How Travis Maurer went from Missouri pot bust to masterminding Oregon's … – OregonLive.com
Travis Maurer drove across Portland’s Burnside Bridge at midnight on July 1, savoring the sight of hundreds of revelers celebrating legal marijuana.
“I can’t believe we did this,” Maurer remembers thinking, flashing back to the years of effort that led to this moment.
Little did those partiers realize that the clean-cut 40-year-old in the white Toyota sedan was the person most responsible for bringing legalized marijuana to Oregon.
Just six years earlier, Maurer was living in Missouri and in the middle of the most searing experience of his life. He was in his boxer shorts working on his computer when narcotics investigators stormed into his home searching for the hundreds of marijuana plants he had hidden behind false walls.
He remembers standing up and urging the officers not to shoot his dogs. And then he turned to see his wife, Leah, on the floor with a shotgun to her head and, as it turned out, having a miscarriage. It was an image, he says, he will never forget.
And then, as they say in all those Facebook posts, you’ll never believe what happened next.
Maurer pleaded guilty to a felony marijuana charge, moves his wife and two kids to Oregon — they later had a third — and decided to fight to legalize the drug.
Still on probation, he became a medical marijuana grower in Oregon and used the money to help assemble a team of legal and political professionals to mount an initiative campaign.
The professionals told Maurer to wait until the next presidential election in 2016. Not enough pot-friendly young people will vote in 2014, they said.
Maurer, undeterred, talked his way into the good graces of the two guys – Ethan Nadelmann and Graham Boyd – who advise the small group of wealthy people willing to put big money into marijuana initiatives.
They agreed to help finance what turned into a $5 million campaign that led to a surprisingly strong 12-point victory on election night. The national legalization movement got a new burst of momentum as advocates look ahead to California and several other states in 2016.
Through all of this, Maurer stayed in the background, nervous that his probation officer and the judge who took his plea deal back in Missouri wouldn’t be happy to hear about his leap back into the cannabis world. And the pros running the Measure 91 campaign knew they’re not going to attract mainstream voters with a felon for a spokesman.
To this day, few people are aware of Maurer’s central role in Measure 91. But now that he’s off probation and marijuana is fully legal in Oregon, Maurer is willing – even eager – to share his story.
“The whole journey up to this point has been nuts,” says Maurer, explaining how surprising it was that he found a political opening others missed.
Marijuana activism has been around Oregon for decades. The state was the first to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug in 1973 and in 1998 it was among the first states to legalize medical marijuana. Cannabis growers have developed a huge industry, particularly in southern Oregon, and some estimates put the value of the state’s marijuana business at $1 billion a year.
But Oregon’s home-grown activists didn’t always know how to speak to average voters. They lost a 2010 measure to liberalize the medical marijuana laws. In 2012, while Washington and Colorado voters became the first in the nation to legalize marijuana, a more radical legalization measure lost in Oregon.
Maurer was the one who sparked its turn into a powerful political force in Oregon.
“If it wasn’t for Travis, I don’t think we would have gotten to this point,” says Adam Davis, a Portland pollster whom Maurer hired. “He’s not bashful and he’s willing to make the tough calls. He’ll sit in a waiting room until someone sees him. He’s like a guy out of the movies. He was just determined to do this.”
With his athletic build and earnest Midwestern friendliness, Maurer comes off as a guy more likely to be a tractor salesman than a zealot for cannabis rights.
Maurer, who has always had an entrepreneurial bent, says he drifted into the pot business one step at a time.
He hurt his back when he was 24 and found that marijuana eased his pain. “I learned that marijuana was very helpful, besides when you’re going to a Grateful Dead concert,” he quips.
In 2005, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and marijuana eased some of her symptoms before she died, he says.
Missouri had no medical marijuana law, but Maurer says he started growing it to help her and also supplied some friends who were helping AIDS and cancer patients. “The left-overs I’m selling,” he admits.
He built elaborate false walls in his home in a Columbia, Missouri., subdivision to hide his marijuana crop.
By 2009, he had about 300 plants and “it was my last harvest,” he says. “I was going to be done.”
But on March 3, police raided his home and charged him with illegal drug manufacturing. Maurer pleaded guilty, was placed on five years’ probation and tried to figure out what to do with his life.
