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Joint effort: cannabis lobby heads to Washington to woo US lawmakers

Industry leaders descended on the capital this week amid hopes the country at large is slowly embracing legalization

More than 200 cannabis industry leaders descended upon Washington this week in the hopes of persuading the US Congress to embrace the growing movement for marijuana legalization.

The marijuana business owners and advocates bustled between the hallways of the House and Senate, meeting with hundreds of congressional offices and rallying on the Capitol lawn over a three-day lobbying tour organized by the National Cannabis Industry Association.

The event, which brought members representing 23 states and the District of Columbia, was not the first of its kind. But the advocates hailed a new front in the battle for federal marijuana reform against the backdrop of a rapid evolution on how the issue is perceived in the nations capital.

Theres an air of legitimacy around our group that makes me hopeful that the stigma is going to fall away, said Blake Mensing, a cannabis attorney from Massachusetts who helps clients obtain local permits and state licenses for adult use cannabis businesses.

With public opinion polls showing record support among Americans for marijuana legalization, its little surprise that the high has spread to Congress.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have taken a flurry of actions in recent months that signal the shifting tides.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, fast-tracked a bill in April that would legalize industrial hemp. The historical ban on hemp, which is derived from the cannabis plant, has long imposed barriers on the agriculture industry.

McConnell found an ally in his daily sparring partner Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who announced his support for the proposal this month.

The marijuana industrys efforts include pushing for legislation that would grant legal marijuana businesses access to financial services, among other measures to prevent the federal government from prosecuting businesses that are in compliance with state laws.

The states have already proven that replacing the criminal marijuana markets with tightly regulated and transparent small businesses is working, said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). Now the responsibility falls on Congress to reform federal laws so that the legal cannabis industry can be treated fairly, like any other legitimate business sector.

The National Cannabis Industry Association points to economic benefits for states which tax and regulate marijuana. Photograph: Mark Leffingwell/Reuters

To further its case, the NCIA released a report highlighting economic benefits in the five states Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington that taxed and regulated the commercial production and sale of marijuana in 2017.

Those states collected more than $790m in state tax revenue that year, the report found, with tax revenue reaching $247m in Colorado alone. The analysis also cited a 445% increase in the number of marijuana industry job postings in 2017, according to the job placement firm ZipRecruiter, compared with an increase of 18% the year before.

Even longtime foes of marijuana legalization efforts have joined the bandwagon.

Last month the former House speaker John Boehner sent shockwaves through Washington by joining the board of Acreage Holdings, a firm that cultivates, processes and dispenses marijuana in 11 US states. The move marked a stunning reversal for the Ohio Republican, who once said he was unalterably opposed to decriminalizing marijuana.

In a statement provided to the Guardian, Boehner said there were a number of issues that had prompted the change. My thinking, like that of millions of other Americans, has evolved as Ive learned more about the issue, he said, pointing to the use of medical marijuana to treat patients of opioid addiction and the countrys veterans.

Descheduling the drug, Boehner added, will reduce the conflict between federal policy and state programs.

Even Donald Trumps administration has shown signs of easing its proposed crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana.

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded an Obama-era policy of non-interference with marijuana-friendly state laws, raising alarms of a forthcoming federal crackdown.

The move prompted Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, to block all of Trumps nominees to the justice department in a bid to compel the administration to reverse course. Last month, the president agreed his administration would not target the marijuana industry in Gardners home state, ending a three-month standoff.

Sessions even acknowledged the potential for some benefits from medical marijuana in a recent Senate hearing.

Charles Smith, a New York attorney and cannabis regulatory and compliance consultant, said the Trump administration had largely maintained the status quo on the drug.

The rescinding of the [Obama-era] guidance did cause a chilling effect, he added. There were deals lost, there were investors that backed out.

But we havent seen it on the ground where theyre carrying out enforcement actions, despite what the attorney general has said.

Some critics nonetheless view the evolution of Boehner and other former proponents of so-called tough-on-crime policies as cashing in on what is now a burgeoning industry.

Shanita Penny, president of the board of directors at the Minority Cannabis Business Association, said: Its not enough to just participate in this industry from a stance of wanting to make money.

Penny reiterated a similar message to lawmakers this week as she implored action on criminal justice reform.

Pennys group is focused on removing barriers that prohibit those with previous marijuana convictions from participating in the industry as a patient, employee or operator. Among the most pressing issues, from their vantage point, is reinvesting in the communities that have been disproportionately affected by the mandatory sentencing laws of years past.

You have to be willing to look at the harm that was done to communities that were over-policed, that were over-sentenced, that was destroyed because of the war on drugs and be ready to do some of the work to heal, Penny said.

We need the industry to start thinking about social responsibility and not let this be something that we address in hindsight.

  • This article was amended on 24 May 2018 to correct Shanita Pennys name and to remove a reference to pins marijuana business owners and advocates wore.

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