Image by Kent Buckley
Back in October 2015, still a month away from the deadline for submitting Bay State Repeal’s signed petitions to the cities and towns of Massachusetts for certification, Steve Epstein was optimistic. BSR’s “Petition B,” which the longtime activist helped draft and that would allow voters to legalize marijuana this November, seemed on track to make the ballot.
Appearing on a local radio show on October 17, Epstein stated, “We have about 35,000 to 40,000 signatures that I am confident we already have.” About a month later, however, Epstein submitted fewer than 10,000 signatures to the Secretary of State. Needing 64,750 certified signatures to get on the ballot, Petition B, which had won the endorsement of the Boston Globe and of influential pro-pot advocates like MassCANN, was stillborn.
President Kennedy, facing reporters in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, said that “success has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Epstein inverts Kennedy’s wisdom, suggesting that the failure of BSR’s signature campaign has a hundred fathers—and he’s not one of them. “I’m convinced that the people of Massachusetts really don’t care about advancing their liberty,” Epstein told me in an interview.
The facts suggest otherwise.
Massachusetts voters have frequently telegraphed their desire to liberalize marijuana laws, in polls and in elections. With medical marijuana already on the books, full legalization is likely to happen this year, but it’s a flawed initiative by the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), whose petition succeeded, that will be put before voters.
Epstein, a lawyer by trade, is careful about describing his role in the calamity. Asked if he was “in charge” of the signature drive, he states that he was merely “the coordinator.” Saying he was “in charge” is “an abuse of language.”
But, in addition to drafting the proposal, Epstein was talking to the media, sending emails, making social media posts, making the case for endorsement to MassCANN, etc. His fingerprints are all over it.
Whatever skills Epstein has as an advocate for legal weed, he was not up to the task of mobilizing the hundreds of thousands of people who support an end to prohibition. When asked to describe his plan for collecting 100,000 signatures in a relatively short time frame (10 weeks), Epstein replied, “I had a hope that people would do what they said they would do.” Hope, of course, is not a strategy.
BSR’s dubious plan was on full display on the group’s Facebook page as far back as August. “Is it a false assumption to believe that if a petition blank can be posted to the internet that thousands of you will print it out double sided, follow the instruction printed on it, sign it, put your address on it, perhaps get some friends to do the same and return to our P.O. Box (the address will be printed in a box on it) and do all this by November 1?” The language is pure Epstein and the absurdity of the post (he left out the part about buying a stamp!) would be laughable if the stakes hadn’t been so high. The inquiry generated two replies.
Epstein, who turns 60 this year, seemed convinced that the internet, particularly social media, and especially Facebook, would deliver the petitions his organization needed. On the same day that he made his wildly inaccurate estimate of having tens of thousands of signatures in hand, he said, “I think we’ve had some remarkable success with Facebook ads.” He said that BSR spent $1,000 and “we’ve appeared on over 100,000 computer screens.” That number is probably cold comfort to the dozen or so hardcore volunteers (Epstein’s estimate) who actually answered BSR’s call to collect the 9,932 signatures the group submitted.
BSR didn’t have to go down in flames. The group started in 2013, which gave it plenty of time to develop a statewide organization and raise the money to pay for signatures if its volunteers came up short. Without an experienced grassroots organizer in charge of the signature drive, however, the effort was doomed from the beginning. How else to explain their obtaining only seven certified signatures from all of Berkshire County?
CRMLA, with all its flaws, is poised to appear on the ballot. Epstein, a fierce opponent of the proposal, has come out swinging, calling it a “bad law” that he will “use every skill in my power” to thwart. In light of Epstein’s failure to mobilize support for his (admittedly better) proposal, I suspect CRMLA backers are not exactly quaking in their boots.
Patrick Keaney is a political consultant, activist, and writer living in Boston. He has successfully managed campaigns (including signature drives) in Boston, Suffolk County, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.