A few days ago we lost a true titan of the legalization movement and a father of the cannabis industry when Steve Fox passed away, far too young at 53. Some readers may be familiar with Steve, as he played an integral role in nearly every major legalization development over the past twenty years. But many others may not be familiar with his name, because he was the rare person who never sought credit or the limelight, preferring to elevate those around him in public while always being more comfortable strategizing, organizing, and coordinating behind the scenes.
It is not hyperbole to say that Steve has done as much for this movement in the past two decades as literally anyone on the planet. Having come from Democratic politics to the Marijuana Policy Project in 2002, when making such a move was considered by most in the political establishment to be career suicide, Steve became the first full time marijuana lobbyist on Capital Hill. During his time at MPP he was lead strategist for nearly every federal and state marijuana policy development. He would go on to co-found Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Cannabis Trade Federation, become a partner at pioneering law firm Vicente Sederberg, and serve as an advisor to countless local, state, and national governments on the issue of marijuana policy reform.
But it was his work in Colorado that Steve is probably best known for. He was the lead author of Amendment 64, the ballot initiative that made Colorado the first state in the country to legalize, and served as campaign manager and chief strategist for that successful campaign. But few realize just how much thought, planning and effort went into getting Colorado to the point where it was ready to accept legalization.
Back in the mid 2000’s, when Steve was still with the Marijuana Policy Project, he dug into some polling data to help him craft messaging for legalization. What jumped out at him was buried in the cross tabs. That if a person believed that marijuana was safer than alcohol, they were a hard yes on legalization. At the time, only around 25% of the country believed that, so Steve was determined that if we could just convince another 26% of Americans that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, it would be game over for legalization.
This led him to start Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER, with Mason Tvert, as a vehicle to get the messaging out. He co-authored a book with Mason and NORML’s Paul Armentano titled Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink, a book which I’ve had countless young activists tell me was their motivation for entering the reform movement. And Steve, along with his colleagues, set their sites on Colorado as the state to hammer home this messaging and prove his political theory.
For nearly eight years Steve ran campus ballot initiatives calling on Colorado colleges to equalize marijuana and alcohol penalties as a means to gain earned media for the SAFER messaging. He ran local ballot initiatives in cities like Denver to engrain the SAFER message in the minds of voters. Steve and SAFER ran purposefully controversial billboards and pulled off political stunts to earn more media and drive home the message. His partner Mason Tvert once held a press conference on the steps of Denver City Hall, where he challenged then Denver mayor and beer industry entrepreneur John Hicklooper to a drink/smoke off, where Mason pledged to take a bong rip every time Hickenlooper took a sip of beer and see who was left standing last, in order to demonstrate to the world which was the more dangerous substance. As you can imagine, the story dominated local media headlines.
Steve and the SAFER crew even ran a ballot initiative to fully legalize in Colorado back in 2006, going against the conventional wisdom that you don’t run an initiative if you don’t think you can win (spoiler: they lost with just over 41% of the vote). But Steve was convinced that a statewide initiative was the right platform to get this messaging out and set the stage for a winning initiative down the road. Something that of course came true six years later when Coloradans voted to approve Amendment 64, making them the first state in the country to do so, knocking down the first domino that has led to seventeen legal states today.
Steve went on to author, co-author or advise nearly every successful state ballot initiative that followed. He worked closely with state governments, including in Illinois when it became the first state to legalize via the legislature. He even advised governments of countries around the world that were considering amending their own cannabis laws.
Much like he did with legalization in Colorado, he was always thinking three steps ahead. In 2011 he co-founded the National Cannabis Industry Association at a time when the industry was nascent in a handful of medical only states, recognizing that this new industry would grow and need a voice in Washington, DC. In recent years Steve spent a much of his time working on FDA and federal regulatory policy, understanding that whenever legalization happens at the federal level we will need to understand how these regulatory agencies work, cultivate relationships with the bureaucrats who run them, and have a plan in place to present when the time is right.
Steve did all of this without ever seeking credit or personal accolades. He was always most comfortable being a person in the crowd behind the speaker at the press conference podium than he was being the speaker himself. In a movement and an industry full of leaders with big egos, Steve managed to work with nearly everyone because he had little desire to boost his own.
When the history books are written, the name Steve Fox will be among the most recognized as being responsible for ending marijuana prohibition and ushering in the age of legalization. If you have a job in the cannabis industry, you owe that job in part due to Steve and his work. If you’ve ever purchased marijuana legally or smoked a joint made by a legally licensed company, you have Steve Fox to thank for it. Steve may not have sought out the credit he so rightly deserved, so it incumbent on those of us left working on this issue to tell his story and carry on his legacy.
So after you read this, fire up some legal weed and offer a word of thanks to Steve Fox for making it possible.
Thank you Steve for all you did for the cause of cannabis freedom. I am honored to have called you a colleague and a friend. May your memory be a blessing.