In the center of the crowded basement cafeteria of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Big Pot’s mobile war room was humming.
While hundreds of congressional staffers lunched around them, a group of foot soldiers in the effort to legalize marijuana stood over a rectangular table cluttered with plates of sushi and documents, busily stuffing white folders with literature about the need for the federal government to change the nation’s cannabis laws. Each folder, which would be delivered to a congressional office on one of the floors above, needed a primer on bills that had been introduced to reform banking and tax laws for the cannabis industry, a letter urging co-sponsorship of the bills, a position paper from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and a New York Times story about the burgeoning marijuana industry.
It was the final hours of a two-day Washington, D.C., blitz by the National Cannabis Industry Association, the 3-year-old lobbying arm of the country’s increasingly organized legal marijuana industry. With just a few hours remaining until the advocates’ scheduled flights home, there were still several offices to visit.
On a laptop at the table, NCIA events manager Brooke Gilbert scanned and updated a detailed Google spreadsheet that listed all the association members who had flown to the capital to help with the group’s annual lobby day, ticking off the names of offices on Capitol Hill they had visited and those they still needed to stop by.
Other members of the association — a mixture of pot growers, marijuana dispensary owners, scientists, doctors and activists from around the country — sat at nearby tables and talked excitedly about their own meetings with lawmakers and congressional staffers. By day's end, the members would hold meetings with more than 60 offices about pot and the legal, new, booming industry of growing and selling the psychoactive plant.
The advocates have had great success at the state level. Already 20 states and the District of Columbia allow legal medical marijuana, and Washington and Colorado last year became the first states to make pot legal for recreational use. But changes in federal laws have lagged. That’s one reason that, at the end of 2010, marijuana-related business owners pooled their resources to form the NCIA.
Now the cannabis industry is solidifying its presence in the halls of Congress. Late last year, the NCIA hired Michael Correia, a former Republican congressional staffer, to lobby for the industry full time in Washington, D.C. Previously, he worked as a field representative for Tennesee Republican Rep. Diane Black and spent two years as the director of federal affairs for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
The group relies on survey data from pollster Celinda Lake to update its arguments and provide data on the state of play. A 22-member board and a staff of five direct operations from the group's headquarters in Denver, Colo. The group represents more than 400 companies in 20 states that together bring in more than $2 billion in revenue annually.
If there was one feature that stood out most about the marijuana activists last week, it was that they did not stand out at all. With the exception, perhaps, of one woman dressed in a tailored pantsuit and wearing natural red dreadlocks that stretched to her waist, the cannabis industry team was indistinguishable from the routine mix of lobbyists, staffers, advocates and journalists in the Rayburn halls.
That’s intentional: The pot lobby is desperately seeking legitimacy — and taking the steps to achieve it.
“We’re respectable, responsible businesspeople,” said Dorian Deslauriers, an NCIA member who runs a lab in Massachusetts that tests and analyzes medical marijuana. “We are just like the rest of the industries in America.”
While the association doesn’t own an imposing building on Capitol Hill or K Street that bears its name — Correia works from a small office in downtown D.C. — the NCIA’s lobbying tactics mirror those of other industries. For weeks before the group’s members arrived in Washington, Correia set up meetings with legislative offices. Over two days, supporters of the cannabis cause targeted lawmakers on the Banking, Finance and Judicial committees in both chambers of Congress, and met with lawmakers who represent states with NCIA members. Most of the meetings lasted about a half-hour, attendees said, and focused on two main priorities: legislation permitting cannabis industry organizations to write off business expenses on their taxes and a measure to allow federally insured banks to work with the businesses, even though they’re engaging in activity that’s still considered illegal under federal law.
Where they could, NCIA staffers let the business owners do the talking.
“We’re not expecting, or even wanting, our members to go in with some perfectly polished presentation. It’s not the point,” said Taylor West, NCIA’s deputy director. “We have the lobbyist who will be there when we leave who can follow up with technical questions. What we want is to communicate that these are very real struggles that responsible business owners are dealing with.”
As far as federal law is concerned, much of what these companies do remains illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration still labels their main product a “Schedule 1” drug along with heroin and LSD. While the businesses that NCIA represents function legally within the states where they are based, they are at constant risk of federal prosecution, should the Department of Justice decide to strictly enforce the law.
