Cannabis Needs to do Politics Better

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Marijuana needs to get better. Not as a product (although the green stuff I bought behind the bowling alley in high school did have room for improvement). I am instead referring to the industry’s thus far insufficient efforts to win the political battles that will determine its future.

Every industry in America has an interest in the outcome of certain political contests waged at the federal, and/or local level. What level of taxes do they have to pay and what deductions are they entitled to take? What regulations govern their business? Where can they bank? Who can they sell to? What records are they required to keep and what reporting is expected of them?

That is why virtually every business group, in fact, virtually every collection of people with any common interest has developed an infrastructure designed to ensure that they have maximum public support, that politicians fear them, and those who are intractably hostile are replaced by those more friendly to the cause.

As a liberal Democrat, I am not a fan of the NRA, but they are historically very good at what they do. Politicians know that if they support the NRA’s agenda, the NRA will support them, and if not, the wrath of God will come down upon their heads. I have seen first hand how this causes legislators who are not true believers (which most are not on most issues) to do the NRA’s bidding, simply because it is the path of least resistance, and makes life much easier.

The same is true of the fossil fuel industry, or beer, or sugar, or insurance, etc. All of these interests may not be loved, but their well-oiled political operations are feared. They win battles where the large majority of the people are against them. Conversely, cannabis loses battles where the vast majority of the people are for us. So what is cannabis doing wrong?

To answer this question, let me first posit two scenarios. Both involve a competitive legislative seat, currently held by an anti-cannabis drug-warrior coming up in the next election.

#1 — Cannabis hangs back and focuses on other things. Eventually a pro-cannabis candidate does or does not decide on their own to run. That candidate calls a variety of cannabis advocacy organizations. Maybe one or two call them back, send them a questionnaire. When that questionnaire is returned, an interview is set up. Eventually, if everyone is diligent, maybe the candidate receives a $500 check a couple of weeks before the election.

#2 — Cannabis is proactive. They don’t wait for someone to run. They scour the relevant district for people who have been active on cannabis issues and are ready for prime time. They call the best potential candidate before that person even thinks of running. They say “We want you to run for office, and if you say the word ‘yes’, we will send you $10,000 to get started and send two staffers down to your district tomorrow to get you organized. Further, we have a list of 20 people just waiting for your phone call who will each also give you at least $1,000 just upon hearing the sound of your voice”.

Which scenario do you suppose gets better candidates and elects more pro-cannabis legislators?

If cannabis is to succeed, it has to develop a sophisticated infrastructure which includes aggressive candidate recruitment, training, financing, and nurturing. There needs to be a PAC for hard-money contributions and SuperPAC to pay for independent expenditure along with polling and message development.

The industry also needs a rapid-response operation to beat back anti-cannabis narratives being pushed by prohibitionists such as the dangers of vaping and the supposedly through-the-roof potency of modern cannabis. And we need a think-tank to generate the studies and intellectual arguments to drive pro-cannabis change as well as general pro-cannabis advertising to end the irrational and unsupported stigmas that hold the industry back.

Finally, we need competent, recognized spokespeople who can build public trust and who the media knows to turn to when a cannabis-related issue is being discussed.

Currently, cannabis is not where it needs to be on any of this. Some smart and talented lobbyists have been hired, but without the infrastructure behind them, they are simply not going to have the firepower to prevail in Washington or many of the state capitals where these fights are playing out.

I know this personally. I was in a competitive race in 2017 and I did receive some support from individuals involved in cannabis. But I couldn’t get a phone call returned from any pro-cannabis organizations. I was the author of my state’s medical cannabis law as well as the currently pending adult-use bill. I attend and speak at cannabis conferences all over the nation. I hate to toot my own horn (actually “hate” is a strong word. “Love” is probably more accurate), but I was exactly the type of candidate the cannabis industry wants moving up the political ladder.

The inability of me, and those like me, to get institutional help sends the wrong message throughout the political world. I can tell you that I speak to policy-makers, not only in my state, but across the nation. Nobody is afraid of the cannabis industry! No legislator or executive contemplates cannabis policy with their political futures in mind. No pro-prohibition fan of “Reefer Madness” is losing sleep with worry over what the cannabis community is going to do to him or her.

After 2017 I began speaking about this issue at conferences, and more recently, I’ve met with dozens of people in the industry. Everyone I meet with not only agrees, but says they have been thinking the same thing for a long time. But yet, we’re still where we were five years ago. Again, is not to say that there aren’t some serious and talented people working to promote the industry in discrete ways. But until we have a comprehensive, organized, well-funded and effective political operation, we will continue to see our interests ignored and our efforts stifled by bad policies that should have been eliminated long ago.

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