Key advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project confronts leadership, funding challenges

Cannabis companies have benefited significantly from the legislative policy advocacy work of the Marijuana Policy Project.

But the organization, which has been at the forefront of marijuana legalization across the United States, now faces challenges that cloud its future, including a leadership vacuum and a funding crunch.

It recently cut its full-time staff by a third.

Here’s a look at how Washington DC-based MPP is confronting three key issues:

1. Finding the right candidate to lead the organization – soon.

MPP is months into a search for a new permanent executive director. That was the role once held by Rob Kampia, the organization’s co-founder and its public face since 1995.

Matt Schweich, who is MPP’s interim executive director, said in an interview with Marijuana Business Daily that a search team has identified strong candidates with experience leading national public policy organizations.

Schweich took over on a temporary basis late last year when Kampia departed.

Under Kampia’s direction, MPP won a number of statewide cannabis legalization effortsHe became one of the nation’s top advocates for marijuana legalization, with a command of the nuances of legislative maneuvering.

Kris Lotlikar, a consultant with more than two decades of marijuana policy experience, has been conducting MPP’s national search for a new director in conjunction with some board members.

Schweich wouldn’t say how many people are in the running or whether MPP has internal candidates.

Previously MPP’s director of state campaigns, Schweich stressed he’s not seeking the permanent position. In fact, he plans to leave MPP after the November elections.

But he maintained the new director will be “set up to succeed,” thanks to the staff’s strong institutional knowledge and experience working in MJ reform.

Schweich will guide MPP through the transition to a new executive director, pass the reins and then turn his attention entirely to state ballot initiatives in Michigan (recreational marijuana) and Utah (medical marijuana) that will go to voters in November. 

2. Focusing on fundraising.

MPP’s success in reforming marijuana policy ironically is now having a negative impact on the group itself.

After 23 years of existence, the organization is struggling to raise money, which limits how much it can actually push for changes in state and federal legislation.

Traditional, philanthropic donors have reduced their funding because they view the industry as having a certain self-momentum with 30 states and Washington DC having legalized medical marijuana and nine states and DC having approved recreational cannabis.

But many MJ companies aren’t sure they have the full financial chops to do so.

An example of MPP’s funding crunch is that it recently trimmed 30% of its full-time staff, from 20 positions to 14.

Kampia, now executive director of Marijuana Leadership Campaign, wrote in an email to MJBizDaily that at its peak, MPP had 40 full-time employees and lobbyists on retainer in eight state capitals.

Schweich said MPP is looking for an executive director who can bolster all areas of fundraising, including “making the case that we need more support from the industry.”

He declined to disclose how much funding has fallen in the past year.

“The good thing is that what we believe is good public policy (usually) correlates with what people in the industry want to see,” Schweich observed.

“Most people in the industry want to see healthy competition. They want to see strong regulations, and that’s what we believe in.”

He said it’s been difficult to raise dollars from the marijuana industry partly because most MJ companies are in a growth phase and taxed at a higher rate than ordinary businesses.

Schweich believes over time it will be easier for the industry to step up.

Kampia, now executive director of the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, generally agreed.

According to Kampia, some marijuana businesses aren’t yet financially mature enough to contribute to advocacy efforts, while others that may be able to do so “aren’t politically mature enough to acknowledge that they should dedicate approximately 1% of their gross revenues to government affairs.

“The challenge for any CEO,” he wrote, “is to craft a funding narrative that comports with the intended policy narrative.”

At MPP, Kampia believes, such an approach will require vision, some charisma and “brutally honest budgeting, matching specific projects to specific donors.”

3. Turning full attention to advocating for cannabis legalization at the state and federal level.

Once new leadership is in place and if fundraising is revitalized, then MPP can get back to full strength.

Kampia wrote that, excluding ballot initiatives, he would budget $100,000 per full-time employee and/or lobbyist, which includes the cost of salaries and all other organizational expenses.

“So an organization that has 20 staffers and lobbyists should imagine raising $2 million per year or even $200,000 per month.

“When I was running MPP, we traditionally raised $400,000 per month, so the current MPP team should be able to raise at least $200,000 monthly, which would allow them to be quite effective when lobbying in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.”

