Former Republican lawmakers are becoming the face of a new marijuana lobbying blitz.
This year, both former Reps. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherNow someone wants to slap a SPACE Tax on Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Former Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building MORE (R-Calif.) and Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloNation's fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead MORE (R-Fla.), who lost reelection bids in 2018, have signed on with marijuana companies. They are following former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio), who has been an active advocate for the cannabis industry since leaving 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 BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger 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 are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump | Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Overnight Energy: Biden admin backs Trump approval of major Alaska drilling project | Senate Republicans pitch 8 billion for infrastructure | EPA to revise Trump rule limiting state authority to block pipelines MORE (R-Alaska) and Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerPhotos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Bottom line American workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world MORE (D-Ore.) and former Rep. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisMajority of unvaccinated in Colorado have no plans to get inoculated: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in Colorado Gov. Jared Polis makes history marrying long-time partner Marlon Reis MORE (D-Colo.). Young and Rep. David JoyceDavid JoyceBipartisan lawmakers highlight COVID-19 impact on mental health, addiction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats await Manchin decision on voting rights bill Porter urges increased budget for children's National Parks program 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.
“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 PaulGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 White House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken 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 GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program 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 WarrenBipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam White House faces increased cries from allies on Haitian migrants 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.