Marijuana business owners are increasingly pouring their profits into lobbying lawmakers as they face a federal crackdown from the Trump administration.
A USA TODAY survey found hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing from the cannabis industry into campaign finance accounts of both lawmakers and political action committees, with emphasis this year on Congressional Republicans who are trying to stop the Trump administration from targeting marijuana businesses.
Combined, medical and recreational marijuana marketplaces across the country are worth a staggering $8 billion, and last year generated at least $2 billion in taxes, said Matt Karnes of cannabis data firm GreenWave Advisors. It’s no surprise those businesses want to protect what they’ve built, experts say.
“These are legitimate, taxpaying businesses that want and deserve to be heard, and lawmakers at every level of government have become more comfortable with accepting their contributions,” said Mason Tvert, a cannabis activist who helped lead Colorado’s legalization effort in 2012.
Politicians are increasingly willing to accept those contributions from an industry that remains illegal at the federal level and now faces even more scrutiny after Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month rolled back Obama administration policies not to interfere with state laws allowing people to use recreational marijuana.
A growing room filled with maturing marijuana plants inside the Medicine Man cannabis dispensary in Denver.
Eight states, along with the District of Columbia, permit adults to possess small amounts of marijuana, and Vermont’s governor was expected to make pot legal in the Green Mountain state this weekend.
Money is also flowing at the state level, where legislators and regulators decide on details about packaging, testing and even who can get business licenses. Legalization ballot initiatives across the country have also been backed by millions of dollars, particularly in California.
Cannabis lobbying groups, including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), have long lobbied lawmakers, but now marijuana business owners themselves are contributing — and letting everyone know it.
John Lord, the CEO of Colorado-based LivWell Enlightened Health, whose company employs more than 600 people, has donated nearly $23,000 to federal lawmakers in the past four years, and another $10,000 to Colorado politicians and issue committees. Increasingly he’s been giving to Republicans at the federal level.
“It would be rather imprudent if I didn’t,” Lord said.
Lord’s donations make him one of the biggest individual donors in cannabis campaign contributions nationally, at least among those who admit where the money comes from. While campaign donors are supposed to disclose their employer, many black-market marijuana growers simply say they’re self-employed or a consultant, obscuring the source of the money.
Democrats have typically been the largest recipients of marijuana campaign money in the past, but Republicans are now taking the lead in accepting those donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzed contributions at the request of USA TODAY. Experts say the recent shift is largely attributable to the belief by marijuana businesses that Republicans who support states’ rights are their best allies today.
Because marijuana contributions make up such a small percentage of campaign donations and lobbying spending, it’s hard to track exactly how much money is flowing to candidates.
Industry groups with political action committees are the biggest donors, among them the MPP, NORML and the National Cannabis Industry Association, which combined have donated about $327,000 to candidates over the past three Congressional election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, the National Beer Wholesalers Association donated about $1.5 million to candidates in the past year alone.
While the marijuana contributions represent a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to traditional businesses like brewers, grocers, manufacturers or liquor stores, the increasing flow from cannabis entrepreneurs suggests the industry won’t willingly let the federal government slow this fast-growing juggernaut.
Republican California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher recently became a favored lawmaker of cannabis contributors for his strong support of the industry: He’s the author of legislation banning the Justice Department from targeting legal medical marijuana businesses. Rohrabacher said he’s noticing more and more marijuana money and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
“They’ve got a lot to learn. But they’re learning it because they’re here now,” he said. “The voters of those states have granted them the title of legitimate businessmen.”
The rapidly growing marijuana industry is finding that politicians are increasingly willing to accept their campaign contributions, said Eli Scislowicz, the operations director of the NuLeaf cannabis dispensary in Lake Tahoe’s Incline Village, Nev.
“In 2007, we might have gotten a few weird looks if we offered them money, but not anymore,” he said.