For years, Stanford has been the face of the drive to legalize marijuana in Oregon, the man who may have done more to push for lawful pot than anyone else in the state.
But in a video announcement, Stanford conceded that his latest petition drives would fail.
His measures would have allowed adults 21 and over to smoke marijuana legally and possess as much as 24 plants and 1.5 pounds of dope. But as the July 3 deadline for turning in signatures raced toward him, Stanford said in an online video message that he didn’t have enough money to collect the 87,213 signatures needed for one of his measures and the 116,284 needed for the other.
“We do not have the wherewithal to move forward and qualify for the ballot,” Stanford said.
There remains another measure out there, Stanford said, one that would make marijuana legal, but with more restrictions. “I liked ours better,” he said, “but the big multimillionaire funders out there didn’t.”
The big money Stanford referred to includes billionaire George Soros, the heirs of late Progressive Insurance co-founder Peter Lewis, and other rich backers across the country. That money is flowing to a measure pushed by New Approach Oregon that appears headed for the November ballot.
Stanford’s retreat—in the face of what may be a big victory for advocates of legal pot this fall—marks a major change in the way Oregon and the nation are preparing to debate the issue.
Supporters of legalized marijuana found a way to win in 2012, with victories in Colorado and Washington state. Importing the same successful strategy here meant there was no room for operators like Stanford, whose campaigns often raised more questions than they answered.
“Why not yield to the team with a winning rate?” asks Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Even if some of us hold our nose and endorse their measures, even flawed, they have allowed for a baseline. You can build on that baseline.”
Oregon was the first state, in 1973, to decriminalize marijuana, making possession of small amounts punishable by a fine. Oregon voters have been asked to legalize pot more often than in any other state—and have always answered no.
Stanford declined to be interviewed for this story. Of the 17 initiatives put forward since 1998, Stanford has run eight campaigns and made the ballot once.
Stanford has also been beset by financial and legal problems, which have clouded his broader message. Stanford, who operates a nationwide chain of medical marijuana clinics, pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2011 after a long history of trouble with the IRS.
His top contributor this year is the Foundation for Constitutional Protection in Austin, Texas. The group has been shut down twice by Texas authorities for failing to file tax returns. This year, the foundation gave Stanford $89,500. (The group has given nearly $700,000 to Oregon pro-pot campaigns in the past five years.)
“The big money is not and will not come into states where they perceive the local advocates are too counterculture for their tastes,” St. Pierre says. “You had better have very clean books, very clean hands.”
In 2012, Washington state’s campaign brought in $6.3 million, including $2 million from Lewis and another $1.7 million from Soros-backed Drug Policy Action. In Oregon, the campaign has raised $1.7 million and hasn’t even made the ballot yet. At least $1 million of that has come from funders of the Washington measure.
Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which spent $1 million to help Colorado legalize the drug in 2012, says voters respond better to messages that emphasize strict regulation when they don’t know what an emerging industry will look like.
“People who are serious about reform realize it’s unlikely voters are going to make it as legal to buy as a tomato,” he says. “We approach the issue from a more traditional standpoint in terms of regulation.”
If the New Approach Oregon initiative becomes law, marijuana sales like those in Washington would require the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to license recreational dispensaries and tax the sale of weed. No one under 21 could purchase pot, and it would still be illegal to drive while under the influence of the drug.
New Approach, like its predecessors, have emphasized law enforcement and tax revenue says Brian Vicente, a lawyer who has worked with campaigns and governments on the regulation of marijuana.
“We need to play by mainstream rules to get your message out there,” Vicente says. “We talked about regulation and taxation. That differs from some of the messages prevalent in the movement for 40 years, which were focused on personal freedom and the right to get high.”