I recently attended the NCIA Policy Symposium and Member Lobby Days in Washington D.C. this week and I thought it would be good for me to post a few of my quick thoughts from that event. The event brought together a number of interesting players in the industry, and it was a good chance to take a step back and view things from a national level.
My Talk. I gave an update to attendees on the current status of Washington’s and Oregon’s marijuana laws. Oregon is generating a healthy interest from investors, who see it as the only real target for direct investment into the adult use market. Washington and Colorado have residency requirements, and Alaska may be too small for some of the bigger players and just seems too foreign to a lot of the others. People are also interested to see exactly how the coming merger of Washington’s medical and recreational markets will play out, as there continue to be heated opinions on both sides of that issue.
Trade Associations: The trade association game can be really annoying. As each state advances in marijuana policy, we continue to see a number of new marijuana industry get created, and many of these groups compete with each other for dollars and for membership. Though a few of these groups are started by hucksters and snake oil salesmen looking to make a quick buck, most of the founders have good intentions and are trying to bring people together, set standards, and move policy forward. That said, it is better for the industry to coalesce around distinct groups. To that end, the NCIA and the Marijuana Policy Project have distanced themselves from their peers, at least on the national level, as the strongest voices for the industry. The NCIA focuses tightly on national issues, and the MPP does great work on a state-by-state basis. Here’s hoping that things continue to develop well for both of them. NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance are also major players, but because our own focus is on the legal issues confronting legalized cannabis businesses, we do not have nearly as much involvement with these two.
Industry Policy Focus: Our industry is finally honing in on strong and discrete policy goals at the national level. For far too long, it has been in vogue to say that marijuana would flip federally within a decade, but the details have been really cloudy. Now, we can point directly to specific goals that have realistic chances of passing in the immediate future: 280e tax reform so that the IRS starts treating cannabis businesses fairly; civil and criminal liability shields for banks that serve the marijuana industry; prohibition on federal enforcement against companies and individuals that comply with state marijuana regulations; and finally, full federal decriminalization. Things like placing marijuana on Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act are looking more and more like red herrings that distract from the real eventual goals. By focusing on these four goals, the cannabis industry can lobby more effectively because its message will not get drowned out by 100 competing ideas.
Lobbying Strategy. Lobby days are really helpful. They allow members of Congress to see that the cannabis industry is full of strong, reasonable entrepreneurs. However, most business owners cannot spend more than a few days out of the year really fighting for legal reform on the federal level. That is one reason why we have professional lobbyists, who can be dogged on the issues throughout the year. Because of this, we need to make sure that we get the most bang for our buck on lobby days going forward. One way to do that better is to pony up more dollars for more lobbying. It is great that the NCIA has a full time lobbyist on staff, but other industries are able to descend on the capital with armies of lobbyists. And these lobbyists are not coming empty-handed — they are bringing cash to the table. If the marijuana industry is serious about achieving its federal goals on a fast timeline, it will need to pony up more dollars not only to bring on more outside lobbying, but also to contribute to political campaigns. This is by no means ideal, but it is how the system currently operates. Money buys attention. If the industry ponies up for a $2500 per plate fundraiser for a high ranking member on a committee that influences marijuana legislation, that committee member is going to listen with rapt attention to our industry’s concerns. The majority of Americans favors loosening federal marijuana restrictions, but it is still easy for Congress to ignore the industry. The more serious attention that the marijuana business community can get from Congress, the faster we will see reform.