Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz

Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz

Former Republican lawmakers are becoming the face of a new marijuana lobbying blitz.

This year, both former Reps. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade George Papadopoulos launches campaign to run for Katie Hill's congressional seat The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE (R-Calif.) and Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloRepublicans can't exploit the left's climate extremism without a better idea Progressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign The Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP MORE (R-Fla.), who lost reelection bids in 2018, have signed on with marijuana companies. They are following former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE (R-Ohio), who has been an active advocate for the cannabis industry since leaving Congress.

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For the booming industry, turning to former GOP lawmakers is an important step to expand their support in Congress.

Curbelo became a strategic adviser for the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF), a nonprofit for cannabis education and advocacy, in February. Rohrabacher joined cannabis company BudTrader as a shareholder and advisory board member in May.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA time for war, a time for peace — and always a time to defend America Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Soleimani killing deepens distrust between Trump, Democrats MORE retired from Congress in 2015 and in April 2018 joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a publicly traded cannabis company based in New York. He was also named honorary chairman of the National Cannabis Roundtable, an organization to lobby for pro-marijuana policy, this February.

“Republicans have an image that people who use cannabis are a bunch of hippies who hate America,” Rohrabacher told The Hill. “They’re still thinking about the 1960s, and here we are 60 years later.”

Changing those views is a priority for the industry.

Rohrabacher was involved in the fight to legalize marijuana in Congress, where he co-founded the House Cannabis Caucus in 2017 with Reps. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems release first transcripts from impeachment probe witnesses GOP lawmaker head-butts MoveOn camera MORE (R-Alaska) and Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerLobbying world Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension MORE (D-Ore.) and former Rep. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado governor pardons woman who sought sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation Democrats spend big to put Senate in play Drudge faces conservative pushback after mocking Trump's Colorado wall comment MORE (D-Colo.). Young and Rep. David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceKoch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill Keeping your national parks accessible even during a government shutdown Marijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis MORE (R-Ohio) are now the GOP leaders in the caucus.

Rohrabacher’s work in Congress to protect medical cannabis companies from prosecution by the Justice Department culminated in 2014 with the passage of legislation, which prohibits the department from using funds to prosecute activities that are permitted under a state’s medical cannabis laws.

“I think I have an understanding of the issues. ... Also, I have an understanding of a lot of the players because they have been involved with me over the years trying to legalize marijuana ...  and I know how government works,” Rohrabacher said.

He added that he “has no problem registering to lobby” once the one-year ban on former members doing so is up.

Curbelo also worked on cannabis issues as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I just realized how backwards it all was and how behind the times it all was,” he said of laws restricting cannabis businesses.

“Then, after Congress, I kind of ran into the Cannabis Trade Federation, which I had already known from before,” he added.

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Curbelo said it is easier to get younger lawmakers on board with marijuana but that there was still a partisan split.

“With a lot of House Republicans, the stigma in connection with cannabis is very strong,” he said.

Curbelo said the CTF has business executives from other industries working with them, which is helpful in courting Republicans.

“I would always tell them, you all are among the best advocates for this cause because a lot of my Republican colleagues, and maybe Democrats too, wouldn’t expect that this industry is led by people who have a long track record of succeeding in business and people who are obviously extremely ethical,” he said.

CTF CEO Neal Levine said younger members were changing the debate on marijuana reforms.

“You would be hard pressed to find any member of Congress, regardless of party, under the age of 45 who doesn’t support ending cannabis prohibition,” he said.

“And then we have a lot of committee chairs who are in their 70s and 80s,” he added, explaining why legislation has often stalled.

Levine said outside of Congress, marijuana legalization has bipartisan support.

“The polling shows that very clearly. The people are usually ahead of Congress, and that’s how Congress is set up, to go slow,” he said.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSekulow indicates Trump should not attend impeachment trial Trump sets record for tweets as president on day House makes impeachment case Rand Paul invites Trump to see 'partisan charade' at Senate trial MORE’s (R-Ky.) former legislative counsel, Randal Meyer, who left the Senate in September 2017, is now the executive director for a cannabis coalition, Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce.

Cannabis advocates point to Boehner as an example of how Republican lawmakers can change.

Boehner was opposed to legalizing marijuana in Congress and has acknowledged that his views have dramatically changed since.

“He’s been a trendsetter, but he’s also part of the trend itself,” Terry Holt, a spokeman for National Cannabis Roundtable and a partner at HDMK, said.

“Marijuana has come a long way in the last decade and Republicans, just like a lot of other not particularly partisan people, have seen the change and have seen the need to update our laws,” Holt added.

Republicans who are advocates for the cannabis industry, though, have taken tough criticism from industry critics, who accuse them of cashing in on a booming new business without considering the implications.

“A few greedy members always exist in either party, and it’s not surprising to see some members putting profits over people,” said Colton Grace, communications director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization that opposes relaxing marijuana laws.

Holt pushed back on that criticism.

“I guess you can question anyone’s motives, but you can’t deny that there is now genuine momentum for real reform,” he said.

Holt noted growing support in Congress, pointing to Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum McConnell keeps press in check as impeachment trial starts Progressive group launches campaign targeting vulnerable GOP senators on impeachment MORE (R-Colo.).

Gardner teamed up on bipartisan legislation that would allow states to determine their own cannabis policies. The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act was reintroduced in April with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Biden, Sanders tax plans would raise less revenue than claimed: studies MORE (D-Mass.), and by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio) in the House.

In March, the House Financial Services Committee also approved bipartisan legislation that would allow banks to work with marijuana businesses that are legal under state law, a breakthrough for marijuana advocates. The measure is awaiting a full House vote.

“There is collaboration between Republicans and Democrats on the Finance Committee in particular, that’s the best news in the process part of this so far,” Holt said.

Rohrabacher predicted that marijuana legislation won’t see much more movement this year, but he is hopeful for 2020.

“In the second year of this session, we will see a major cannabis bill materialize and you’ll have a lot of people who have various issues at times and are not in total agreement right now ... come together,” Rohrabacher said.

Trump will “not only agree to sign the bill, but his White House will play a major role in finding the compromises necessary,” he predicted.

Curbelo, too, is more optimistic about the prospects for cannabis reform in Congress.

“It’s still an uphill battle and given how gridlocked Congress is generally, it’s not going to be easy, but there’s a growing consensus on, at the very least, ending the conflict between state cannabis laws and federal cannabis laws,” he said.