Can You Decriminalize Marijuana Statewide with a PR budget of $10,000? Nearly.


(Matt Simon, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy)

After stumbling on a story in the Nashua Telegraph last week, PRNewser wondered how a tiny organization could nearly change the marijuana laws in New Hampshire.

With a budget of just $10,000, Matt Simon and his staff at the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy used public relations to raise awareness for the HB 1623 bill, and get it passed in the State House. It was ultimately struck down by the State Senate.

The bill reduces penalties for possession of less than 1/4 ounce from class A misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or up to a year in jail) to a violation punishable by a $200 fine.

Simon’s blow-by-blow recap of the Coalition’s efforts to pass the bill are after the jump.

Getting the editorial pages of both the Nashua and Concord papers are highlights, along with many appearances on local talk radio and TV *nearly* got it done.

Reading Matt Simon’s story, and looking at the placements, it’s clear the coalition used common sense in their PR strategy and combined proactive media placements, on the ground canvassing and letter writing, followed by reactive publicity to get their point across. They didn’t leave anything sitting in a folder. It’s all repurposed in blog posts, video clips and links.

The full story:

“The biggest challenge was getting the bill taken seriously by the legislature, and we knew a big media splash would be our only hope to make the bill seem politically palatable to legislators. Our budget was only a little over $10,000, so we would really have to earn our successes. The initial reactions from legislators were very dismissive. Fortunately, a lot of media folks were delighted to see a credible-sounding organization spring up and start speaking truths about marijuana and marijuana policy. The Nashua Telegraph had taken an interest in us since we formed NH Common Sense in January 2007, and they jumped behind our two 21-year-old sponsors (both from Nashua, the state’s second largest city) with this Jan. 24 editorial endorsement.

It’s important to know that the New Hampshire House of Representatives is more representative and more accessible than any other state legislative body. There are 400 representatives, and each makes $100 a year, so it is a true citizen legislature, and every year we see that any bill which develops a good buzz around it can catch fire in the House. The biggest bump for HB 1623 came with the Feb. 3 appearance by our two 21-year-old sponsors along with Jail Superintendent Rick Van Wickler from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) on Arnie Arnesen’s “Political Chowder.”

I had been on Arnie’s radio show a few times over the course of the NH Primary; she thinks the whole War on Drugs is stupid, and she was eager to get people talking about this modest, sensible bill. After a few phone conversations, we decided that pairing the two young reps with Van Wickler would be the best presentation. Reps. Jeff Fontas and Andy Edwards rose to the occasion and won themselves a ton of respect, and Van Wickler’s appearance got the entire political establishment nervously whispering about LEAP. The segment was essentially an 18 minute promo for the bill, and it was very effective.

We also sent a series of letters to house members, got citizens to contact their representatives, and coordinated testimony for hearings, but the media relations work was probably most important.

After the surprising 193-141 House vote, Governor John Lynch immediately issued a rare veto threat and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Foster called the bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate. With Democrats holding both houses of the legislature for the first time in over 100 years, Democrats Lynch and Foster decided to play it overly cautious in an election year, with both racing to proclaim that the bill “sends the wrong message” to kids about drugs.

Fortunately, the folks at New Hampshire Public Television took an immediate interest. Richard Ager, host of “NH Outlook,” called me, and I hooked him up with Sam Peret, a clean-cut, model college student who had lost his financial aid after being arrested and convicted for having an empty box in his car with .03 ounces of marijuana residue. Peret has served as vice president of student government, leads the debate society, started a campus TV show, and will graduate with honors in May. He’s an amazing guy, but I have to admit, I was astonished when I saw him tell Ager “I am an out-of-the-closet pot smoker” and call for a paradigm shift. I also helped Ager set up interviews with our sponsors and Rep. Jason Bedrick, the young Republican whose floor speech channeled the recently deceased William F. Buckley, Jr., and helped convince 40 Republicans to buck leadership in support of the measure. Ager did great work getting Lynch and Foster on camera with their “sends the wrong message” drivel, which contrasted quite nicely with Bedrick’s dazzling intellect. “As Milton Friedman said, we have to judge a policy by its outcome, not by its intent,” the 24-year-old legislator from Windham told Ager. The eight minute segment made our side look great, and it subtly made our opponents look like knee-jerk reactionaries.

Especially the Mayor of Manchester, NH’s largest city. Frank Guinta was the GOP’s likely candidate for governor until he made the foolish mistake of threatening a state representative’s day job over his HB 1623 vote. Nobody quoted me on this one, but “Manchester Mayor Sends Kids the Wrong Message about Democracy” was my favorite press release of the effort, and Guinta dropped his plans to seek higher office the following week.

Our bill never had a prayer in the Senate, of course, but our issue emerged from this battle in great position. A final PR success was me spending an hour in studio with Richard Ager (guest-hosting) and an opposing police chief for a free-ranging discussion on NHPR’s “The Exchange.” The prohibitionists are getting more and more nervous, and now they are being out-messaged left and right by a network of effective organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, LEAP, and (on a much smaller scale) NH Common Sense.

Overall, we did very well in the print media (links are blogged at The Concord Monitor jumped on board with a great endorsement after the House vote, and they ran my op-ed “Marijuana ban failing just as Prohibition did” after a police chief made an absurd statement about Alcohol Prohibition during our House hearing. We placed more LTE’s than I could count, and by April we were able to get poll numbers that demonstrated the tide was turning against Marijuana Prohibition in New Hampshire.

This summer, we will transition into election mode and seek to raise our issues through the election process.”