Yes, the Tiger King really did run for governor on a ‘legalize weed’ platform

Published on April 14, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
'Tiger King' Joe Exotic's 2018 run for Oklahoma governor included a call for full cannabis legalization. (Photo: Netflix)

Right now Americans are obsessed with exactly two things, and one of them is Tiger King, Netflix’s hit seven-part documentary series.

'Let’s just start out by saying that through my years, I’ve tried some drugs.'

Even if you haven’t watched an episode, you’ve probably seen this dramatic, borderline surreal true crime story trending online or caught wind of a meme or two featuring Joe Exotic—the titular Tiger King—whose flamboyant personal style and real-life exploits are so completely wild they beggar belief.

But whether you’re totally obsessed with this tale of big cats and murder plots or just trying to catch up with the zeitgeist, there’s one aspect of this story that’s been surprisingly flying under the radar: Joe Exotic is a huge cannabis advocate.

Legalize it, OK

Aside from exploring Joe Exotic’s loud and proud weed legalization activism, I’ll strive to not give away too many of the twists and turns that make his story so compelling (not to mention problematic).

But I do need to establish the broad outlines of Mr. Exotic’s life journey in order to understand where he’s coming from and how he ended up as a legalization advocate in Oklahoma. So if you like to go in fresh, better bookmark this page now and come back after you’ve watched the show.

Otherwise, here’s what you need to know.

A walking cartoon character

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic) was already a larger-than-life figure before Tiger King came out. But unless you stumbled across his videos on the internet, or had an abiding interest in the world of exotic animals, you probably never heard of him before.

He is very much a man of contradictions—a one-time 19-year-old small town police chief turned multiple felon, a gun-loving polyamorous polygamous gay man, a politician who hates politicians, and an “animal lover” convicted on seventeen federal counts of animal abuse.

President, then governor

Joe Exotic has run for political office twice in his life. Both times he made cannabis legalization a key rallying point in his outsider campaigns for higher office.

In his first try, Exotic ran for president of the United States in 2016. He only made the ballot in Colorado, however, and only earned 962 votes nationwide, if you include the write-ins.

Two years later he lowered his ambitions by running in the Libertarian Party primary for governor of Oklahoma. In that contest he actually got 18.7% of the vote, good enough for a respectable third-place finish.

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Rolling papers for supporters

The key to his popularity, such as it was, was a series of in-your-face campaign videos. In a time when the conventions of electoral politics have been upended, the Joe Exotic for Governor media team still found ways to break new ground.

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For example, he handed out official campaign rolling papers:

He also opened his first official campaign video (“of 330 videos I’m going to be putting up”) by directly addressing legalization in his own unique way:

Let’s just start out by saying that through my years, I’ve tried some drugs. During one of the debates that we had, I asked one of my opponents, “Have you ever smoked weed before?” And he said, “Yeah, but I’d be ashamed to say it.”

How can you represent 300 million people and be ashamed of anything and still understand what all those people are going through?

I ain’t ashamed of anything.

Use cannabis tax to support schools

Candidate Exotic outlined his reasons for supporting cannabis legalization more substantially at an official Libertarian Party candidate rally held at the Oklahoma State Capitol in 2017.

In this particular speech and throughout his campaign, Exotic pointed to the potential revenue from taxing and regulating cannabis—plus the cost savings of ending enforcement and incarceration—as the ideal way to help fund Oklahoma’s public schools, which at the time were facing teacher walk-outs for lack of resources.

He then briefly hit on the hot-button issue of abolishing fishing licenses before returning to his cannabis legalization plan.

A tool to combat the opioid crisis

Another angle Exotic took when advocating for cannabis was to position legalization as a way to alleviate the state’s ongoing problems with rampant abuse of drugs like opioids and methamphetamine.

“The War on Meth is not successful. Not in Oklahoma,” Exotic said. “I personally know I don’t know how many dealers and how many users. We’re spending so much time on the users that we’re not effective at all.”

Selling cop-seized weed?

His most outside-the-box cannabis plan—selling consumers cannabis seized by the police—has yet to be implemented, in Oklahoma or anywhere else. And it’s hard to imagine that it ever will be:

I want to set up a dispensary in every county for nothing but confiscated weed. And every dime of that stays in that county to help those schools, those fire departments, those police departments and to fix those roads.

Oklahoma did pass medical

Once one of the most restrictive states when it came to cannabis laws, Oklahoma voters did pass a medical cannabis law in June of 2018—a few months before the state elected a new Governor but long after Joe Exotic had dropped out of the race.

To the surprise of many inside and outside of the state, Oklahoma’s largely libertarian approach to regulating medical cannabis quickly led to the opening of hundreds of dispensaries and the birth of a thriving local industry.

The law also allows approved patients to grow their own cannabis at home. And Oklahoma now has some of this highest personal possession allowances in the entire country.

According to NORML:

Those possessing a state-issued license may possess the following: up to eight ounces of marijuana in their residence; up to one ounce of concentrated marijuana; up to 72 ounces of edible marijuana; up to six mature marijuana plants; up to six seedling plants; and up to three ounces of marijuana on their person. Those who do not possess a license face a fine-only misdemeanor for the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of herbal cannabis.

“If you smoke a lot of weed…”

So although Joe Exotic’s second political campaign fell short at the ballot box, one of his signature issues moved forward in a big way.

Let’s be clear: Most of the credit for that goes to the state’s longtime cannabis advocates, who ran a successful voter initiative in one of the most conservative jurisdictions in the country.

But the Tiger King played a small part in raising awareness and speaking to a group of voters outside the two-party system.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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