So, with the backing of the ACLU's state chapter, Holcomb formed New Approach Washington. In June 2011, the group announced Initiative 502, to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana and to create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores. It was tailored to gain mainstream support: There would be no home-growing, and there would be a DUI standard designed to be comparable to the 0.08 limit for blood-alcohol content.
The drug also would be taxed at every stage, from growing and processing to selling. State studies were done showing legalization could bring in half a billion dollars a year for schools, health care and substance-abuse prevention.
The list of co-sponsors was unimpeachable: Steves, McKay, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, the former top public health officer for Spokane County, two past presidents of the state bar association, a top University of Washington addiction expert. The Seattle Times' editorial page offered its own endorsement.
National drug-policy reform groups also were focusing on 2012. The New York-based Drug Policy Alliance saw campaigns developing in three states — Washington, Colorado and Oregon — and it had the money on-the-ground advocates so desperately needed. The alliance is funded in part by billionaire and longtime liberal political donor George Soros, who came out in favor of marijuana legalization in 2010.
The organization chipped in more than $1.6 million in Washington. The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project gave $1 million in Colorado.
Then came another big donor. Peter Lewis, the founder of Progressive Insurance, had used marijuana after a leg amputation and had been a big contributor to medical marijuana campaigns. His people initially told Holcomb they didn't think I-502 would pass, but then he offered a match: If they could raise $650,000, he'd kick in $250,000. New Approach Washington met the goal, and Lewis became the campaign's biggest donor, responsible for more than $2 million of the $6 million raised.
The money ensured that Washington's activists could keep their message on air, and they did so effectively.
The first television ad, which aired last summer, featured a middle-aged mom saying that she didn't like marijuana, but that taxing it would bring in money for schools and health care and free up police resources. Among women aged 30 to 50, Holcomb says, support for regulating marijuana jumped about 18 percent.
The next ads featured McKay, former Seattle U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer and Charles Mandigo, the former head of the FBI office in Seattle, urging approval of I-502.
Colorado's measure didn't have the big-name endorsements that Washington's did, but the state had other things going for it. For one, it already had the most highly regulated medical marijuana market in the country. There, organizers were careful to appear before news cameras in suits and ties. Ads featured middle-aged women, or schoolchildren who could benefit from marijuana taxes.
Opponents tried to fight back, mounting a $543,000 campaign in Colorado, with backing from a Florida-based anti-drug group and an evangelical Christian group.
In Washington, a small group from the medical marijuana community raised $6,800 to oppose I-502. They criticized the DUI standard as arbitrarily strict and said the measure didn't go far enough because it wouldn't allow home-growing.
A group of nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to publicly oppose the measures, but the DOJ and the White House remained silent.
Instead, Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy adviser, served as a counterpoint to the legalization campaigns. The ills of prohibition — the racial disparities in who gets busted, the lifelong consequences of a conviction for landing jobs or student loans — could be solved without legalization, which would increase the availability of marijuana for teens who are most susceptible to becoming addicted, he contended.
Yet such arguments found little support.
"When you hammer away at that message, saying we can save education and make better use of police resources and get rid of cartels, and there's nothing to oppose that, that sounds sensible to people who aren't hearing the other side," Sabet says.
On Nov. 6, I-502 passed with nearly 56 percent. Colorado's Amendment 64, which allows home-growing and does not include a drunken driving standard, passed with 55 percent.
Oregon's Measure 80 ultimately failed. But even with little campaigning behind it, that proposal got nearly 47 percent of the vote.
As they await word about whether the Justice Department will try to block the measures from taking effect, national drug-law reform groups are salivating over their chances in 2014 and 2016.
California? Nevada? Massachusetts?
"Something is happening, and it's not just happening in Washington and Colorado," says Andy Ko, who leads the Campaign for a New Drug Policy at Open Society Foundations. "Marijuana reform is going to happen in this country as older voters fade away and younger voters show up. Legislators see this as something safe to legislate around.
"They see the writing on the wall."
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle
Kristen Wyatt contributed from Denver