Few current issues drum up more controversy than cannabis legality. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans (63 percent) support more progressive legislation, and marijuana is already legal to some extent in more than half the country, federal laws still remain pretty archaic. What’s the deal?
Cannabis is huge, trendy, and poised to be a thorn in the heel of certain industries that just can no longer compete. Because of this, not everyone supports legal weed and several wealthy companies are buying political influence – or lobbying – in hopes of suppressing the momentum of the growing industry and legalization movement.
Cannabis politics are confusing, and more often then not, shady and secretive. Political lobbying is one of the easiest ways for wealthy industries to pass laws in their favor and continue getting richer. However, the cannabis industry is fighting back, as is evidenced by the tremendous growth and incredible shift in public option that we’ve seen in this sector over the last few years. To stay on top of the latest developments in the fast-paced world of legal pot, make sure to subscribe to The CBD Flowers Weekly Newsletter, your hub for all things cannabis-related as well as exclusive deals on flowers and other products.
What is Political Lobbying?
Political lobbying, also less commonly referred to as persuasion or interest representation, is the act of lawfully attempting to influence or change government policies. There are a number of ways this can be accomplished, but it often involves of a lot direct, face-to-face contact between politicians and numerous different parties. Lobbyists can be associations, individuals in the private sector, organized special interest groups, or even professional, paid lobbyists.
Professional lobbyists are just that, individuals or groups who are hired to influence legislation, regulation, and other government decisions in the favor of the companies that hire them. And this is where things can get a bit dicey. Immediately apparent is the fact that companies with more money can hire lobbyists in much greater numbers, meaning their money directly buys them a louder voice in Washington.
It’s for these exact reasons that lobbying is often viewed in a negative light – because those with more socioeconomic power have the ability to corrupt the law to better server their own interests. However, nonprofits and even individuals can lobby, but how far they’ll be able to get without the buying power to match big tobacco, pharmaceuticals, the prison industry, etc., that’s up for debate.
Is Anyone Fighting For Cannabis?
Again, anybody can lobby and pro-cannabis lobbying is becoming just as commonplace as pushing to maintain prohibition status quo has been up until now. The exact numbers are a bit hazy, but estimates indicate that cannabis companies spent a record $10.6 million on political lobbying during 2019 and 2020, which is only pocket change compared to some of the big spenders on Capitol Hill, but it’s still a sixfold increase over just a couple years prior.
“For the first time in my six years of doing this, you actually have a chamber of Congress that’s willing to have an adult conversation about this,” said Michael Correia, director of government relations at the National Cannabis Industry Association, the most established pot business lobby. “That is definitely a sea change.”
Once a fringe issue, cannabis reform has now flourished into a top political priority with numerous different stakeholders that are pushing for legalization. In just the last two quarters, roughly $4 million has been spent on cannabis industry lobbying and Washington D.C. has seen dozens of new registered lobbyists. On June 1st, the industry gained its largest and most prominent supporter thus far, Amazon, who pledged to contribute to the end of federal prohibition.
Additionally, they announced that they would stop drug testing employees – a big move for such a large, nationwide company – and that its “public policy team will be actively supporting The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act)—federal legislation that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and invest in impacted communities.”
Alcohol and Tobacco vs Pot
Historically, both tobacco and alcohol have thrown quite a bit of money at lobbyists to block cannabis legalization; alcohol in particular because there is a direct correlation between cannabis legalization and reduced intake of alcohol beverages. Also, taxes raised in recreational cannabis markets have begun to outpace alcohol taxes. Colorado is a prime example of this.
“It’s crazy how much revenue our state used to flush down the drain by forcing marijuana sales into the underground market,” said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement. “It’s even crazier that so many states are still doing it. Tax revenue is just one of many good reasons to replace marijuana prohibition with a system of regulation.”
The relationship between cannabis and big tobacco is a bit more nuanced and complex. Since the 1970s, tobacco companies have been eyeing cannabis products, sometimes as possible investment opportunities and other times as a rival industry. In the past, tobacco companies are known to have spent large amounts on anti-cannabis legislation, but the tense competition between these two industries seems to be simmering down.
Lobbying Cannabis & The Pharmaceutical Industry
Knowing what we know about cannabis and how its compounds work with the human endocannabinoid system, it makes sense why it can be used medicinally to treat so many different and wildly varying ailments. It’s also safe to assume that as an effective, non-toxic, and natural therapeutic, cannabis has the potential of completely replacing dozens, if not hundreds, of existing pharmaceutical medications.
