Strategy, timing key to pot legalization

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SEATTLE -- In the late-1980s heyday of the anti-drug "Just Say No" campaign, a man calling himself "Jerry" appeared on a Seattle talk radio show to criticize U.S. marijuana laws.

An esteemed businessman, he hid his identity because he didn't want to offend customers who -- like so many in those days -- viewed marijuana as a villain in the ever-raging "war on drugs."

Now, a quarter-century later, "Jerry" is one of the main forces behind Washington state's successful initiative to legalize pot for adults older than 21. And he no longer fears putting his name to the cause: He's Rick Steves, the travel guru known for his popular guidebooks.

"It's amazing where we've come," says Steves of the legalization measures Washington and Colorado voters approved last month. "It's almost counterculture to oppose us."

A once-unfathomable notion, the lawful possession and private use of pot, becomes an American reality this week when this state's law goes into effect. Thursday is "Legalization Day" here, with a tote-your-own-ounce celebration scheduled beneath Seattle's Space Needle -- a nod to the measure allowing adults to possess up to an ounce of pot. Colorado's law is set to take effect by Jan. 5.

How did we get here? From "say no" to "yes" votes in not one but two states? The answer goes beyond society's evolving views, and growing acceptance, of marijuana as a drug of choice.

In Washington -- and, advocates hope, coming soon to a state near you -- there was a well-funded and cleverly orchestrated campaign that took advantage of deep-pocketed backers, a tweaked pro-pot message and improbable big-name supporters.

Good timing and a growing national weariness over failed drug laws didn't hurt, either.

"Maybe . . . the dominoes fell the way they did because they were waiting for somebody to push them in that direction," says Alison Holcomb, the campaign manager for Washington's measure.

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Washington and Colorado, both culturally and politically, offered fertile ground for legalization advocates -- Washington for its liberal politics, Colorado for its libertarian streak, and both for their Western independence.

Both also have a history with marijuana law reform. More than a decade ago, they were among the first states to approve medical marijuana.

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