Although the results of the federal election – or at least the projected outcomes – haven’t panned out exactly the way many marijuana legalization advocates had hoped, top pot lobbyists remain confident they can advance their agenda in the coming months and years.
The presidential race and fight for control of the Senate had still not been decided as of Friday evening, but it appeared that Democrat Joe Biden was on track for the White House while Republicans are probably favored to maintain power in the upper chamber.
However those races ultimately play out, lobbyists will have tremendous opportunity to help pass several federal reform measures, if not broad legalization, within the next couple years, said Terry Holt, spokesman for the National Cannabis Roundtable, a lobbying firm chaired by former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Holt said the success of the five statewide legalization ballot measures on Tuesday shows there is broad bipartisan support for reform efforts. Lobbyists will need to take advantage of this moment, he said.
“The national anthem isn’t playing anymore – the game has started and we’re at-bat,” he said.
Plotting a path
Most lobbyists viewed a Democratic sweep for control of the House, Senate and White House as the quickest path to enacting major reforms. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) fueled that perspective by saying last month that Democrats would prioritize marijuana legalization if the party takes control of the Senate.
“That kind of legislative agenda is obviously wonderful for a lobbyist,” said Randal John Meyer, executive director of the lobbying firm Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce (GACC). “That’s exactly what you want to hear from leadership about bills you’re trying to advance.”
Instead, lobbyists will likely continue to work with a divided government.
That can be more challenging, Meyer pointed out, due to the differing interests involved. But he predicts the landscape moving forward will be more conducive to progress – particularly if Biden ends up winning the presidency.
Meyer, who previously served as legislative counsel to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said there’s been a public perception of inconsistency among Senate leadership in recent years, as far as their agenda and bringing bills forward. He suggested those leaders, particularly recently re-elected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), would face “substantial pressure” to at least appear conciliatory and willing to discuss bipartisan issues like cannabis reform.
“He has to pick his battles now,” Meyer said.
Plus, Meyer pointed out, January runoff elections in Georgia could shift the balance of power in the Senate. He said Democrats would likely fare well in those two runoffs if Biden is president, since Georgia Democrats would be full of confidence and momentum. By contrast, he predicted Republican voters would be deflated in that scenario and likely experience lower turnout.
Whether McConnell or a Democrat is in charge of the Senate, lobbyists are confident that some reforms, like banking protections, can occur sooner than later.
McConnell, following his re-election, indicated that he would like to get a COVID stimulus package deal finalized before the end of the year.
“That puts us in a position to still be optimistic about getting the SAFE Banking Act through … this year,” Holt, with the National Cannabis Roundtable, said, referring to a banking protection bill. “There’s a lot of uncertainties, but we’re not giving up yet.”
Holt, a Republican strategist who previously served as spokesman for former President George W. Bush, said the Roundtable was already working to build relationships with Republican lawmakers to gain support for reform bills already backed by Democrats.
Maintaining broad bipartisan support is a challenge that lobbyists need to take seriously, said Meyer, with the GACC.
“If industry advocates aren’t willing to engage with Republicans, it turns it into a partisan issue,” he said. “You need 60 votes in the Senate and neither party has 60 votes. So at the end of the day, you need nine or 10 Republican senators to agree.”
The four main pillars of the National Cannabis Roundtable’s agenda are to remove federal restrictions to cannabis research; to abolish tax code section 280E, which limits the deductions cannabis companies can make; to open banking institutions to cannabis operators; and to protect states’ rights to develop their own cannabis laws.
Holt said those will not change, regardless of how the government is shaped.
He said pot lobbyists in Washington, D.C. should be able to take cues from successful state campaigns regarding messaging and how to appeal to different voting blocs.
Given the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he suggested the “meat and potatoes” of the lobbying efforts in 2021 would focus on the economic benefits of cannabis legalization.
“We can create jobs, we can generate tax revenues, we can alleviate the opioid epidemic – and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime,” he said.
He noted that the National Cannabis Roundtable recently developed a social responsibility pledge that has been taken up by the organization’s members. It aims to support diversity and social and criminal justice reforms, as they relate to cannabis.
“We’re going to get to do more than just legalize marijuana,” he said. “We can right past wrongs … and those messages are appealing across party lines, which gives us reason to be optimistic.”
Meyer, with the GACC, was similarly confident.
He said this was no time to let up, noting that the value of the cannabis industry “only exists because of how the industry has been paying attention to shaping laws and reshaping laws based on political circumstance.”
“That kind of savviness for the political timing is something this industry needs to continue to go forward with,” he said.
The more accepting national attitude toward cannabis will also be key, said Holt, with the National Cannabis Roundtable.
“That’s how change happens in this country,” he said. “It doesn’t happen when the government moves something; it happens when the people move something. It’s taken a while, but we’re there.”
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