Marijuana executives making push into mainstream politics

By John Schroyer

Cannabis entrepreneur Todd Mitchem announced in a late-August email blast that he’s running for Congress, and the subject line even referred to the Coloradan as a “marijuana industry leader.”

He’s one of at least five current candidates for public office around the United States who have direct professional connections to marijuana.

And, like Mitchem, they’re all quite open about those ties.

“There was a time, not that long ago, that being for marijuana would be considered a weakness in running for office. Now, not only is it not a weakness, but it’s a perceived strength,” said Michael Bronstein, a Pennsylvania-based political consultant.

“Twenty years ago … there was a big question whether or not they should admit that they inhaled,” Bronstein said, a reference to former President Bill Clinton’s infamous 1992 statement about a time that he tried marijuana. “And now candidates are doing much more than saying they’ve inhaled.”

The current field of political candidates with marijuana ties include:

  • Judy Appel, California state Assembly, District 15. Appel is a former director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and an outspoken cannabis industry ally.
  • Kayvan Khalatbari, mayor of Denver, May 2019 election. Khalatbari has multiple marijuana business ties, including being a principal at Denver Relief Consulting and a founder of Cresco Labs.
  • Todd Mitchem, Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District on the Libertarian ticket. Mitchem is a longtime cannabis industry consultant and heads TMC Partners Government Affairs.
  • Bob Morgan, Illinois state House of Representatives, District 58. Morgan was the first to oversee Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, which he left in 2015 to become a private marijuana industry attorney.
  • Dylan Schwartz, New York City Council, District 51. Schwartz has worked for about three years in government affairs consulting within the medical marijuana field.

(Note: This list doesn’t cover the numerous sitting public officials who support marijuana businesses and reforms, which run the gamut from members of Congress all the way to local city council members.)

Growing relationship

The cannabis industry’s connections to establishment politics is getting stronger with every passing election cycle – witness the industry’s $300,000-plus in donations to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – and there probably will be even more candidacies with marijuana ties as filing deadlines near.

“I think you’ll absolutely see more people get into (politics from marijuana), and that’s fantastic, because there’s very little in government that cannabis won’t eventually touch,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a longtime California political operative who now works with the L.A. Cannabis Task Force.

Another West Coast political operative – Sean Donahoe, a former California Cannabis Industry Association deputy director – said more candidates will be jumping in at various political levels for the 2018 election cycle.

“I know a couple others that are saying, ‘I’m going to run next year, but it’s too early for me to declare,’” Donahoe added.

Ashford – whose background includes stints with two California governors and a former state attorney general – predicted that more cannabis business executives will end up running for office as the industry emerges as a mainstream way to make a living.

That transition will organically lend itself to more marijuana business insiders wanting to affect public policy, such as tax rates and other regulatory issues, she said.

“I think you’ll see people run on pretty conventional platforms, like creating a better business climate,” Ashford said.

Politics suit MJ owners

Donahoe argued that cannabis entrepreneurs may be some of the best candidates to put in front of voters – simply because many have had to become experts in different layers of bureaucracy out of necessity.

Running a successful MJ business, Donahoe said, is “much more than a crash course in governmental affairs.”

“I think cannabis industry entrepreneurs are perhaps even better suited to run for public office than entrepreneurs outside the cannabis industry just because we’ve done our homework so much more,” he added.

To be clear, most of the current five candidates are long shots who probably won’t win their respective elections.

  • Mitchem, for instance, is running as a Libertarian in a heavily Democratic district influenced by the liberal college town of Boulder, Colorado.
  • Appel is involved in a packed Democratic primary.
  • Khalatbari – who failed to win a Denver City Council seat in 2015 – is running against an entrenched incumbent mayor who is backed by the city’s Democratic establishment.
  • Schwartz, a longtime Democrat, is trying to unseat an incumbent city councilman in a district that skews Republican (the sitting councilman, Joe Borelli, regularly appears on CNN to defend President Donald Trump).
  • Morgan is the sole candidate on this list who Bronstein believes is likely to emerge victorious, in part because he’s currently running unopposed.

Making a difference

Aside from individual victories, a larger aspect of political campaigns often is overlooked, Bronstein pointed out.

“Even if somebody doesn’t win, they can be influential,” he said.

Bronstein noted that campaigns can “force a public discussion on (cannabis) … and to the extent it can create the level of dialogue and debate, and elevate that, it’ll be a good thing for the industry going forward.”

There’s also a lesson in modern politics for the cannabis industry as a whole, he said.

“Mainstream politicians are looking for an approach that the cannabis industry has yet to give them,” Bronstein added, “and they’re waiting for the cannabis industry to organize in such a way that it’s recognized as an important and powerful interest in politics.

“There is not a politician out there right now who believes they are going to win or lose based purely on the cannabis issue. And if that ever changes, that’s when the cannabis industry will achieve political power.”

John Schroyer can be reached at