Dr. Bronner’s Year-End Report from the Front Lines of the Fight for Cannabis Reform and GMO Labeling
Both cannabis policy reform and the movement to label genetically engineered foods in the United States made huge strides in 2014. Major battles were won, some narrowly lost, but ultimately victory is inevitable. Our company Dr. Bronner’s has devoted significant financial, staff and other organizational resources to both movements, and it is instructive to analyze them side by side.
First on the cannabis front, 2014 saw victories in DC (Measure 71: 70 to 30), Oregon (Measure 91: 56 to 44) and Alaska (Measure 2: 53 to 47), continuing the incredible momentum from victories in Washington (Initiative 502: 55 to 45) and Colorado (Amendment 64: 55 to 45) in 2012, themselves set up by the narrow loss in California in 2010 (Prop 19: 47 to 53) that triggered the first serious national and international debate on ending cannabis prohibition. Only Florida “lost” with 58% of votes in favor of medical marijuana, 2% short of the needed 60% (Measure 2). As most Huffington Post readers understand, by any rational measure of analysis marijuana use is much less problematic than alcohol, while its prohibition has caused untold harm to otherwise productive nonviolent citizens and their families, wasting taxpayer dollars and law enforcement resources.
Dr. Bronner’s Director of Social Action, Adam Eidinger, was campaign manager for the successful Yes on 71 campaign in DC. Adam and Dr. Malik Burnett of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) alongside other stellar staff, ran an incredible campaign educating local voters as well as the country’s political elites nationally that prohibition is an unjust racist policy that disproportionately impacts communities of color. Despite blacks and whites using cannabis at similar rates, DC arrests over 8 times more black people than white people for cannabis possession. Saddling a young man with jail time and a record obviously compromises one’s future as well as tears families apart. Dr. Bronner’s contributed $100,000 directly to the campaign and $100,000 to Drug Policy Alliance, earmarked to help power Dr. Burnett’s crucial work there.
Dr. Bronner’s also contributed $100,000 each to Oregon’s effort led by the New Approach team, as well as the Marijuana Policy Project’s (MPP) effort in Alaska. The contribution to MPP for Alaska was arguably much more crucial given the relatively small overall budget and closeness of the race in a traditionally red state. However, we also gave $2 million to the Oregon Yes on 92 GMO labeling campaign, that coordinated closely with the marijuana campaign in registering and driving the youth vote, that benefitted both campaigns tremendously.
The Nation published a great article the week prior to the election that nails competing dynamics in play in the cannabis legalization movement. DC was the first legalization campaign to run primarily on a racial justice platform, and absolutely crushed it. Alaska’s campaign was based on the MPP “safer than alcohol” playbook that won in Colorado, while Oregon was run on the similar “New Approach” strategy that won in Washington state. Clearly there’s more than one way to win the fight for legalization. Looking forward to California and the four to five other states in play in 2016 we can draw from the best of all these efforts. California in particular will be important to write the model regulations that we want reflected at the national level, which will happen soon after the wins in 2016.
While the Oregon and Alaska victories are sweet indeed, victory in DC for us was the sweetest. In the recent Congressional “cromnibus” spending bill debate, the crushing DC victory helped open room for riders to pass into law that prohibit the DEA from interfering with state medical marijuana programs as well as state industrial hemp programs. These are huge long-sought victories for the movement, and Americans for Safe Access (ASA) deserves most of the credit for successfully passing the medical marijuana rider via majority vote in the Republican house over the summer. Dr. Bronner’s has been a longtime supporter of ASA, having given close to $700,000 over the past ten years. Dr. Bronner’s has also been closely involved in efforts to re-commercialize industrial hemp farming, being a longtime supporter of Vote Hemp as well as recently being a crucial partner to the amazing efforts in Kentucky that have inspired the entire Kentucky federal delegation, including Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul, to publicly support and help make hemp farming a reality in the United States again.
Unfortunately though, DC legalization itself seemed to be the sacrificial lamb in the spending bill debate, with Congress attempting to block implementation of DC’s legalization initiative. However, DC has been so galvanized by the overwhelming mandate and outraged by Congressional meddling, that they are challenging Congress to a showdown that Congress is highly unlikely to win, and legalization will be the law of the land in DC come January. The Guardian provided a great overview of this latest struggle in their “Capital v Capitol” story. The high profile national and international political theatre of DC standing up to Congress for its right to determine its own cannabis policy is incredible.
What also makes the victory in DC extra special for Dr. Bronner’s, is that Washington Post Magazine ran a frustrating cover story on our own Adam Eidinger in January, and editorialized against Yes on 71 with weak, out of touch drug war hysteria in September. Back in January, I wrote an unpublished letter to the editor standing up for Adam and our advocacy work, which the 2014 election has now vindicated.
My January 2014 Washington Post Magazine letter to the editor:
Your cover story on local DC activist Adam Eidinger chose to inaccurately portray him as an ineffective Don Quixote figure, belittling the causes he fights for as well as our company. As explained to the reporter, we cap executive compensation at five times that of the lowest paid warehouse worker, and no profits are distributed to owners for personal use. Profits not needed for business development are dedicated to the causes we support.
