As Congress moves toward marijuana legalization under the new Democratic majority, a broad coalition of cannabis businesses and advocacy groups has formed this session in hopes of moving the issue forward.
The United States Cannabis Council (USCC), led on an interim basis by Stephen Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), will advocate for federal legalization and the promotion of social justice in the industry.
The new body claims to represent “a unified position in favor of cannabis reduction and legalization,” but among its members, the business community predominates, along with some key advocacy and industry groups – such as NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Americans for Safe Access (ASA) the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and the National Cannabis Roundtable – has led some to question what specific policies the USCC will adopt and whether they will ultimately be consistent with the goals of activist reform.
Although the USCC emphasized in its announcement and on its website that legalization and social justice would be its primary goals, the fact that these key players were missing from the registry left some skepticism about consistency in how lawyers would address these issues.
I agree with that. Look at the composition of this federal cannabis coalition. Who is at the table? Who is being left out?
Like this coalition, it does not represent the ideals of local justice advocates.
This group will never say or define “reparations” in its defense. https://t.co/StQGF14jlQ.
– TauhidChappell (@TauhidChappell) February 8, 2021
Some have also questioned the need for another coalition, particularly one strongly represented by existing private interests, as Congressional leaders prepare to change federal marijuana policy.
“We have seen many organizations come and go over the years and the various attempts they have made to change their names or reorganize, and as with these cases in the past, we wish the USCC well,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the NCIA.
“We have been approached to join, but as the largest and most comprehensive professional association in the country, we feel we should focus on representing our members and remain independent and responsive,” he said. “We already work closely with the organizations that support the USCC and we will certainly continue to work with this coalition in the future.”
Hawkins said she understands that “there may be reasons why organizations do or do not participate.” They may, for example, “feel that their voice is best reflected when they are independent.”
“But having four or five votes [to advocate for their own reform] doesn’t necessarily jeopardize [the mission],” he said. “What’s diminished is that we have 20 to 25 votes,” and that sends a different message.
“When we were able to bring together three trade groups, as we did, when we now have four different interest groups under this umbrella and this company, I think we did a tremendous service in terms of what was needed to really have the best chance of ending the federal ban,” Hawkins said. “We need more unity. In all the coalitions I’ve worked in, we’ve never done anything when everyone disagreed.
MPP is proud to be a founding member of the US Cannabis Council, a unique strategic alliance of businesses, associations and advocacy groups. The goal of the USCC is to act as a united front and advocate for the restriction and legalization of cannabis.
– Marijuana Policy Project (@MarijuanaPolicy) February 8, 2021
USCC members include major companies in the cannabis industry such as Acreage Holdings, Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Cronos Group, Curaleaf, Eaze, iAnthus Capital Holdings, LivWell Enlightened Health, MedMen, PAX Labs, Schwazze, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Vireo.
Members of the USCC include MPP, American Cannabis and Hemp Trade Association, Cannabis Trade Federation, Cannabis Voter Project, Global Cannabis Trade Alliance, Cannabis Veterans Project and Vicente Cederberg LLP.
Reacting to the decision not to join the new coalition, Queen Adesuyi, DPA political coordinator, said her group remains “focused on promoting comprehensive marijuana reform based on justice and equity within this Congress , with our dedicated partners in the Marijuana Justice Coalition and other allies who share our commitment to ending the federal criminalization of marijuana, addressing the problems associated with it, and ensuring that the legal market includes those affected by prohibition.
Other groups that were invited to join the new coalition, but did not, stated that they still intend to work with the USCC and its members in some capacity.
NORML Executive Director Eric Altieri said that “we welcome the support of any group willing to work to end our failed marijuana prohibition,” but “it is important that NORML’s mission remains independent of industry and focused solely on representing the interests of the millions of cannabis users across the country.
“We were invited. We support her and look forward to working with them, but we declined,” said Amber Littlejohn of MCBA. “There is no drama. It’s just a matter of current MDS priorities.
