High Hopes: The Marijuana Movement's 2014 Playbook

With big victories in Washington and Colorado behind it, the legalization lobby is adjusting to new legitimacy and widening its ambitions.
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Seattle hosted the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in September. Washington state was one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

After years in the political wilderness, marijuana lobbyists find themselves in a strange position as 2014 approaches: Suddenly their power and support are growing, lawmakers are courting them, and the prospects look brighter to build on major progress the movement made in 2012.

Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana, the first states to do so. Those victories have bestowed new legitimacy on the cannabis community, giving it a better field on which to fight. By engaging in political-money games, endorsing candidates, confederating cannabis-related businesses, and old-fashioned lobbying, the pot movement is working to expand the playing field to more states and confront the federal government’s long-standing and entrenched opposition to marijuana infrastructure head on. Campaigners hope to make legalization the sort of social issue candidates have to take a stand on, just as gay marriage and abortion before it became crucial litmus tests.

“We have a bunch of stereotypes about the marijuana movement and lobbying effort as a bunch of college kids who want to smoke weed,” says John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The marijuana lobby is coming out of the shadows from this avant-garde movement to people who are thinking about legalization in a very rational, serious, and empirical way.”

Public opinion about marijuana use has evolved rapidly in just a few years. Only 32 percent of the population views getting high as morally wrong, down 18 percent since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. The same study found almost half of the population has tried cannabis at one point and support for legalization is soaring. For the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of Americans support legalization.

Erik Altieri, director of communications for NORML, the elder statesman of the legalization movement since the 1970s, says the biggest shift is in the public psyche. “Marijuana legislation has gone from something very abstract and something you may have supported to something very real and also possible,” he says. “And it’s happening.”

The movement is often compared to the early stages of the fight for marriage equality, where five years ago there were only two states where same-sex marriage was legal and now there are 16. The legalization movement is growing not just in power but size, there are four major national groups lobbying for legalization, each with its own associated PAC.

“They have been successful, and success breeds success in the lobbying world,” Hudak says. “They were successful in Colorado and Washington and that brings them up to a new level of legitimacy.”

The lobbyists’ accomplishments are also getting legislators’ attention. Since proving the issue can win at the polls in November—after years of disappointments, like the failure of California’s Proposition 19 in 2010—pro-legalization PACs say they’re suddenly in the strange position of fielding calls from local, state, and federal lawmakers seeking support.

“It was almost a tectonic shift immediately after election day in 2012,” Altieri says of NORML PAC’s relationship with lawmakers. “Our phones began ringing off the hooks with legislators wanting to endorse the issues.”

One of them is Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, who asked the organization for support in his run for U.S. House in the Philadelphia area. “[NORML’s support] helps in the traditional ways … they do fundraising and they donate and they do email lists and members who they contact are told to vote for me,” Leach explains. NORML PAC has so far donated $1,000 to his campaign—a tiny portion of Leach’s campaign budget, though the group says it plans to contribute further if he wins the Democratic primary. A legalization supporter, Leach is a natural ally for NORML. “I just happen to feel that prohibition is a pernicious, cruel policy and they do as well, so we have found some opportunities to work against it together,” he says.

In dollar terms, the impact of this spending pales in comparison to well-known players like the Koch brothers, big labor, or even trade lobbies like the National Restaurant Association. Larger groups like the Marijuana Policy Project dole out a couple thousand to state and federal candidates they support, while other PACs like NORML’s typically delve out contributions in $500 increments, depending on the race. What’s more important from candidates’ standpoint is the symbolic effect: A donation from cannabis PACs certifies the office seeker as a forward-thinking marijuana-legislation reformer.

“I get emails and calls from members of Congress daily who want our support,” says Dan Riffle, director of federal policy at the Marijuana Policy Project. “We’ll probably spend about six figures per cycle supporting candidates who support our issues and defeating candidates who are opposed to marijuana reform.”

