Key advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project confronts leadership, funding challenges

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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