Politics

Weed Lobby Goes Legit 

Marijuana advocates adopt aggressive agenda

The marijuana legalization movement has gone legit and has begun to behave like any other special interest.

Although it cannot muster anything near the firepower of the tobacco industry or beer companies, lobbyists from the pot industry are working the halls of Congress and statehouses across the country, making campaign contributions to friendly candidates and staging business conferences.

Dan Riffle, the lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that on the rare occasion he could get a meeting with a congressional staffer when he first started in 2009, he heard lots of jokes about his attire — a business suit rather than hippie clothing — and jests about whether he had brought any samples.

“It’s night and day,” Riffle told LifeZette in a recent interview. “When I first started, I couldn’t get offices to take calls and set up meetings. … This used to be treated as a thermonuclear third rail: Don’t touch it.”

“It’s night and day,” he told LifeZette in a recent interview. “When I first started, I couldn’t get offices to take calls and set up meetings … This used to be treated as a thermonuclear third rail: Don’t touch it.”

Riffle doesn’t have that problem these days. With medical marijuana laws on the books in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and recreational use of the drug legal in four states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon — cannabis is becoming big business.

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That, combined with public opinion polls showing growing acceptance, has led Congress to treat the nascent lobby seriously. Representatives of the industry said even members who disagree with their agenda do not automatically dismiss them anymore.

Even groups considered fringe a generation ago have found respectability, if not a full embrace. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said Congress faced only three full-time marijuana lobbyists when he joined the organization in 1991. Now, it has 25 to 30, he said.

Related: The Teenage Pot Trap

Not too long ago, St. Pierre said, marijuana supporters could not give away campaign donations. Politicians routinely would return contributions. St. Pierre said that no longer happens.

In the previous campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group’s political action committee donated $8,600 to congressional candidates. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and failed House candidate Daylin Leach of Pennsylvania each got $1,000.

At a monthly marijuana meeting group in June, St. Pierre said, 70 or so members of Congress and their aides showed up.

When the National Cannabis Industry Association went searching for a lobbyist in 2013, it settled on Michael Correia, a veteran congressional staffer with deep ties to Republicans. Today, he represents 950 members from both the medical and recreational sides of weed. The group essentially functions as a chamber of commerce for pot. Next month it will even host a cannabis business summit in New York.

Taylor West, deputy director of the association, said there has been a “dramatic increase” in sympathetic members of Congress. Some Republicans, she said, gravitate toward a federalism argument — that states should be free to set their own policies, free from federal intervention.

West’s association has started a political action committee and has made contributions. In the previous election cycle, it handed out $26,000 to congressional candidates, mostly Democrats, including Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington ($5,000), then-Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado ($3,500), Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington ($3,500), and Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon ($3,000), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“It’s still fairly small, but something we are doing more of,” West said.

States on the Front Lines
The marijuana agenda includes a wide and diverse set of goals on the federal and state level. Most industry representatives agreed the primary focus is on the states.

“We’re gearing up for our 2016 state-level ballot initiatives,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legal recreational marijuana.

Five states will vote on legalization measures next year — California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine. St. Pierre said he is confident the measures can pass in all five states. And he said Vermont and Rhode Island could become the first states to legalize marijuana through their legislatures.

“We’re gearing up for our 2016 state-level ballot initiatives,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legal recreational marijuana.

St. Pierre said California is the key. Voters there narrowly rejected a legalization initiative in 2010. If they say “yes,” next year, he said, it could start a domino effect.

“California starts these trends,” St. Pierre said.

Federal Proposals Nibble at Edges
Strong opposition remains at the federal level, however. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, has been steadfast in his opposition to loosened restrictions on marijuana. In March, he reiterated his opposition to changing marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, a change that would make it easier for people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes without running afoul of federal law.

“Recent studies suggest marijuana use by young people can cause long-term and possibly permanent damage to brain development,” he said in a statement to the Des Moines Register.

Last year, Grassley co-authored a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and then-Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing that the Obama administration’s decision not to interfere with states legalizing marijuana makes it hard for the country to comply with international drug treaty.

Fox conceded that a national consensus does not yet exist for repealing federal marijuana laws.

Fox said there are practical incentives for waging a state-by-state campaign. “Even if Congress removed marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act tomorrow, there’d still be 46 states that make marijuana illegal,” he said.

“In terms of full legalization, we’re not seeing a whole lot of movement. But it’s getting there,” Fox said. “People are starting to come around.” A handful of bills have been filed. Even marijuana advocates concede they are longshots.

Fox said there are practical incentives for waging a state-by-state campaign. “Even if Congress removed marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act tomorrow, there’d still be 46 states that make marijuana illegal,” he said.

Pro-pot organizations are concentrating on smaller issues at the federal level, like banking and tax reform. The two proposals that appear to have the best chance are one giving legal marijuana businesses access to banks and one letting those businesses write off expenses the same way other companies do.

Out of fear of running afoul of federal law, most banks have refused to loan money to marijuana businesses or allow them to set up accounts. The result is that businesses in Colorado and other jurisdictions where they operate legally pay all of their bills and taxes in cash.

“It just makes us targets for robbery and burglary,” said West, the marijuana trade association official.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would treat marijuana businesses the same as other companies when it comes to the ability to write off business expenses. Advocates contend expense deductions combined with high state taxes make it difficult to undercut black market prices.

“We’ve even had members whose tax burden exceeds what they take home,” West said.

St. Pierre, of NORML, said even those more modest proposals face an uphill battle in a Congress still dominated by marijuana opponents. “They see it as slippery slope, which it is,” he said.

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