Q&A With Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project on 2013 Gains, Industry’s Role in MMJ Legislation

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Advocates and cannabis evangelists play important roles in getting state-level medical marijuana laws passed via the legislature and the ballot box. But building support among lawmakers and voters, funding related campaigns and writing workable proposals to get a law passed often requires the leadership of another group such as the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

The Washington DC-based lobbying organization has been a strong force behind numerous successful state-level medical marijuana laws, including the most recent ones in Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The group has pumped millions of dollars into these efforts and often has direct involvement in crafting the measures that eventually become law.

MMJ Business Daily spoke with Rob Kampia, MPP executive director, for his thoughts on the industry’s gains this year, his controversial view on the role cannabis professionals play in passing marijuana laws and his prediction on when we might see fundamental change at the federal level. (Note: Kampia will speak at MMJ Business Daily’s upcoming National Marijuana Business Conference & Expo)

Question: How would you assess 2013 so far for the cannabis movement?

Answer: This is the best year we’ve had so far, in terms of state legislatures passing medical marijuana bills. We had major victories in several states – Illinois, New Hampshire and Nevada in particular – and obviously huge progress in other states. And then there’s the fact that we almost legalized marijuana (for adult use) in Maine. It’s been a good year.

Q: Any surprises?

A: The Maine vote in the House was better than what we expected. New Hampshire was not a surprise, and Illinois was not a surprise either. Nevada was a surprise in the sense that there was momentum in the state legislature because of a court decision that no one could’ve predicted would have gone that way.

Q: How would you assess the business opportunities in these states?

A: In New Hampshire it will be minimal because there will just be four nonprofit dispensaries. In Illinois it will be significant because there will be about 80 grow operations and retail establishments. Nevada is a big step forward too. If you look at the number of (medical marijuana) businesses allowed per capita in Nevada – and by that I mean the number per congressional district – the ratio is high compared to some other states. That means patients will have better access and entrepreneurs will have more opportunities to get a license. It’s also worth noting that in Nevada the dispensaries can be for-profits. Also, patients from other states will be able to purchase medical marijuana in Nevada retail establishments when they start up, which will benefit the dispensaries.

Q: For a long time, the business and lobbying/advocacy sides of the industry have existed somewhat separately. Will working together become more important going forward?

A: Yeah, I think it will be. It’s already important, and the more money there is on the business side the more opportunities for collaboration – but also for conflict. What I’ve found in my work on this issue for 23 years now is that there are people all across our society who have a certain degree of arrogance, in the sense that if they are successful at one thing in life then they think they’ll be successful at other things in life. I’ve met a number of really wealthy business owners who think because they made $500 million selling shoes that they actually know what to do when it comes to lobbying for marijuana legislation. That’s absurd. One of my concerns is to make sure marijuana entrepreneurs that want to get involved in lobbying actually talk to experts rather than assume they know what’s best. It’s like asking a doctor to give a legal read or asking a lawyer to give a medical assessment.  As I said, it’s absurd.

Q: What role should cannabis business owners play in helping pass medical marijuana laws in their states and nationally?

A: I have a dividing line in my mind as to when entrepreneurs can reasonably get involved in flexing their muscles. Before the first laws pass in a state, the best thing they can do is give MPP money to legalize medical marijuana or legalize marijuana generally because this is what we do and we know the best way to get these laws passed. After that, an enormously high hurdle has been jumped, and then I think there are a lot of opportunities for business owners to engage in state legislative activities to tweak the law and make it more amenable to entrepreneurs. They can handle all the jockeying on tax rates and regulations – that is exactly what they should be focused on.

A: So you’re saying that business owners and entrepreneurs shouldn’t play an active role in passing initial marijuana legislation at all?

Q: To pass a law in the first place, you need a major grassroots lobbying operation, and that’s hard to do. Honestly, when businesses pay for lobbyists without having a real grassroots operation in place, it’s a waste of money. We’re already involved in any state that has a chance at going from nothing to having some change. That’s the only reason MPP exists. For businesses to get involved, it would take an enormous amount of money and grassroots effort. So basically they are spinning their wheels.

Q: Has there been a conflict between MPP and business efforts recently?

A: Where we’re talking about efforts before states passed a core law, the only two states I’m aware of where businesses wasted money are in Illinois and New York. In Illinois, the one or two businesses that tried to get involved definitely wasted their money and definitely made it more difficult to pass the law. They were actually trying to advocate for amendments to the bill that would have been devastatingly bad for patients as well as businesses, as they were trying to create a monopoly. In New York, we haven’t passed the law yet, but the businesses involved so far have been a hindrance and not a benefit. Businesses that get involved in what we call the embryonic stage try to create a monopolistic system before convincing legislators that the concept is sound.

Q: Surely there must be more that the business community can do beyond contributing to MPP?

A: No. It’s not good to have more than one operation working in the embryonic stage in a state. After that, though, we can help them.

Q: What would you say to a business owner who doesn’t agree with your approach?

A: I’d say that I’ve never actually seen any business that has done anything useful to help pass marijuana-related legislation before a law was passed, ever, in a state that I’ve worked in. A lot of entrepreneurs make judgment calls on politics when they don’t understand the law. Then I have to give them a Government 101 class. I’m sure you can understand my frustration.

Q: You are not involved in efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, yet the business community is leading the charge and has some big money behind it.

A: I think it’s a waste of money, for one because the law changed in 2006 making it difficult to pass these types of measures…the second thing is that they are trying to do it in a non-presidential election. That’s going to give you a worse result than if they waited until a presidential election in 2016. You basically have to get more than 60% of the votes. If someone has money to spend on it, god bless them. But we’re not going to spend our money on it. If you want to guarantee victory in Florida you have to spend $5 million. If someone wants to spend that money we’ll be the first to support them, but we’re not putting any money into it.

Q:  What are the most constructive things that cannabis business owners are currently doing in the political arena?

A: There are basically four things. First, they’re beginning to donate to political candidates in targeted states, which will total about $100,000 this year alone.  Second, cannabusiness owners in Arizona and Nevada are beginning to partner with MPP to pass adult-use legalization initiatives in these two states in 2016.  Third, some business entrepreneurs are providing substantive feedback on proposed executive-branch regulations in states that have recently legalized medical marijuana. And fourth, the simple fact that cannabusiness owners are risking their money and liberty to establish and expand their businesses is critically important, because without these business efforts, all of the recent law changes would have little value.

Q: What’s your take on the DOJ announcement?

A:  The new DOJ memo is actually more positive than DOJ’s two previous memos in 2009 and 2011 – which is significant, because the 2013 memo actually addresses recreational marijuana businesses as well as medical marijuana businesses. (The latest memo indicates that the) DOJ is willing to tolerate for-profit, large-scale, recreational marijuana businesses that are abiding by state laws. Because the DEA has never busted a medical marijuana business with a state license in Colorado, New Mexico, or any other similar medical marijuana state, we now have reason to believe that adult-use marijuana businesses in Colorado and Washington state will be similarly protected from DEA raids.

Q: When will we see real change in federal marijuana laws, and what will that mean for the business community?

A: I think it’ll be 2019, because we’re going to have a big day in November of 2016 when several more states are going to legalize marijuana (for adult use), and that’s going to cause major disruption in Congress that leads to significant change.