The Marijuana Lobby Spends Big on Bills Americans Don't Want | Opinion

There has been a big push to commercialize and legalize marijuana lately. And while advocates insist this push derives from a desire to increase racial equality and social justice, the real reason is far more cynical: the almighty dollar.

Last year, Big Marijuana spent a record $11 million on federal lobbying, and $3.3 million in the last quarter alone. According to Open Secrets, at least $4.5 million has been spent by groups such as the Cannabis Trade Federation, the National Cannabis Roundtable and Canopy Growth to lobby federal lawmakers on marijuana issues so far this year.

It seems the recent investment of several billion dollars into Big Pot from Big Tobacco giants and alcohol conglomerates is now being spent on top K Street lobbying firms.

So, if money talks, did anyone listen?

Not really.

First, the industry tried to capitalize on the coronavirus pandemic by arguing pot was an "essential business" in need of a cash infusion. It's quite ironic, since the industry was at the same time touting profits. Record profits, by the way—made selling very high-potency marijuana that is up to 99 percent in THC strength. Today's pot damages the brain, and contributes to mental illness, car crashes and workplace accidents.

Under intense lobbying pressure, some House members saw an opportunity to pass federal marijuana legalization a few weeks ago. The MORE Act would have allowed for full commercialization nationwide, with unlimited THC potency levels, no public health or safety guardrails and the end of testing transportation workers as we know it—all while allowing pot companies to deduct expenses (such as social media advertisements targeted at kids) from their taxes.

After hearing from parents nationwide, the House cancelled the vote, deeming it too politically risky. They may vote for it during the lame duck session, but that would be like winning an exhibition baseball game after the season has ended.

The millions spent by the pot lobby did result in a vote in the House on the SAFE Banking Act. Since its introduction last year, this bill has been the top goal of the marijuana industry and its cheerleaders, who claim it is simply a reform needed to move the industry away from a "cash-only" style of operation.

That claim is simply untrue—pot shops have already figured out how to go cash-free. The real goal of the bill is to open the industry to the billions of dollars of institutional investment currently "sitting on the sidelines," according to former House Speaker and current Big Marijuana lobbyist John Boehner—who stands to make more than $20 million should marijuana be legalized federally.

Chicago dispensary
A customer enters Dispensary33 marijuana dispensary on January 22, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. The state has seen a spike in requests for medical marijuana cards since it legalized the drug for recreational use on January 1. Scott Olson/Getty

Interestingly enough, in order to get this vote over the finish line, language was added to the bill preventing the government from pressuring banks and credit card companies against doing business with gun manufacturers—which led the National Rifle Association to lobby in favor of the measure and secure Republican votes.

With these votes secured, the pot lobby trumpeted "bipartisan support" for a federally illegal industry receiving access to the federal banking system.

Thankfully, even though the big banks embraced the legislation, the bill has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Outside of the banking bill, Big Pot has failed on every single item in its wish list for this Congress.

Lawmakers should take note that legalization is not as popular as the pot lobby would have them believe. The proof is in the pudding: in states that have legalized pot, a majority of communities have banned commercial marijuana operations.

Opinion polling backs this up. When given the full range of policy options—such as decriminalization only and medical marijuana only—voters overwhelmingly choose options other than outright legalization. In other words, "criminalization versus legalization" is a false dichotomy.

Furthermore, it's worth pointing out that both presidential candidates oppose marijuana commercialization. If one were to listen to the talking points of the marijuana industry and its newsletters, marijuana legalization is one of the most important issues to voters. But this is just a pipe dream.

During the Democratic primary, candidates were quick to tout their support for legalization while former vice president Joe Biden was castigated for daring to err on the side of caution. He pointed to evidence showing marijuana use—especially today's high-potency products—was harmful to young brains, and said he preferred decriminalization to commercialization.

And he handily won the nomination.

With the reality setting in that the next president will oppose commercialization and marijuana lobbying efforts will continue to stumble on Capitol Hill, we will be sure to see even more money spent by Big Pot next year.

Lawmakers and the American people should see through their smokescreen and continue to reject them.

Kevin A. Sabet, Ph.D., served in three White House administrations, most recently as senior drug policy advisor from 2009 to 2011. He is the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

The Marijuana Lobby Spends Big on Bills Americans Don't Want | Opinion | Opinion