2019 Will Be Major for Cannabis in Congress. Who Is Spending to Be Heard?

The leading cannabis advocacy and industry groups spent an estimated $515,000 in the year’s first quarter to lobby Congress and federal agencies on dozens of cannabis-related bills, according to federal financial disclosures.

This is an already-historic year for cannabis in Congress: The US House held its first-ever committee vote on the issue of providing the cannabis industry with bank access through the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (SAFE Banking Act). The bill cruised through the House Financial Services Committee last month. The growing cannabis industry’s increased spending is relatively new. For example, the biggest spender so far this year, Cannabis Trade Federation, is an industry group that formed within the last year.

The rising influence of cannabis groups in Congress continues a trend that Cannabis Wire explored in its series last year Cannabis Goes To Washington. We also found that when it came to federal lobbying and direct donations to candidates and their PACs, the largest and oldest cannabis organizations in the country were dramatically outspent in 2018: Just under $1 million was spent by cannabis organizations, and just under $2 million by cannabis companies and their executives.

Looking exclusively at lobbying this quarter, the numbers we tallied don’t reflect state and regional groups and the rising number of individual companies who are also lobbying Congress and federal agencies.

Here’s a quick rundown of estimates provided from the lobbying disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate:

National Cannabis Industry Association ($200,000): The NCIA, a member-based organization formed in 2010 and comprised of myriad companies and organizations throughout the cannabis industry, spent mostly on its own lobbyists ($140,000) but also had Federal Advocates, Inc., ($60,000) lobbying on its behalf and focused on discussions surrounding “potential enforcement activities,” according to Federal Advocates’ disclosure. NCIA urged members of Congress to embrace the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES), a bill that would prevent federal interference in the state-legal cannabis industry — but wouldn’t change federal law elsewhere in the US and doesn’t have a clear criminal justice reform component.  NCIA lobbied “on the need for elected official[s] on Capitol Hill to respect their states by urging the Trump Administration to allow states to establish and carry out their own laws related to cannabis,” according to NCIA’s disclosure.

Denver-based VS Strategies, the consulting arm of cannabis-focused law firm Vicente Sederberg, notified Congress it will no longer be working on behalf of NCIA.

Cannabis Trade Federation ($270,000): The Federation, a cannabis industry trade group formed last year, says on its website that its “primary federal legislative focus will be to build support to pass the STATES Act.” So far this year, the Federation’s disclosure filing shows that it spent $180,000 lobbying on 28 different bills, including STATES. Some bills for which the group is lobbying are decidedly different from STATES and include the more progressive Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize cannabis at the federal level and also deliver funds for communities most affected by the war on drugs.

Federation lobbyist Cassie Folk is a senior director at tobacco giant Reynolds American, Inc., according to her LinkedIn profile. She did not respond to an email request for comment.

Representing the Federation, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck ($60,000) lobbied the Justice Department on DOJ-related appropriations and Congress on the STATES Act.

The Raben Group ($30,000), naming its client as “Cannabis Trade Federation Action,” which is an associated Political Action Committee based in Denver, according to the filing and the Federal Election Commission, lobbied Congress on the group’s behalf to close the gap between state and federal cannabis policy.

National Cannabis Roundtable ($45,000): The Roundtable announced its formation in February as former House Speaker John Boehner, the industry group’s honorary chairman, said it was “vital that we work together for a common-sense legal framework for cannabis policy.” Roundtable Executive Director Rachael “Saphira” Galoob, CEO of cannabis-focused lobbying firm The Liaison Group, which also lobbies for Acreage Holdings (Boehner is on the Acreage board) and the California Cannabis Industry Association, is focused on the SAFE Banking Act, according to the group’s first quarter disclosure.

Lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs spent less than $5,000 for NCR last quarter and thus didn’t trigger the requirement to estimate its expenses, according to its filing.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) spent less than $5,000 and thus wasn’t required to estimate its total lobbying expenditure, according to its filing. The advocacy group, formed in the 1970s and the oldest of its kind in the country, has been in discussions with Congress over 11 bills. Interestingly, the STATES Act, which is being promoted by industry backers as having the best chance of passing Congress, is not among them.

In a sign of how things have changed, the Marijuana Policy Project, founded in 1994 and behind the majority of campaigns to legalize cannabis for medical or adult use over the years, did not file a federal lobbying disclosure report last quarter. MPP has said it is increasingly focused on changing laws in states as the growing industry battles for cannabis reform in the halls of Congress.

Steve Hawkins, MPP’s new executive director, told Cannabis Wire in a recent interview that pressure from the states is the best way to get Congress to act. “I think it will take a little bit more of a chorus of state voices to add pressure,” he said. “I’m a big believer that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington a lot of times. But I think the ultimate goal for us is to see Congress end the prohibition on cannabis. And our goal is to get enough states to the tipping point so that Congress really has to act.”

(Lobbyist disclosure reports are often amended later than the filing deadline, and Cannabis Wire will do its best to update these numbers as they change. Any other groups you think we should focus on? Email us: [email protected])

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Cannabis Wire
Cannabis is rich territory for serious journalism. Legalization raises urgent questions about regulation and law, technology and taxation, science and business, criminal justice and individual liberties. It stands at the intersection of a booming billion-dollar industry and promising advances in medicine, all while remaining federally illegal.

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