Marijuana advocates are stuck in the weeds.
Cannabis policy has never had a rosier outlook on Capitol Hill: Democrats control both Congress and the White House, seven new states just legalized recreational marijuana, and the cannabis industry has gained powerful new allies in companies like Amazon and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity that are backing federal reform. The industry has even lured powerful advocates like former GOP House Speaker John Boehner and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to help push its agenda.
But nearly one year into this Congress, not one piece of cannabis legislation has been sent to the president's desk. There is growing fear among advocates that the window to act is closing.
Industry lobbyists and legalization advocates say the movement has been stymied by a lack of consensus on the legislative strategy. Liberal advocacy groups are pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of federal cannabis policies with the aim of helping people harmed by criminal enforcement, while industry groups are seeking any piecemeal policy victory that could provide momentum toward more sweeping changes.
“There are certain people who are willing to forgo any of it if they don’t get all of it,” said one marijuana lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss the industry’s struggles. The lobbyist noted that such a viewpoint is not universally shared, causing a disagreement “that’s stunting the legalization effort.”
As legalization has spread rapidly across the country, making inroads in even staunchly conservative states, the cannabis industry has blossomed into a $25 billion industry, with projections for it to top $40 billion by 2025. And it’s increasingly attracting powerful allies like banks and beer and cigarette makers that want a piece of the burgeoning market.
“Marijuana advocacy is no longer about hippies and long hair, it's about suits and Harvard MBAs,” said Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former drug policy advisor to the Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush administrations. “It's no longer about Woodstock, it's much more about Wall Street.”
But the industry remains a relatively small time player on the D.C. scene, investing little in the influence peddling game that its main competitors — wine, spirits and beer — do on a regular basis.
David Culver, the head of government affairs at Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth Corp., laments that the industry just isn’t investing the type of resources needed to effectively push its agenda on Capitol Hill.
“I hope that at some point in the future, we as an industry are able to come together and actually put really significant resources into that type of spend that will move the needle,” Culver said.
The great divide
The recent showdown over cannabis banking highlights the struggles that the cannabis industry has faced. Legislation that would make it easier for cannabis companies to access financial services like loans and checking accounts has broad bipartisan support: The bill has twice passed off the House floor with the backing of more than 100 Republicans.
The bill’s biggest backer, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), has even attached the proposal to three different must-pass bills in hopes that it might be able to hitch a ride to the president’s desk. Most recently, it was added to the National Defense Authorization Act before it passed the House in September.
But the banking bill has gone nowhere in the Senate.
Part of the reason is opposition from the left. Liberal criminal justice activists have pushed hard to derail the proposal in favor of far more sweeping legislation that would expunge cannabis records and create a grant program to fund businesses run by people who have been impacted by the war on drugs. Maritza Perez of Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalizing all drugs, says they’ve been far more effective in pushing that message in the Senate than in the House.
“I think the people who are running the show in the House are probably giving more weight to what industry-aligned people are saying, versus advocates like the Drug Policy Alliance are saying,” Perez said.
Additionally, key lawmakers, most notably Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been adamant that they don’t support easing banking access unless it’s paired with major criminal justice reforms. During the standoff over the NDAA, Schumer’s view prevailed, frustrating supporters of the cannabis banking bill.
“It's kind of a fantasy by Sen. Schumer [and] Sen. [Cory] Booker that they have the votes for a much bigger bill,” said Perlmutter.
Saphira Galoob, executive director of the National Cannabis Roundtable and a lobbyist, said the SAFE Banking Act remains the most viable piece of legislation before Congress at this point. However, she conceded that the industry had suffered in Washington from cannabis activists with different priorities.
“I think it can be difficult for members of Congress who are just getting educated to understand ... [who] should they be listening to,” Galoob said, pointing out that cannabis is not the only industry that suffers from an array of diverging voices.
Even though she asserted that the industry was maturing, Galoob added: “Should we be further along? Probably.”
Follow the money
Even as cannabis has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in federal lobbying expenditures. In fact, many major cannabis companies and industry groups actually spent less on federal lobbying in 2021 than they did in earlier years. The three leading cannabis industry groups spent less than $900,000 combined during the first three quarters of last year on lobbying, according to disclosure reports. In contrast, the American Bankers Association — which has emerged as a key ally of the cannabis industry in pushing for banking accesss — spent about $7 million during the same time period.
Cannabis company Curaleaf — which is expected to rake in at least $1.2 billion in revenue this year — spent $220,000 on lobbying during the first nine months of 2021, down from $340,000 during the comparable period for 2020. Similarly, the National Cannabis Industry Association spent just $150,000 on lobbying during the first three quarters of 2021, down from $430,000 during the comparable period in 2019.
Trade groups and industry representatives argue that they are using their money more wisely. Last year, many of the nation’s largest companies coalesced to form the U.S. Cannabis Council, which spent $180,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of 2021. The goal is for the organization to present a unified industry voice on Capitol Hill.
But one cannabis strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about industry tactics, argued that the industry has failed to create a sense of urgency, even as it appears increasingly likely that Democratic control of both chambers of Congress will end after the 2022 midterms. And not even the business community has a singular vision of what reform should look like, the strategist said. Some companies view interstate commerce, for example, which is currently banned due to federal illegality, as a threat to their business model, while others view it as crucial to their expansion plans.
At least six lobbyists or government affairs professionals for cannabis corporations or lobbying groups in D.C. told POLITICO that their focus is increasingly looking to the states or grassroots public support campaigns.
“It's more so just about targeting individual states,” said Canopy Growth Corp.’s Culver, who is also deeply involved with lobbying efforts by the U.S. Cannabis Council. He argued that targeting ads in states to pressure fence-sitting senators could ultimately change the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
Others in the cannabis space argue that the shift towards federal legalization will simply take time, with younger lawmakers on both sides of the aisle far more comfortable with loosening cannabis restrictions. The same cannabis strategist, noting the massive shift in public opinion around legalization in recent years, maintained that there’s “no way that the next generation of elected officials” would “stand in the way.”