Monday, December 6, 2010

Marijuana gets a lobby

The growing industry wants Congress to help it change federal law.

The marijuana industry is coming of age.
Nearly 15 years after California first legalized the sale of medical bud, a cannabis trade group has formed to lobby Congress on the drug's behalf.
The National Cannabis Industry Association launched last week to bring together the sellers, growers, and manufacturers that span the 15 states where pot smoking is partly legal.
"In just the last five years, we have seen this amazing expansion of this industry," Aaron Smith, the group's executive director, said. "It's time for the industry to have a voice on Capitol Hill and get the recognition that it deserves."
The group has a well-suited lobbyist representing its interests in D.C., but business is anything but usual for this group. We asked Smith about the unique challenges of promoting pot:
Do you have allies on Capitol Hill?
I bet if we were able to do a secret ballot in Congress, we'd see huge support for this. Right now what we're doing is working on changing that perception so that more members can come out in support of rational marijuana laws. We're certainly not where we want to be, but I think we're getting there.
Are you for medical marijuana or outright legalization?
It's for the cannabis industry as a whole, so one of the goals is to expand the market for legal cannabis. That would include allowing adult sales as we do with alcohol.
Why should Congress should pay attention?
Clearly, this industry is a force for economic recovery. It's a huge part of the economy that can no longer go ignored. We're sitting here in the midst of an economic crisis and we may be the only industry saying, "Tax us and regulate us." That's something that can't be ignored any longer.
How much of your job is just about normalizing marijuana?
It's about educating voters and members of Congress and policy makers and opinion leaders that marijuana is, just on the facts and pure science, far safer than alcohol and should be treated logically the same as alcohol.
You're obviously not the run-of-the-mill trade group. What unique challenges do you face?
The biggest obstacle of course is federal law that just clearly out of date and out of step with the American public…. That's a big part of our mission: to change federal law so that it allows states to determine their own policies in regards to marijuana.
Is this more of a state-level fight or a national one?
It's two-pronged because we need Congress to change the laws so that these industries that are flourishing in medical marijuana states don't have to always live under the threat of federal interference. In the meantime, having states change their laws is a great benefit to patients.
What tactics do you anticipate using?
We're going to focus on lobbying in Washington. Ultimately, I envision the trade association working on public education campaigns to improve the image of cannabis across the country and ultimately also to work on best practice guides for dispensaries and self-regulation models so that we can be out front in ensuring that our industry is responsible and conducting itself accordingly.
What are your immediate goals in D.C.? Essentially we want businesses that are operating under state or local law to be treated as any other business. That means clarification for the internal revenue code so that medical cannabis dispensaries will be able to deduct their inventory just like any business can in their annual taxes.
It means clearing up other codes that involve banking. Unfortunately, some of the banks have been timid to do business with medical cannabis collectives and dispensaries across the country because of the federal law being ambiguous.
At this point, I call it ambiguous because the Obama administration has clearly said that the Department of Justice should take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana facilities but they haven't cleared up the internal revenue code and other issues that affect the industry.
In California, groups opposed to legalization said the initiative on the ballot had too many loopholes. What details need to be worked out before blanket legalization can happen?
There are other issues that can be worked out. I certainly hope the next iteration of the ballot initiative in California builds on the lessons learned by this last one and is somewhat different in some areas.
I prefer to see state-level legalization of sales rather than allowing local municipalities to determine whether or not sales will be regulated or licensed.
Until we end the prohibition of sales, we're always going to be dealing with drug cartels and other unseemly characters involved in the industry. Once we lift that prohibition, we'll be putting it in the hands of a controlled, regulated and responsible marketplace.
Do you think perceptions are changing? Certainly. We just saw it in California. Voters, during a midterm election under a GOP sweep across the country, went to the polls and 46 percent voted to get rid of prohibition all together. It was unfortunate that it wasn't 51 percent, but we're getting a lot closer than we have ever been before.
It really is because people are exposed to cannabis and cannabis consumers and just see that the fears are unfounded and what the government is telling us is untrue. This is a substance for adults that, just like any other substance for adults, can be used responsibly.
People's exposure to it, baby boomers coming of age having used it, and the young generations who are exposed to it have played a big role in the natural progression.
Does having a national trade group help what's seen as a primarily young, student-led movement?
Yeah, I think that this is going to be another tool in the arsenal against prohibition—having organized business leaders lining up to call for a change in the law alongside the student groups and the others.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ambreen Ali writes for

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