Because of this, businesses in the industry can’t write off their expenses for federal tax purposes, a benefit offered to all companies, including the legal brothels in Nevada. And banks are hesitant to lend to or allow accounts for these companies, leading some to store massive amounts of cash and place themselves at higher risk for theft.
For now, fixing these issues — not national legalization — is the advocates’ top priority.
“It’s important that we’re treated like any other business,” said Ean Seeb, a member of the NCIA board. “That’s the consistent message: Treat us like any other business.”
Converting congressmen to this way of thinking is slow-going. While there are a handful of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who actively support the cannabis industry, particularly Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jared Polis of Colorado and California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, many members of Congress are fearful of touching the issue. Most have opposed efforts to decriminalize marijuana for their entire careers and are unlikely to changes their positions quickly.
But compared to how lawmakers treated industry activists even just a few years ago, recent congressional interest in talking to legalization advocates is stunning.
“We’ve seen a lot more interest this year and, anecdotally at least, we’re seeing more legit senior staff that we’re talking to,” West said. “Legislative affairs people, not constituent services people.”
Said Seeb after a series of meetings on Thursday: “They’re finally taking it seriously. They’re asking the right questions."
Of course, that's not a universal position, he added: "At the same time, there are people completely dismissing us.”
As part of the NCIA lobbying effort, Correia also organized a public briefing in the House Budget Committee room on Capitol Hill, open to anyone interested in the issue. The event included brief speeches from sympathetic members of Congress, a presentation about polling data on changing attitudes toward marijuana and stories from business owners in the industry.
Of all the speakers present, it was the lawmakers, many of whom have worked on the issue for decades without much progress, who appeared the most passionate.
“We keep needing bigger and bigger rooms,” an ecstatic Blumenauer said when he looked over the group of about 80 at the briefing. “Isn’t that wonderful?!”
While movement on the issue has seemed staggeringly slow — Blumenauer said he cast his first vote to decriminalize marijuana in the Oregon Legislature in the early 1970s — the rapid change in public views during just the past few years has almost caught the pro-legalization lawmakers off-guard. A CNN-Opinion Research poll in January found that 55 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, a statistic that jumped by 12 percentage points from just a year before.
States around the country are preparing for votes to legalize the drug later this year, opening the possibility for billions more in revenue for those in the industry.
“The public is shifting very, very dramatically,” Lake, the pollster, said, citing a trove of statistics about attitudes toward marijuana. “This is an issue that’s absolutely at its tipping point.”
The good news for pot advocates, she said, was that although many in the U.S. still oppose legalization, they won’t take to the streets against it. Unlike hot-button issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, those who oppose marijuana legalization don’t come out to vote just because it’s on the ballot.
“People don’t mobilize or turn out against marijuana,” she said. “They shrug their shoulders, they wish their grandkids didn’t use it, but they don’t vote to beat marijuana.”
Washington, however, has been slow to catch up. With nearly $2 billion flowing legally through the economy now that several states have legalized the plant's production and use, the federal government still hasn’t decided how to address it. President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice has said it won’t prosecute businesses in the industry that operate under state law and is allowing banks to do business with them, but pot industry activists say they need Congress to move in order to give banks and business owners further security that their investments will be protected.
“We’re in this Never Never Land on Capitol Hill. The administration and Congress is in denial, and we’re the problem," Blumenauer said. “We’re trying to get the administration to get real.”
Accomplishing this, of course, will require support from members of both political parties.
On the right, Republicans have just recently begun to nibble at the edges of reform. Conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas have promoted an effort to re-examine sentencing laws for nonviolent drug criminals. Republican governors such as Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have also moved forward in their own states to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug users.
Fear is one of the main drivers moving against widespread legalization, said Rohrabacher, the California Republican.
“If it were a secret ballot, a majority of my Republican friends would vote for [legalization],” Rohrabacher said. “They’re afraid that if they step up to the plate, their next election, they will be portrayed by their opponent as ‘The Friend of the Drug Cartel.’”
The task and challenge, marijuana advocates say, is providing lawmakers “evolving” on the issue with the data and information that will help them explain why they’ve flipped. As with any shift in position, that takes time. After years of opposing legalization, it’s difficult for any public figure to suddenly change course.
But the representatives of Big Pot see time, public opinion and data on their side.
“Polling is through the roof,” West said. “The elected just have to catch up.”