this objective, they stand strongly in opposition to the legalization of drugs alongside their allies, including SAM.”

Bickford wrote that the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana would respond to any increase in SAM’s activity by ramping up its own efforts. “We have donors who will match dollar-for-dollar any money that (SAM co-founder) Patrick Kennedy spends to scare and confuse Alaska voters. If Project SAM enters this state, then our budget will grow accordingly.”