Lobbyists race to cash in on cannabis boom

Lobbyists race to cash in on cannabis boom
© Getty

Lobbying firms are taking advantage of the cannabis boom as a number of bills on the industry move through Congress and state legislatures.

As businesses look for help dealing with new legislative and regulatory challenges, K Street is rushing to capitalize, highlighted this week by the highest-grossing firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, launching a new "Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Industry Group." 

“This practice group [is] now formalized but the work that we’ve been doing for a while has just been growing organically," said Melissa Kuipers Blake, co-chair of the group.

"I expect that continues to happen as folks understand they need lawyers with high level expertise.”

Brownstein is headquartered in Denver, where Blake is based, and has offices throughout the West Coast, including Santa Barbara, Calif., where the other co-chair, Amy Steinfeld, is based. Both Colorado and California have legalized marijuana.

“I think the reason why it’s a natural fit for our firm to be doing this, especially in California, is that we have been working with the regulatory agencies for years on other projects,” Steinfeld told The Hill. “New farmers coming into this field don’t really realize they’re entering what’s really a compliance industry because it’s so highly regulated.”

And she said that moving public opinion on the issue is an important part of lobbying effort. 

“We’ve been really working with the cultivators to form an industry group because this is such a new industry and its still subject to a lot of opposition from local nimbies,” she said. “Not only do we provide legal advice but we also…[connect] them with other growers and other folks in the industry, and also at the state and local levels, to really kind of destigmatized cannabis.”

Terry Holt, spokesman for the National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR), an organization to lobby for pro-marijuana policy, said firms creating lobbying groups focused on cannabis businesses is an acknowledgement of the industry's explosive growth.

“The fastest growing industry is getting a lot of attention from the lobbying community in D.C.,” Holt said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of folks entering the space and that is just part of the momentum we need that will make big changes.”

But those moves have also brought K Street criticism from those groups opposed to relaxing marijuana laws.

“Combining one of the biggest D.C. lobbying firms with the addiction business never ends well in this country, just look at Big Tobacco and Big Pharma," said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). "Big Marijuana is now copying their playbook, line for line. While they rake in billions, ordinary Americans will foot the bills in the form of increased car crashes, lost productivity and more addiction."

Sabet also downplayed the industry's growth. 

“The reality is, dozens of states have rejected legalization this year and the federal government is nowhere near embracing marijuana, no matter the spin from the industry," he added.

But in Washington, lobbying giants are ramping up their effort to pull in cannabis business.

Squire Patton Boggs has a group dealing with client matters on cannabis and hemp. 

The firm’s senior strategic advisor, former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Ohio), established NCR earlier this year, which Squire Patton Boggs does lobbying work for.

Akin Gump has already been advising clients on policy and compliance issues related to cannabis. And Brownstein has been working with the Cannabis Trade Federation, a nonprofit for cannabis education and advocacy, for about two years.

“[We] have really made some inroads with a surprising number of elected officials that you might not ordinarily would think would be supportive or even interested in talking about cannabis,” Blake said.

And it's not just direct cannabis businesses that are seeking help to navigate the laws.

“We represent a large regional bank who had questions about whether or not they could open hemp deposit accounts, for example,” Blake said. “It’s not a lobbying engagement but it’s certainly a compliance and regulatory engagement that has a lot to do with lobbying because the big question at the end of every single one of those meetings is, ‘what happening in Washington?’”

The SAFE Banking Act, which would allow banks to work with marijuana businesses that are legal under state law, has already been approved by the House Financial Services Committee and also has received a hearing in the Senate, a notable development in the GOP-controlled upper chamber

“It’s inevitable that more and more companies are going to start to wrestle with cannabis reform. The SAFE Banking act, which just got a hearing in the Senate before recess, is a specific case where banks, credit unions, insurance companies, local governments…all kinds of normal businesses are being affected as they interact with them,” Holt said.

“It’s really an exciting industry to be in as a lawyer because it’s rare that you get access to a whole new body of law that’s dynamic and literally changing daily both at the local state and at the federal level. It’s really fun to be part of this,” Steinfeld said.

The lobbying boom is expected to continue as Congress takes up more legislation and more states work towards legalization.

"A lot of work needs to be done, it's going to take a lot of public policy professionals to get it right and in Washington, that almost inevitably means more lawyers and lobbyists,” Holt said.