Businesses, groups, unions and tribes spend millions lobbying Congress on marijuana issues

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As the U.S. cannabis industry keeps growing, marijuana businesses, trade associations and political nonprofits are spending more and more money lobbying Congress on MJ reform and legalization.

At the same time, more mainstream companies and various groups are keeping tabs on cannabis activity on Capitol Hill.

Amazon and Anheuser-Busch, labor unions such as the Teamsters as well as Native American tribes are among the dozens paying lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars to weigh in on – or simply monitor – marijuana reform proposals in Congress as part of their overall lobbying efforts.

According to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research group that tracks political spending, at least $4.3 million was spent in 2021 by 22 clients who employed 100-plus professional lobbyists to focus primarily on marijuana reform, up from $3.7 million in 2020.

The latest OpenSecrets tally represents a huge jump from a decade earlier.

In 2011, the first year for which OpenSecrets has lobbying records for “marijuana,” $35,000 was spent on three lobbyists to focus on MJ issues.

The National Cannabis Industry Association and the Medical Marijuana Industry Group together accounted for that total.

Six years later, Washington DC lobbyists began cashing serious paychecks from marijuana advocates.

Stakeholders in 2017 spent $1.6 million lobbying Congress specifically about marijuana issues.

The spending has continued to climb, with at least $15.4 million spent between 2018 and 2022, according to OpenSecrets tallies.

"If the cannabis industry wants to be taken seriously on the federal level, we need to act like any other industry," David Mangone, a principal at the Liaison Group, told MJBizDaily via email.

That means hiring professional lobbyists to communicate their political priorities to Congress, said Mangone, who works with the Washington DC-based National Cannabis Roundtable.

"It should be no surprise that lobbying efforts have increased on the federal level in recent year as the cannabis industry has grown," Mangone wrote.

"Every sector hopes to shape the discourse on pending legislation, and the fact that we have such an increase in lobbying efforts from cannabis in recent years shows the further legitimization of the industry."

The top spenders on cannabis-specific lobbying in 2021, according to OpenSecrets, were:

Canopy Growth Corporation$960,000
National Cannabis Roundtable$588,000
U.S. Cannabis Council$370,000
Ghost Management Group$360,000
Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce$320,000
National Cannabis Industry Association$200,000
Columbia Care$190,000
Cronos Group$170,000
Minority Cannabis Business Association$130,000
Charlotte's Web$120,000
Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education & Regulation$120,000
Bluma Wellness$100,000
Cannabis Trade Federation$80,000
Caliper Foods$75,000
California Cannabis Industry Association$54,000
American Trade Association for Cannabis & Hemp$40,000
Acreage Holdings$30,000

According to federal lobbying disclosure records, the number of organizations, companies and tribes that spent at least some cash on lobbyists to work on cannabis issues before Congress last year was higher than 50 - more than double the number tracked by OpenSecrets.

The vast majority of those groups, however, also spent money lobbying on other issues pertinent to their businesses or backgrounds, which makes it difficult to discern exactly how much those stakeholders spent specifically on marijuana-related lobbying.

But those additional stakeholders also include many businesses that already have a plant-touching or ancillary cannabis industry footprint - as well as companies that clearly anticipate entering the industry if and when the federal government legalizes marijuana.

Those businesses spent the following last year on congressional lobbying that involved cannabis and other issues:

  • Marlboro maker Altria Client Services - roughly $12 million, some of which went toward hemp legislation, the SAFE Banking Act, the MORE Act and "a comprehensive federal regulatory framework for cannabis." In 2019, Altria Group secured a 45% stake in Canada-based Cronos by spending 2.4 billion Canadian dollars ($1.8 billion). Altria also belongs to the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR).
  • Amazon - almost $10 million, which included "cannabis reform" such as the MORE Act and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's yet-to-be-introduced Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act ( CAOA).
  • Insurance giant Lloyd's of London - $440,000, including "insurance aspects of cannabis banking legislation."
  • Investment titan Morgan Stanley - $200,000 in part on "cannabis-related banking."

Some of the cannabis industry players that also spent big bucks on lobbying Congress last year include:

  • Massachusetts-based MSO Curaleaf Holdings - $280,000 to help support the MORE Act, SAFE Banking Act and other "proposals related to federal legalization of cannabis."
  • Illinois-based MSO PharmaCann - $120,000 against Section 280E of the federal tax code and in support of hemp legislation.
  • California-based vape company Pax Labs - $120,000, which included the SAFE Banking Act and "issues related to the cannabis industry."
  • Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. - $240,000 for a single lobbyist to work on "proposals related to federal legalization of cannabis."
  • New York-based MSO Acreage Holdings - $30,000 for three lobbyists to support the SAFE Banking Act and "issues related to cannabis law reform."
  • Maryland-based MSO Holistic Industries - $220,000 related to banking, social equity and interstate marijuana commerce.

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Marijuana industry trade groups and nonprofits also spent heavily on lobbying Congress last year:

  • The California Cannabis Industry Association - $54,000, including money for Schumer's CAOA Act, the SAFE Banking Act and other legislation.
  • The National Medicinal Cannabis Coalition - $330,000 to help "educate members of Congress on 280E" and to support the SAFE Banking Act, the States Reform Act and other MJ bills.
  • The Drug Policy Alliance - more than $350,000 to "support federal marijuana reform."
  • The now-defunct Cannabis Trade Federation, which has been absorbed into the U.S. Cannabis Council - $80,000 in the first two quarters of 2021 to work on "eligibility of cannabis businesses for SBA loans," the SAFE Banking Act and the MORE Act.
  • Smaller trade groups spent small amounts on lobbying, including the Arizona Dispensaries Association, the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois and the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association.

Two major labor unions that already have sizable marijuana industry memberships also spent money to lobby Congress last year:

  • The International Brotherhood of Teamsters - $1.5 million, including work on "cannabis workforce issues" and "cannabis rescheduling legislation."
  • The United Food and Commercial Workers Union - $760,000, including lobbying on behalf of the MORE Act and "cannabis classification."

The alcohol industry spent millions last year lobbying Congress, including money that went toward cannabis-related purposes:

  • Molson Coors Beverage Co. - $2.1 million in part for "general interest in cannabis regulations."
  • Anheuser-Busch Cos. - at least $80,000 in part to "differentiate beer from cannabis."
  • Constellation Brands - $320,000 in part for lobbying work on the SAFE Banking Act, the MORE Act and to "monitor and discuss legislative proposals on cannabis." The New York-based alcohol titan owns a significant stake in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth.
  • The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States - nearly $5 million in part to address "cannabis taxes and regulatory issues."
  • The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America - at least $1.4 million in part on "cannabis policy issues."
  • The National Beer Wholesalers Association - $850,000 on lobbying last year, including to support the MORE Act and "issues related to the legal status and regulation of cannabis."

The lobbying expenditures go even further, however, and include dozens of organizations and companies that might not have an obvious connection to legal marijuana.

Last year, those included:

  • Several Native American tribes, such as the Seneca Nation of Indians.
  • The American Legion and other veterans groups.
  • The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
  • A number of local governments in states with legal marijuana markets, including Humboldt County and the city of Medford, Oregon.
  • The University of Maryland, Baltimore, which spent money lobbying on "cannabis research."
  • Multiple organizations that represent bankers, credit unions, insurance companies, real estate agents and even the National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbied Congress to discuss "issues relating to advertising by cannabis businesses on broadcast stations in states where cannabis is legal."

John Schroyer can be reached at