Schweich said MPP would continue to have a reason to exist, even if marijuana reform occurs at the federal level.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, unveiled legislation that would protect state-legal marijuana programs as well as resolve banking and taxation issues dogging the MJ industry.

MPP endorses that approach.

“If Congress passed a landmark reform bill on marijuana policy, I strongly doubt that it will force legalization on every state,” Schweich said.

In fact, he believes the outcome will be that states would be allowed to make their own decisions, and that MPP would have much the same role it has today in working on legislation, regulation and ballot initiatives in those states.

Jeff Smith can be reached at [email protected]

5 comments on “Key advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project confronts leadership, funding challenges
  1. Jim Paglia on

    As a brand strategist who has worked extensively with numerous nonprofits and publuc policy organizations , and investor in a medical marijuana business, I question how affective MPP is at distinguishing itself, its impact and a relevant value proposition.

    Despite the progress that has been made, there is still a long way to the finish line.

    There is a direct link between declining revenue and a fuzzy relevance. A seamless, constant advocacy presence and voice is vital and needed more AFTER we have nationwide acceptance to help define and manage the inevitable shift in American culture and society.

    Reply
    • Lawrence Goodwin on

      Right on, Mr. Paglia. As a means to hasten that “inevitable shift” you mentioned, I wonder if the change in leadership at the Marijuana Policy Project should be accompanied by a rebranding.

      More than 80 years have passed since the federal government—at the whim of a handful of ruthless bureaucrats and financiers—moved to crush the perfectly legal cannabis economy. The feds started to literally bludgeon Americans with the dreaded word “marihuana,” by enacting a totally fraudulent law called the Marihuana Tax Act; even though it was strongly opposed by a spokesman for the American Medical Association (when that group’s leaders had the courage to defend cannabis extracts in the U.S. pharmacopeia) and hemp farmers. I say stop using the feds’ deceptive legal term and focus laser-like on the fascinating botany of dioecious cannabis plants, which are—most definitely—as American as apple pie.

      Why not rebrand it as the Cannabis Policy Project? Next, how about putting an ambitious woman in charge, who is ready and willing to re-energize the whole operation. Lord knows, we need a miracle here. I have much respect for MPP’s Mason Tvert, who has spoken so eloquently and challenged the hypocrisy of others during many televised interviews. Tvert’s rock-solid arguments and bright ideas have certainly helped to change people’s minds. Please, whatever happens, make sure Mr. Tvert keeps doing that. A similarly righteous lady deserves the chance to lead the organization, and to make new green dreams come true nationwide. Maybe she will force the ultimate cultural “shift,” together with President Tammy Duckworth of Illinois (or Tulsi Gabbard of Hawai’i) after the 2020 race. Just a few thoughts. 🙂

      “That’s right!/The women are, smarter/The women are smarter than men,” sang Bob Weir so many memorable times.

      Reply
  2. Hastings RH on

    Hmm I guess if you call these regulated oligopoly schemes disguised legalization then they MPP have been effective..

    Reply
    • MSimon on

      The current scheme will not be taken down all at once. The incrementalism used so far has been very effective.

      Complete destruction of cannabis prohibition will take 20 or 30 years. Just as it did for alcohol.

      Reply
      • Lawrence Goodwin on

        The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (imposing alcohol Prohibition nationwide) was ratified by the states in January 1919. The 21st Amendment (fully repealing the 18th) was ratified in December 1933. That means it took about 15 years for everyone to come to their senses, to realize how utterly impossible it was to prohibit legal alcohol markets in America. The onset of the Great Depression after 1929 surely hastened the repeal process, because it so clearly revealed the complete stupidity of wasting scant public resources on anti-alcohol law enforcement.

        The wretched, corporate-dominated prohibition of cannabis markets is a whole different beast, Mr. Simon (it started only four short years after 1933)—even though the same logic of wasteful government spending applies. The federal “marihuana” ban has been imposed on the states through far more sinister means than a constitutional amendment. We’re at 81 years and counting here. I say every passing that day our lawmakers FAIL to repeal the ban, being woefully derelict in their fundamental duties, makes them complicit in one of the longest-running scandals in American history.

        Reply

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