Cannabis Voter Project's Colorado Roots and How It May Swing Elections

Cannabis Voter Project's Colorado Roots and How It May Swing Elections
File photo
The Cannabis Voter Project, an arm of the New York City-based advocacy group HeadCount, is a national organization that aims to unleash the power of folks who favor progressive marijuana policies in every state across the country. But it has some special connections to Colorado.

According to HeadCount executive director Andy Bernstein, "Denver is where the idea for the Cannabis Voter Project started."

That's appropriate given the success HeadCount has had here since its founding.

"HeadCount started in 2004 — this is our fifteenth year — with the idea of registering voters at concerts and bringing that community out to the polls," Bernstein explains. "Our core were the Grateful Dead, Phish and Dave Matthews audiences, but we've branched out a ton since then. We've been at shows by Jay-Z and Beyoncé, by Drake, we've done the Warped Tour. Overall, we've registered over half a million voters, and we have a very active street team in Denver. Don Strasburg, one of the big promoters in Colorado, is really involved."

Then, in 2015, Bernstein attended the Cannabis Cup in Denver and had a brainstorm.

click to enlarge A panel at the 2015 Cannabis Cup in Denver, where the idea for the Cannabis Voter Project was sparked. - PHOTO BY KEN HAMBLIN
A panel at the 2015 Cannabis Cup in Denver, where the idea for the Cannabis Voter Project was sparked.
Photo by Ken Hamblin
"I was really struck by what an energetic community it was," he recalls. "It reminded me in a lot of ways of when the festival scene was just starting to pop up, but it had its own aesthetic and vibe. And it occurred to me that there were probably a lot of people who weren't registered to vote and who weren't voting."

That was unfortunate, from his perspective. "Who has more at stake in elections than people who use cannabis?" he asks. "We have seen where ballot initiatives and pro-cannabis candidates have had a real impact on the revolution that's happened in America. I thought, if there's anybody who should be voting, it's people who care about cannabis — and this was a place where we could really make a difference and have an impact."

It took a while to transform this epiphany into reality, Bernstein acknowledges, "but this year we rolled out our website, which makes it really easy to register to vote. And it also has information on every state and where every member of Congress stands on cannabis. We keep it short and simple: It's meant for a modern audience to access on their phone. But we wanted to create a more informed electorate — and that includes me. I live in New Jersey, but I didn't have any idea where my congresswoman stood on cannabis until I looked it up. And since I feel like I'm a fairly well-informed person, I figured I wasn't alone."

We've included Cannabis Voter Project information on every member of the Colorado congressional delegation below. As you'll see, only one of these officials — Representative Doug Lamborn — is a full-bore prohibitionist by the outfit's standards, opposing all seven of the key issues listed on the site. The rest favor more of the matters than they oppose, regardless of political party, though only three Democrats go 7-0: Senator Michael Bennet, Representative Ed Perlmutter and Representative Jared Polis, who's been endorsed by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the race for Colorado governor.

Jared Polis has been endorsed by NORML in his gubernatorial run. - FILE PHOTO
Jared Polis has been endorsed by NORML in his gubernatorial run.
File photo
Bernstein points out that even mentioning cannabis was once rare among members of Congress: "Politically, this used to be the third rail. But we're helping to create an environment where candidates have to talk about it. No answer isn't a good answer, especially at the federal level, and hopefully, over time, all of these officials will feel accountable to the cannabis voter just like they feel accountable to let voters know where they stand on guns or abortion or any other issue that people are passionate about."

When cannabis voters band together, Bernstein argues, they could be the difference between their candidate of choice winning or losing. "We've seen it a lot in special elections since 2016. Some of them have been decided by 2,000 votes or fewer. So any issue that brings out a voting bloc that might not ordinarily engage has the ability to affect the outcome."

Midterm elections "are all about turnout," he allows. "Fewer than a quarter of young voters have turned out for the last few midterm elections. So if cannabis is an issue that brings out even a small number of voters who might not ordinarily vote, it could literally change everything."

That's especially true here, Bernstein feels. "Colorado is clearly the epicenter of the national movement. We've seen that clearly in the big changes in the economy because of cannabis. There's no question that Denver is a booming city, and some would attribute that to cannabis. It's like a second home to HeadCount, too — our co-chair is Marc Brownstein of the Disco Biscuits, who play Red Rocks every year, and they've got shows in Frisco coming up [December 7-9 at the 10 Mile Music Hall]."

That's not to mention the group's role in the birth of the Cannabis Voter Project. Continue for the website's analysis of Colorado's U.S. senators and representatives, and click to see how the project helped inspire Terrapin Care Station dispensaries' offer of discounts for voters.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts