Author, as told to
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears' anonymous interview series, we talked to a pro-weed lobbyist who works at legitimizing the budding industry in the eyes of the law.
I was a volunteer marijuana legalization activist for six or seven years. Now, I get to do professionally what I previously did for free.
This is one of the few social causes tied to an industry, which allows me to spend time in that sweet spot between the business world and the progressive do-gooders. That’s one of the best parts of this job. Everyone I work with is socially conscious. Everyone’s grateful that the industry exists. Everyone’s excited to pour their whole selves into what they do every day.
I have client calls at 12:00am, 1:00am, 2:00am—and that’s because everyone involved is passionate. We live and breathe this. No one in the marijuana industry thinks of this work as drudgery. Nothing is mundane. Think about what you care about most. What you love doing. Then imagine there are hedge funds and corporations suddenly throwing cash at that very thing. And it isn’t evil money, either. The people feeding money to the issue are all socially conscious entrepreneurs.
Of course, there are people who are only in it for the money, but the industry is still small enough that we try to weed them out, no pun intended.
There are non-profit advocates and paid lobbyists. I’m sort of both. Non-profit advocates meet with legislators and ask them to do certain things, like sponsor or co-sponsor bills or put them on their committee agenda, but are unattached to any specific commercial interests. Then there’s obviously the paid lobbyists, which come in different varieties as well. In all cases, you’re representing interests for hire, but there’s some will lobby on behalf of entire industries, others are retained by firms and yet others are in-house employees. Generally, all lobbyists educate legislators and try to influence legislation.
The best part day-to-day is that it’s ever-changing. I can pick up the phone and talk to a lobbyist about something happening in New York and, moments later, talk to a medical marijuana patient about his healing process. After that, I’ll be talking with a client starting a hedge fund. Every call is different. All the people I work with are cool. I have a lot of clients because of Burning Man, which is something most people in most industries couldn’t say.
So many marijuana markets
One of the interesting things about working in the industry from a business and economics standpoint is that each state is its own market. There can be no interstate exchange of marijuana. Every state defines its own regulations and has its own chain of supply and demand. For example, Nevada sees this opportunity as being favorable for tourism, so there’s an incredible amount of money and power flowing toward the industry for that reason. There are 24 distinct and separate medical marijuana markets. Each state is its own economic system. In many cases, it’s my responsibility to connect East Coast states with Colorado and the West Coast. It’s important that we learn from each other.
Sometimes, it's just weird
This is the frontier, both economically and in terms of social change. So much is still unknown. And that mostly has its upsides, but there are also some downsides. And sometimes, it’s just weird.
There used to be this woman who also supported the legalization of marijuana. She would show her support by playing acoustic guitar barefoot in the halls of the Capitol Building. They told us that the woman, who was obviously sincere and well-meaning, was really hurting the cause and making us look bad.
When a bill is up for a vote, there are a lot of crazy advocates and protesters in general. It doesn’t always have to do with legalization. Recently, there were a bunch of anti-vaccination parents who decided it would be a good idea to bring all their un-vaccinated children together to protest on the lawn. Politics draws a lot of cracks.
Support for marijuana legalization is rapidly outpacing opposition:
— A slim majority of Americans (53%) support the legalization of marijuana, as opposed to the 44% who think weed should remain illegal.
— Opinions have changed drastically since 1969, when a Gallup poll first asked the question and found that just 12% favored the legalizing of marijuana use.
— Much of the change in opinion has occurred in the past few years. Support for legalization rose 11% between 2010 and 2013, though it has remained relatively unchanged since then.
Source: Pew Research Center
Too much red tape
I work with a lot of people who are breaking serious federal laws. They need to in order to incite change. I’ve had friends who have been raided.
During Obama’s first term, a good friend of mine who did nothing but good things for the world had all his money and property taken from him. It’s difficult to witness that and yet be powerless to stop it.
It’s also painful when someone comes to me looking for help, and the law prohibits me from helping. That’s one of the toughest parts of this job. You’re working on a sweeping issue that will change countless lives, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help an individual immediately. There’s simply too much red tape sometimes.
My personality type is ‘superconnector,’ which means I know how to grow networks and open lines of communication between very powerful people doing very important things.
I approach what I do for the industry with that talent in mind. I think like a map with routes all over it. Everything and everyone is interconnected; even government relations and public relations are interconnected. You’re talking about influencing and having a direct effect on all of society—the stakes are high. That sometimes compensates for my inability to help the individual. Some in the industry work to help on that individual level. I think that’s important, but just not as impactful or sweeping a way for me to spend my time personally. What I do is more about relationship-building and helping people on a large scale. Of course, a lot of it is PR. That’s mostly connecting reporters to sources and helping the source get publicity.
Support for marijuana legalization by group:
— 68% OF MILLENNIALS say marijuana should be legal, compared to 50% of baby boomers and only 29% of the silent generation (or, those aged 70 to 87).
— A Majority OF BLACKS (58%) and whites (55%) favor the legalization of marijuana, compared with 40% of Hispanics.
— most DEMOCRATS (59%) and Independents (58%) support legalizing the use of marijuana, as opposed to 39% of Republicans.
— MEN (57%) are more likely than women (49%) to support marijuana legalization.
Source: Pew Research Center
I remember when ‘The Marijuana Industry’ was, quite literally, nothing more than a Word doc on my laptop. It was a bunch of text, and now it’s becoming real. Now, at any point, I make improvements that can be implemented in real life. They’re not just words anymore.
This is a battle a lot of people have fought for a long time, and we could not envision ourselves winning. And now here we are, living the reality we’ve made.
Of course, there’s always the opposition. I was canvassing in front of the library in my suburban hometown. This was the very first initiative I was involved in. I was just a kid standing in front of the library asking people to sign a petition to reform marijuana laws, and people who passed by told me I should be shot. Not just one person. Many people. Ignorant statements to this extent have shrunk quite a lot since then.
I think that’s partially because we’ve succeeded in educating the public. Perspectives are rapidly changing.
The legal weed market in numbers:
— $1.53 billion: The amount the national legal marijuana market was worth in 2013, according to a report by ArcView Market Research, a San Francisco-based investor group focused on the marijuana industry.
— $10.2 billion: The estimated amount the national legal marijuana market will be worth in four years, according to the same study.
— $35 billion: The projected worth of the national legal marijuana market in 2020, if all state and federal organs move to end prohibition, according to a report by GreenWave Advisors, a research and advisory group covering the emerging weed industry.
In California, with Proposition 19, which was the marijuana legalization campaign in 2010, we were almost the first state to legalize marijuana. Interestingly, the cannabis growers and dealers were opposed to legalization. They organized against Prop 19 because they thought democratizing the market would actually harm their personal financial ventures. I mean, these aren’t people who are in the habit of getting licenses, complying with laws, paying taxes, things like that. They’re enjoying incredibly high black market profit margins. These are people who are growing a few rooms of cannabis and using that to cover their entire year’s worth of expenses. That’s just not going to be the case under legalization.
Still, they’re the ones that’ll probably be first to colonize the legal market, only they’ll be getting wages and benefits. The economists were telling them it would be great for business, but they didn’t want to hear any of it.
Bud® and Kush™
There are legislators who are very familiar with terms that consumers would be more used to, like “bud” or “kush.” And there are certain subtle ways that some legislators will strongly imply that either they themselves or people they know consume marijuana. Personal beliefs are just one of the many facets that they consider when deciding what to support as an elected official.
There’s also the opposite. There are definitely legislators I’ve spoken to who I suspect are probably opposed to legalization but feel that they need to support it because of their constituents.
Still, there are a lot of legislators who will say something silly like, “If these people are smoking marijuana and smoking marijuana is illegal, then smoking marijuana makes them criminals, and they will be criminals forever—so lock ‘em away.” It’s faulty logic, of course.
Then there are people who won’t admit there’s a racial aspect to how drug laws are enforced, and these people don’t see that this movement is a response that biased enforcement. We work hard to educate for that. There are very hard-hitting statistics that show how this issue is a race issue. Drugwarfacts.org has thousands of facts all cited. Stories like the one about Hakeem Kuta—the 17-year old Bronx teenager who fell to his death from a roof while fleeing cops who were chasing him because he was smoking marijuana in the lobby of his building—are tragic. It’s upsetting when tragedy has to happen in order to bring light to what needs change.
I consider the drug war, mass incarceration and reforming the criminal justice system to be the most important issues of our generation—and marijuana legalization is a good chunk of that. I’d like to see legalization continue to expand, to become nationally acknowledged and responsibly regulated. I would like to see it help the people who prohibition harmed. People of color in urban environments have been hurt the most by the criminalization of marijuana, and we haven’t seen legalization help them yet the way it should. This movement should benefit them most of all.
Realistically, I think that’s something that’s going to have to be regulated and legislated. I’ve suggested ways for legislation to nudge change in that direction. I have ideas on how to make that happen. I’m still working to bring the entirety of that Word doc into reality. We’ve accomplished a lot, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
The criminalization of weed by race is still a problem:
— BLACKS and whites use marijuana at similar rates, found a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2010, 14% of Blacks and 12% of whites polled reported using marijuana in the past year. In 2001, those numbers were 9% and 10%, respectively.
— yet, BLACKS are 3.74 times more likely to be arrested for weed possession than whites, according to the same study. In 2010, the national arrest rate was 192 per 100,000 whites compared to 712 per 100,000 for Blacks.
— Racial disparities in weed possession arrests exist regardless of county income levels, and are greater in middle income and affluent counties. In counties with the 15 highest median incomes, Blacks are 2-8 times more likely to be arrested than whites; in counties with the 15 lowest median incomes, that number drops to 1.5-5 times more likely.
Source: American Civil Liberties Union