ASA Executive Director Debbie Churgai said the group supports “a coordinated federal approach to medical cannabis and social justice,” but recently formed its own policy advisory committee of healthcare professionals, veterans and businesses to “encourage Congress and the new administration to work toward better federal approaches” to patient care.
However, the ASA will continue to work with “coalition partners across the cannabis advocacy community to implement the full range of reforms needed to ensure safe, legal, affordable and equitable access for patients, consumers and industry,” she said.
Despite initial skepticism from some advocates, the USCC says it wants to make comprehensive marijuana reform a priority.
The United States Cannabis Council (USCC) is the largest and most diverse gathering of organizations, businesses and individuals to ever advocate for the legalization of cannabis in the United States. #Voice4Cannabis pic.twitter.com/vxsLZ8RZwm
– USCannabisCouncil (@USCannabisCncl) February 8, 2021
“The USCC has come together to address this moment. And in response, we understand that we will need unity,” Hawkins said. “The USCC is a broad coalition uniting a number of industry leaders, as well as various advocacy and trade groups, all speaking with one voice and pursuing one primary goal: to end the federal ban and ensure that social justice provisions are met,” he said.
Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the leading advocate for cannabis reform in Congress, expressed support for the USCC, saying that he has “seen firsthand that our greatest victories in cannabis come from the team.”
“That’s why I’m excited about this first alliance of its kind. The 117th Congress presents us with a unique opportunity to move forward on cannabis reform, but we must remain united to bring about the change we know is possible,” he said. “I look forward to meeting with the US Cannabis Council in Washington and working together to make important policy changes in the months and years ahead.
Christian Cederberg, vice president of the USCC board of directors and partner of Vicente Cederberg, said that “the cannabis industry has mobilized to get our message across: we need to end the use of cannabis and legalize it, and it’s important that we do it right.”
“After so many years of working toward meaningful reform, it is inspiring to see a diverse group of partners who have formed this collective voice, and together we hope that real and meaningful federal cannabis reform is within reach,” he said.
If some question the reasons behind the new advocacy for marijuana in Congress, which is widely supported by the industry, it is partly because of recent history.
When Democratic House leaders passed the bipartisan Safe and Fair Banking Act (SAFE) last year, some advocates argued that Congress should not first pass a law that would primarily benefit industry interest groups before passing a broader law that addresses social justice.
This sentiment seems to resonate with the new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who said last week that he was willing to move forward with a cannabis bank bill, but added that it must be passed in conjunction with a drug crime reform bill.
However, the USCC’s website contains a list of policy and advocacy priorities, including justice-related issues such as disclosure of prior convictions and social equity licensing. It also states that the coalition wants a “total reduction in cannabis at the federal level” – a more limited exemption from federal law that some businesses in the previous Congress supported and that would have exempted legal marijuana-related activities from the Controlled Substances Act without a formal reduction in cannabis.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) have set a course for serious reform. Last week, the trio issued a joint statement outlining their comprehensive legalization plan, calling for bills to be introduced “early in the year” and seeking feedback from activists and advocacy groups.
However, his initial meeting with representatives of a wide range of reformist groups on Friday did not broadly match those of the USCC members. Instead, discussions were held with organizations such as the DPA, NORML, NCIA, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and other justice groups. Cannabis businesses and trade associations were less well represented. MAP also did not participate in the senators’ meeting.
According to Hawkins, “there will undoubtedly be differences of opinion” among members of the USCC. “What will be different in the future is that there will be different voices than ours, but Senator Schumer is not going to have 25 different people coming to him to give him their opinions on what is good for cannabis.
“We are doing everything we can to help unite and speak with one voice,” he said.
This, of course, requires funding. The acting head of the USCC said fundraising will “take many forms,” including membership contributions. Groups such as parliamentarians with a sincere constituency could also “complement” these strategies, he said, in addition to contributions from individual companies.
It remains to be seen to what extent this new coalition will succeed in bringing stakeholders together to develop a unified approach to cannabis promotion, and to what extent advocates and industry will differ when it comes to determining legislative priorities and tactics.
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