An old friend from his college days, Anthony Johnson, persuaded him to move out to Oregon and start over.
Johnson, a former Portland attorney, had worked on the 2010 medical marijuana initiative and would later become the chief sponsor of Measure 91.
“I made my decision,” Maurer says. “I broke the law. But if I think the law’s unfair I need to do something about it…I wanted to take this anger and new sense of purpose and help end the drug war.”
Maurer says he was struck by the massiveness of the marijuana industry in Oregon – especially compared to Missouri. If any state should be willing to legalize the drug, he thought, it was here.
He began introducing himself to people, trying to figure out how to move forward on his grand mission.
“Travis just wins people over,” says Dave Kopilak, a lawyer who was then at one of Portland’s biggest law firms — Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt.
Maurer would bring new people into his embrace, taking them to his kids’ soccer games, where he would also explain how bummed he was that he couldn’t coach them because of his felony.
“He’s the kind of guy who knows his neighbors by name and is friends with them,” says Peter Zuckerman, the communications director for the Measure 91 campaign. “He knows the person who serves him at the coffee shop. At his gym he knows all of the trainers and they like being around him.”
Kopilak says Maurer wanted to put together a team of high-powered operatives to pursue legalization: “He wanted to go white collar and corporate.”
Maurer started writing checks around town. In addition to Kopilak and pollster Adam Davis, he hired communications consultant Brian Gard and lobbyist Gary Oxley.
It soon became apparent to the pros that Maurer wasn’t as well-heeled as most of their clients. For one thing, he and his family were – and still are – living in a double-wide on a flag lot in Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood.
Kopilak says he once gingerly asked the others if Maurer was also late in paying their bills. He was, but by that time everyone was so fond of him that they cut him some slack.
Maurer is hazy on whether he violated the terms of his probation by growing medical marijuana. In Missouri, one of the conditions was that he stay away from illegal drugs. In Oregon, he says, probation officials didn’t see the conviction as serious and told him he didn’t need to check in regularly.
He says he got the same relaxed message from the two times Portland police officers asked about his marijuana grow. Once he was asked to provide paperwork to show it was legal. Another time, he was called at night to turn off an alarm. He added with a laugh that an officer told him she would have entered the building to do it herself but didn’t want to interfere with the cycle on his grow lights.
His breakthrough came when he persuaded Nadelmann, who heads the Drug Policy Alliance, and Boyd, who advised billionaire Peter Lewis on his marijuana reform efforts, to attend a meeting at Schwabe Williamson in April of 2013.
Maurer and his wife opened with a harrowing account of his Missouri arrest and then turned it over to the experts to argue why marijuana legalization was doable in 2014.
At that time, says Boyd, “it was my belief and Peter Lewis’ as well that we absolutely needed to wait until 2016 to do marijuana legalization in any state.”
But he says Maurer worked through each objection. Most importantly, he collaborated with Boyd to design a poll that wound up showing that a non-presidential electorate could pass a cannabis measure in Oregon.
“Travis has always recognized what he knows and what he doesn’t know,” says Boyd, who now works with Lewis’ family and other wealthy donors after Lewis’ death in late 2013. “He’s never pretended to know polling or politics. He’s idealistic but he doesn’t charge ahead without doing the careful groundwork.”
On top of that, there’s that winning personality. “He is an extremely friendly and genuine person,” says Boyd. “Who wouldn’t want to be Travis’ friend? I’m Travis’ friend.”
While Nadelmann and Boyd were eventually persuaded, not everyone was. Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, another key national group, hated the idea of going on the ballot in 2014 and announced he wouldn’t have anything to do with the initiative.
Maurer managed to get released early from probation, in the fall of 2013. But he was still careful to stay behind the scenes.
Johnson, adept at staying on message and without Maurer’s felony baggage, became the chief public face of the campaign.
Last November’s victory cemented the future of legal marijuana in Oregon. Although activists weren’t happy at all of the decisions made next by the Legislature, the strong winning margin discouraged any attempt to dismantle the law.
Maurer says he’s now gearing up an effort to put a legalization measure on the Missouri ballot in 2016. He’s consulting for marijuana businesses around the country and said his wife plans to open a dispensary.
“The last thing I tell everybody,” he says, “is that I’m only interested in working with you if you give back to the movement.”