Lobbying is an essential process of American politics. A joint 2014 study by researchers at Northwestern and Princeton Universities found little to no evidence that U.S. lawmakers will pay any attention to the needs of any group in the general populace, take medical marijuana patients for example, unless that group’s need aligns with the whim of a special interest group that dumps truckloads of money into the bank accounts of Congressional lobbyists.
American Politics Is a Stacked Deck
Professors Martin Gilens of Northwestern and Princeton’s Benjamin I. Page put the daunting reality less succinctly: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy. Average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
The two academics based their findings on legislative responses to public policy between 1981 and 2002, concluding: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
The years since the 2014 study have not been a banner time for advancements in class parity with organized economic elites in America, but one ray of hope for medical marijuana users came to light on February 8, 2021, when the organization and launch of the United States Cannabis Council (USCC) was announced by interim U.S. Cannabis Council CEO Steven Hawkins.
Acknowledging an unprecedented alliance of cannabis industry stakeholders who have pooled resources as the USCC, Hawkins, who is also executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, stressed that advancing social equity through federal reforms was among the Council’s highest priorities.
Promoting regulated cannabis profits nationwide, judging by the USCC’s membership, will also take up a large chunk of the group’s focus.
Whether for commercialism or altruism, summarizes Hawkins, “USCC is a unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis.”
Legal Cannabis Heavyweights Are Coming to the Table in Washington, D.C.
Heavy hitters in the USCC lobbying coalition include:
- Canopy Growth. As the first publicly traded cannabis company in North America, Canopy’s website claims the Canadian producer of cannabis products and high-profile brands “is driven by a passion to improve lives, end prohibition, and strengthen communities by unleashing the full potential of cannabis.”
- Curaleaf. An American cannabis company listed on the Canadian stock exchange and founded by a Russian billionaire, the Curaleaf promo copy proclaims, “Providing patients with quality cannabis for health and wellness has been our focus for the last decade.” Curaleaf operates more than 100 retail cannabis storefronts nationwide.
- Pax Labs. Pax Labs was formed in June of 2017, when it spun off from JUUL vaporizers as a separate and independent entity. JUUL products are marketed strictly for the consumption of nicotine products. Pax Labs was “founded with the goal of creating responsible, enjoyable, and personalized vaporizer experiences.” This corporate speak translates loosely to “creating efficient, effective means of cannabis consumption.”
- Husch Blackwell. Lawyers can be foxy fellows. The Husch Blackwell website makes no mention of cannabis or the cannabis industry specifically on its homepage. Still, the message is clear: “At Husch Blackwell, we have built our law firm around one idea: to lead our clients from where they are to where they want to be.”
- Vicente Sederberg LLP. The partners at Vicente Sederberg make no bones about specializing in cannabis law. The firm’s homepage leads with its weed identity, isolating a quote from Rolling Stone magazine defining Vicente Sederberg as: “The country’s first powerhouse marijuana firm.” Vicente Sederberg claims ten years working at the leading edge of shaping cannabis policy to advance the marijuana industry. The firm literally claims to have written the book on cannabis law and will sell you a copy. Christian Sederberg, a partner at Vicente Sederberg is a founding member and acting board chairman of the United States Cannabis Council.
One Cannabis Voice for Many Cannabis Concerns
The point of a lobbying group, beyond doling out funds to political action entities favored by sitting lawmakers, is to combine the differing interests of aligned groups in a unified push for legislative action that will benefit all those groups.
In the case of the United States Cannabis Council, leading multi-state marijuana producers, hemp trade associations, cannabis support groups advocating for veterans and minorities, and pioneering cannabis law firms have melded into a single unified front.
The case for cannabis legalization is a cause-based argument. Marijuana can be argued to help solve a full deck of issues beyond the documented health benefits. Legal cannabis can be sold to lawmakers as harm reduction for the opioid overdose dilemma, as a source of jobs in the pandemic unemployment crisis, as a means to address inequities in America’s racial divides. The USCC’s lobbying power can energize advocacy of all these issues from statehouses to the White House.
The societal benefits of the free and legal cannabis plant can be pushed without even mentioning how many people stand to become emerald rich when the green rush flourishes coast to coast.
Two Unified Cannabis Voices Better Than One
With Democrats controlling the House, Senate and Oval Office, there is a perception that now is the time to push forward marijuana mainstreaming. The United States Cannabis Council is not alone in seeing the apparent opportunity in a Democrat majority in the federal backrooms.
Within days of the USCC’s launch, former Democratic governor of Kansas Kathleen Sebelius, who functioned as President Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary, came out as the new co-chair of the National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR).
The NCR “promotes common sense federal regulation, tax equality and financial services reform,” motivated by a vision that the “legal cannabis boom promises to contribute billions of dollars to the US economy over the next decade—creating jobs, advancing new health science and adding momentum to criminal justice reform.”
Like the USCC, former governor Sebelius’s cannabis advocacy group has harnessed a coalition of legal marijuana industry heavy hitters:
- Trulieve. A multi-state medical cannabis operator, Trulieve operates dispensaries in Florida, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
- Cresco Labs. Based in Chicago, Illinois, Cresco Labs is “on a mission to normalize, professionalize and revolutionize cannabis.”
- CannaCraft. A community-oriented cannabis company, CannaCraft swears that “every decision we make is to cultivate a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world through cannabis.”
- Greenspoon Marder. A law firm with more than 200 attorneys, Greenspoon Marder is in the business of providing “comprehensive and tailored client services, which our clients expect and deserve.”
- Pura Vida Investments. Interested in investing in a healthy tomorrow? Pura Vida is focused “on innovative and disruptive technologies, company life cycle changes, and structural shifts in the healthcare landscape.”
“There is still a federal framework that makes this growing industry very difficult to operate [in],” Sebelius said in an interview with Politico. “That is a considerable concern to me. This is a moment of opportunity to really talk about some rational federal policy.”
When the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services secretary pulls her chair up to the National Cannabis Roundtable’s board of directors, she’ll be joining Republican former House Speaker John Boehner, who is a National Cannabis Roundtable founding director.
All medical and adult recreational cannabis sales are currently illegal in former governor Sebelius’s home state Kansas.
Will Big Business Cannabis Be Better for the Cannabis Business?
In 2020, according to Open Secrets, “the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy,” $4 million was spent on marijuana lobbying. The weed lobbying budget was dwarfed by $27 million earmarked by tobacco lobbyists and $30 million from the beer, wine and liquor industry.
That discrepancy in spending to influence policy is expected to shrink now that the liquor and tobacco industries are lobbying for legalized and regulated cannabis sales.
The Altria Group, a tobacco company that manufactures and markets Marlboro and owns a 45 percent chunk of “global cannabinoid company” Cronos Group, has reportedly assigned its lobbying needs for “the responsible and equitable regulation of cannabis sales” to the Williams Mullen law firm. A current Altria slogan is “moving beyond smoking.”
Liquor company Constellation Brands has been sitting in with Canadian cannabis producers Canopy Growth in its talks with U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government officials regarding Canopy entering the American market.
“Our government relations teams are very closely connected,” Canopy’s CEO David Klein said of Constellation Brands. “We share an office in Washington, D.C.”
There’s no point in guessing whether or not big business cannabis will be good for the cannabis business. The answer will be here soon enough.