What does it take to legalize recreational marijuana? Interview with an insider who knows
Scot Rutledge was the Campaign Director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada in 2016. The Coalition worked to pass the initiative to legalize adult use (recreational) marijuana in Nevada in 2016. The ballot measure was ultimately successful, leading to the blooming cannabis industry we see in Vegas today. Scot took some time to speak with the Cannabis Magazine team about what it took to get recreational marijuana legalized, thus launching the recreational market in Vegas.
Scot, you have been in the cannabis industry for a while and have been an integral part of some big movements in Vegas which is one of the most watched, and most lucrative cannabis markets in the U.S. There is so much to cover regarding your career in cannabis thus far. Today we really want to touch on your knowledge about what it takes to lead a campaign to pass recreational marijuana in a state, given that you played such an integral role in the campaign to pass Question 2 in Nevada.
First, how did you get here? How did you get to where you are today in leading components of cannabis business and policy?
Scot: In 2014 I took a position with Congresswoman Dina Titus as her political and finance director. One of the things we did during that time led to where I am today. Congresswoman Titus is very supportive of medical cannabis legislation in Congress. Nevada was just going through the process of licensing new businesses for the first time, and we had no idea what these businesses looked like and what it meant to start a cannabis market.
Since a number of these cannabis businesses were going to open up in her congressional district, we took it upon ourselves to start touring businesses in other communities. Myself and the congresswoman traveled to the Bay Area a couple of times. We went to Phoenix, we went to Denver, and on those trips we visited over 30 marijuana businesses. In some instances, Congresswoman Titus was the first elected official, much less Member of Congress, who had ever stepped in these dispensaries, cultivations or production facilities. We saw a lot. We learned a lot.
That must have been very exciting for those companies! What happened from that point? Once you gained insight into other states’ cannabis markets, what was next in your journey?
Scot: When visiting the cannabis businesses in other states, I talked to some of the best and brightest in the industry at the time. That gave me a bit of a relationship to this new cannabis industry that was developing across the West. When I left Congresswoman Titus’s office in 2015, I joined the campaign to regulate marijuana as a finance consultant.
What was your role?
Scot: I was really just a consultant to the effort and then in the early part of 2016, they promoted me to Campaign Manager mostly because nobody else wanted to do it (laughs).
I said, “Well, why not.” I’ve run a non-profit, I’ve done a lot of different things at the same time. Managing a campaign, a state-wide ballot measure seemed like something I could do.
How was the experience of running that campaign? What did it take to get a ballot measure for recreational marijuana passed? It’s something that a lot of people in a lot of different states in the U.S. would like to eventually do.
Scot: It takes a lot of time and patience. The effort began in 2014 and the Legislature chose not to pass the bill into law at that time, so it went before the voters on the ballot in 2016. I was brought in to manage the communications campaign and also to raise the money to pay for it.
That meant a lot of meeting with key players in the cannabis industry. Nevada was unique from other states that have legalized marijuana on the ballot in that we were the first state to have the industry really fund the effort. Probably 90%, 80-90% of the funds in Question 2 to came from the industry here in the Nevada and some out-of-state interests that were looking at Nevada.
Those were actions you took on the industry side. What about on the public side? What did you have to do from a voter-relations standpoint?
Scot: When working to pass a recreational (adult use) cannabis ballot measure, you spend a lot of time talking to groups and doing public education and outreach, and then also dispelling a lot of the myths and lies about cannabis that have existed for decades. That was really a big part of my job.
I also was responsible for trying to secure endorsements along with State Senator Tick Segerblom, meeting with elected officials, legislators, members of council, etc., and trying to get them to endorse.
We were pretty successful in doing that. I think we built a lot of public support for the effort. Because we had a local, on the ground campaign team of people who knew Nevada was partnering with a national group like Marijuana Policy Project. I think that’s why we were so successful here and why we ended up ultimately winning by almost 10 points.
How does the win in Nevada compare to some states which have failed in their efforts to legalize recreational marijuana thus far?
Scot: If you look at a similar state like Arizona that failed in 2016. They did not have necessarily the same type of local, on the ground expertise, to garner public support. So you could compare the two. There are differences, but ultimately I would say if you compare Nevada to Arizona, there are a lot of similarities in the things that made us successful. I think the fact Nevada had a local teamwork is what made the difference between winning and losing in 2016.
So clearly when working to pass recreational marijuana it’s important to get the support of the industry, of politicians and of the public. On the flip-side, what was the opposition like during this effort? What kind of opposition to recreational marijuana legalization will other states face moving forward?
Scot: The opposition to these efforts going forward will generally be local groups that are concerned. Law enforcement never supports these initiatives. You usually have opposition from more conservative corners. That may start to change as we continue to see more and more states adopt medical marijuana in the legislature. It’s starting to change the conservative view. We’re starting to see that more and more, even in Congress.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight today. Surely it will be super helpful for groups looking to do what was accomplished in Nevada.
Scot: Thank you for having me. Yes, I wish all of those efforts the best.