Meanwhile, there’s been a pronounced push just this year to introduce reforms on Capitol Hill that would change the way the national government regulates businesses that deal with marijuana and states where use is legal.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle introduced three major pieces of legislation in 2013, aiming to eliminate legal roadblocks for marijuana. The Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act fights a current federal-banking regulation that makes it illegal for banks to give out loans or open up credit-card accounts for marijuana-affiliated businesses. As a result, all cannabis retailers, including medical dispensaries, have to operate on a purely cash basis. The bill currently has 24 cosponsors including Republican Representatives Mike Coffman of Colorado and Dana Rohrabacher of California.

Another bill, with 12 cosponsors, fights an Internal Revenue Service code that limits marijuana businesses from deducting work expenses, including rent and supplies, from their tax returns. The language was included in the code following a case in the 1980s where a drug dealer attempted to write off a yacht as a business expense. The new bill aims to level the playing field for companies who deal with marijuana, since studies show that the IRS code gives marijuana-based businesses an 87.5 percent tax rate while others businesses function at 35 percent.

A third bill takes the role of a state marijuana rights catch-all. The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act aims to codify the recent DOJ announcement that the federal government will not interfere at this time with states that have legalized marijuana. The legislation would bar the federal government from prosecuting people who use and purchase marijuana in legalized states. It now has 20 cosponsors, including four Republicans.

“The goal is simple. It’s really to alleviate the voices of cannabis business-people and then push federal laws so these businesses are treated just like any other businesses in the country,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “They pay taxes, they have insurance and a payroll. These aren’t drug dealers. They are business people and ought to be treated so under federal law.”

Since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Smith said the NCIA experienced an explosion of support from businesses that dealt with or planned to work with marijuana. “We had just over 100 member businesses last year and now we have over 350,” he says. He points to the increasing sophistication of cannabis retailers as the main reason for increased engagement in public policy on the national level.

Cannabis advocates view 2014 as an important year. Colorado and Washington’s adult-use laws take effect January 1, and it’s the first year that those states can generate tax revenue from the legalized drug. Research by the ArcView Group, an advisory firm that connects cannabis-industry entrepreneurs, found that legalized marijuana is one of the fastest growing markets in the U.S., with profits expected to soar by 64 percent to $2.34 billion next year. Legalization supporters hope that once states and legislatures see how much state income is to be had, more lawmakers will be swayed to follow suit. And with 2014 bringing midterm elections, marijuana lobbyists are hoping that more state ballot initiatives for legalization—like the one poised for Alaska—will pass.

Unlike the marriage-equality movement, which struggled to scope and focus its efforts in its early days, experts say the marijuana lobby is learning more quickly from its mistakes and successes. Brookings’ Hudak said the movement is “becoming a lot politically savvier” and learning to choose battles in states where it has a better chance of winning. But cannabis groups remain splintered, and have arguably failed to harvest the leverage they could gain by working more together more closely. In some states, there are campaigns pushing legalization through both legislation and referenda—perhaps an unnecessary overlap of resources. Currently campaigners are pushing bills to legalize in state legislatures in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In Oregon, there is both a legislative push and an attempt to put legalization on the ballot—despite a similar bill failing by nearly 7 points in 2012.

Support for marijuana still divides mostly along party lines. Democrats and libertarians lead the charge, but lobbyists hope that legalization will become not only a viable policy position for more candidates, but even a political necessity: Public criticism of candidates who don’t support the initiatives could one day help propel marijuana reform to the forefront of social political issues.

“It’s going to become increasingly hard for Democrats to not have a stand on legalization—or have the right stance,” Altieri says. “I think we are going to see that in 2014, and in 2016 it will be a top-tier issue.”

Looking to the years to come, the marijuana lobby is hoping to continue to pick up speed politically.

“The year 2014 will be a big year,” he continues, “and it’s just going to keep getting bigger.”

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Miranda Green is a writer based in Washington. She was previously a reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast and an associate producer at ABC7/Newschannel 8.

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