According to retired police officer-turned-legalization advocate Howard Wooldridge, “Big Pharma is a top opponent of legalization, due to the emerging potential of marijuana as an alternative to advil, ibuprofen all the way to Vicodin, pills for nausea – I mean expensive store-bought pills.”
This theory is further cemented by a recent study claiming that, on average, states providing easy access to medical marijuana saw a 20 percent drop in prescription drug use, particularly opioids. A review of 79 total studies on this subject found that patients experienced, roughly, a 30 percent improvement in pain with cannabinoids compared to placebos, and in states where dispensaries are widely distributed, the rate of opioid-related hospital admissions and deaths dropped by 15-35 percent.
A lot of the main figures in the fight against cannabis legalization are the companies making opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Zohydrol. “It’s more than a little odd that groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies.” – Lee Fang, Journalist and Investigative Reporter at The Intercept.
But it’s not just pain medication that takes a back seat to the powers of medicinal cannabinoid, in legal states, doctors report writing fewer prescriptions for depression, anxiety, seizures, and nausea medications as well. Any unbiased comparison of benefits vs risks would find that weed is considerably superior to prescription pills on a regular basis.
No matter how you look at it, the financial stakes are crazy high. In addition to big pharma obviously trying to protect its $10 billion annual revenues, prescription pill dependency causes a ripple effect of additional problems, many of which are expensive and profitable. For example, think of all the incurred medical and rehabilitative treatments needed to treat opioid addiction, repeated overdoses, and spread of disease within drug-using communities. All that equates to more money for the healthcare and insurance industries. And the criminalization of drug users means that many of them end up in the prison system, another one of our government’s money-making ventures partially fueled by the incarceration of low-level offenders (marijuana users and drugs addicts).
Most industries are self-serving, that’s just a fact of capitalism. But what is most unnerving about the pharmaceutical industry is the blatant hypocrisy they feed us to continue making money – claiming devotion to human health and welfare on one side while regularly putting profits over people on the other side.
Police Unions and the Prison Industry
Not all the industries lobbying against cannabis are product based. Police and prison unions – who have significant pull in local and state politics – are also major financial backers of anti-cannabis policies. Like healthcare, many people link of law enforcement and prisons as societal service industries with the main goal of helping, rehabilitating, and so forth, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Although these industries are tasked with providing essential services to the communities in which they operate, the fact of the matter is, they’re industries like any other, and they have a bottom line to maintain.
That said, private prison companies have openly admitted that changes to current drug schedules and cannabis leniency would “reduce demand for prison beds” and negatively affect their incomes. Take UNICOR, for example, who according to their website it “a wholly owned, self-sustaining Government corporation that sells market-priced services and quality goods made by inmates.”
UNICOR makes just over $61 million per year in net sales by using prison labor, and while they sell ‘market-priced goods and services’, the inmates earn only 23¢ to $1.15 per hour. And despite getting paid only a fraction of the already-offensively-low federal minimum wage, they must immediately turn around and pay half of their earnings to cover expenses while incarcerated. UNICOR is only one of many companies making millions off almost-free prison labor.
It’s no surprise that exact data on lobbying numbers can be hard to find, but according to numerous different sources, it’s somewhere in the ballpark of $4 million annually, plus millions extra in the very vague category of “political contributions”.
Although the burgeoning cannabis industry stands to threaten profits for many other products, a handful of more savvy brands and entrepreneurs are taking notice and trying to get their foot in the door while they still can – especially in the alcohol and tobacco industries.
Altria, tobacco giant and maker of Marlboro cigarettes, recently invested nearly $2 billion in Canadian-based cannabis tech company Cronos Group. Constellation brands, a prominent alcohol producer and maker of Corona, Medelo, and other big-name products, recently took a $245 million dollar stake in R&D cannabis company, Canopy Growth.
Not only are these huge, wealthy brands investing directly in cannabis companies, but they’re also throwing their weight around in D.C., spending a substantial amount of money on pro-weed lobbying. Now that they have some skin the game financially, they’ve turned the tables and are fighting on the side of fair cannabis reform.
Final Thoughts – Cannabis and Lobbying
Although anti-legalization proponents often have more money, influence, and lobbying power than the little guys pushing for fair weed reform, legalization advocates have still managed to secure major political cannabis victories across the country. They pull it off by taking the ballot initiatives straight to the voters, because as we all know, the only way to really get things done it by circumventing the political obstacle course and going directly to the people who matter.
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