Adam is closely involved in how we strategically deploy resources to reform draconian drug laws that disproportionately target people of color; notably Washington, D.C. has the highest arrest rate for low level marijuana violations. Adam has also effectively helped build the national movement to label genetically engineered food crops. We are fighting the chemical industry machine that has enthralled much of our country’s elites, to expose their agenda to engineer resistance to the toxic chemical herbicides they sell (Google “Agent Orange Corn” to see what’s coming next).
There were moments when Adam’s true stature was portrayed, but ultimately was undermined by a shallow and frivolous anti-activist caricature.
As a sign of the political and cultural turning of the tide, it’s also worth noting that the New York Times called for ending cannabis prohibition nationally in a series of well-written editorials over the summer.
Pivoting to the fight for GMO labeling, the movement in its modern resurgent form is only a few years old, driven largely by widespread and growing alarm at ever-increasing amounts of toxic pesticides applied to genetically engineered crops. See for example Tom Philpott’s article “How GMOs Unleashed a Pesticide Gusher” in Mother Jones. Over 99% of GMO crops in US soil are engineered to produce insecticide and/or tolerate heavy herbicide use, which like overdosing antibiotics in factory farms has rapidly created resistance in target weed and insect populations. GMO crops are being saturated with ever more toxic pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides banned in the EU due to suspected link to massive bee die-offs and Colony Collapse Disorder. While this is great for the chemical industry that both sells the GMOs and the pesticides used on them, our environment and collective health are paying the price. 64 other countries have the right to know if their food is genetically engineered, but the chemical and junk food industry have spent tens of millions of dollars to make sure Americans are kept in the dark.
In the face of record spending by pesticide and junk food companies, the GMO labeling movement gained huge momentum and strength from narrow losses to enact mandatory GMO labeling in California in 2012 (Prop 37: 49 to 51) and Washington in 2013 (Initiative 522: 49 to 51), and set up major victories in 2014. In May, Vermont became the first state to enact mandatory labeling, and Jackson county in Oregon banned planting of GMO crops due to GMO sugarbeet pollen contaminating and ruining neighboring fields (Measure 15-119: 66 to 34). Maui also banned genetically engineered crops because of massive pesticide spraying (See Maui County Genetically Modified Organism Moratorium Initiative: 51 to 49). And statewide in Oregon, the Yes on 92 campaign came within five hundredths of one percent of winning (Measure 92: 49.97 to 50.03), showing friend and foe alike how easily we can win in a bigger 2016 presidential electorate. An underfunded effort in Colorado did not fare well, unfortunately, but it serves as an important movement lesson for 2016.
Dr. Bronner’s was a leading financial contributor to all these efforts, and also devoted significant staff time and other organizational resources, especially to the Oregon effort. Two great articles to review in particular are Katie Ayers’ “Oregon Poised to Mandate GMO Labeling” in Reader Supported News that really dives into the heart of the matter; and also this thorough piece in the Register Guard “Even If Defeated GMO Issue Is Not Going Away.”
Vermont, Jackson county and Maui are all currently being sued by the pesticide and junk food industries, and these industries are frantically lobbying Congress to pre-empt states’ rights to enact mandatory labeling of GMOs. They know that the nationwide movement to label GMOs continues to surge and grow in strength even as their major GMO traits continue to fail and pesticide use goes through the roof. The USDA audits chemical inputs every five years for major crops, and in spring of 2015 will publish updated data on herbicide and insecticide use on GMO corn that will force even the most biased journalists and scientists to confront the truth that GMOs amount to a massive pesticide industry boondoggle that is not boosting yields.
I published a popular Huffington Post blog article about major mainstream media publications running interference and covering for the pesticide industry even as EPA and USDA rubber-stamped approval for their next generation 2,4 D herbicide tolerant crops. We expect, as with the movement arc of ending cannabis prohibition, that more and more major media will wake up and get a clue; but those that don’t are just another obstacle on the way to inevitable victory.
The bottom line is, the GMO labeling movement is on fire and surging. We will likely prevail in one to two New England states legislatively in 2015, and as necessary in a major state in 2016 via the initiative process, as we keep bringing a bigger, better and more strategic fight. Like the narrow loss on the cannabis front with Prop 19 in 2010 in California, which educated and moved the debate forward setting up subsequent victories in 2012, the GMO labeling movement is poised to rack up major wins in 2016. But we are as likely to achieve victory through the market by 2016, as we are unleashing and fueling major cultural and market drivers and expect more and more food companies to flip and accept mandatory labeling just as they did in Europe. Chipotle is already disclosing and moving away from GMOs, as is Cheerios, Grape Nuts and other high profile brands. Whole Foods is mandating GMO labeling of all products by 2018 in its stores and many major mainstream retailers have refused to carry GMO salmon if or when approved.
Our experience with the movement to end cannabis prohibition over the past 15 years shows how much faster and stronger the modern movement to label GMOs is growing in a much shorter time. People are waking up that we have to transform our agricultural policies and dietary choices and eat more sustainably if we want to feed future generations, which requires as a first step that citizens are properly informed and empowered to make wise choices.