Not all that long ago, marijuana advocates tended to encounter more shut doors than open ones when dealing with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. But times are steadily changing.
Last week, a group organized by the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association spent two days in the Nation's Capitol, with members participating in a whopping sixty meetings with congressional staffers and the like over that span -- and officials from both parties were represented.
"We had about sixty industry professionals from across the country" engage in sit-downs on March 12 and 13, says Taylor West, the NCIA's deputy director. She notes that this "big push" was made possible by the association's Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, "who spent the weeks leading up to those days setting up meetings all over the hill. Then he put together a well-organized schedule, where we had three and four people going to each of the meetings. And we did about sixty of them."
Some of the sessions involved ganjapreneurs from across the country meeting with the representative in their district, while others focused on "members of the committees that will be looking at our most important issues -- the folks who handle banking and tax issues in the House and Senate," West goes on. "And that meant we weren't focused on only one party. We definitely met with people on the Republican and Democratic sides."
As such, "I think we saw not only more willingness to meeting, but also staffs that were genuinely interested in hearing about our issues and were genuinely curious about the kinds of things we are asking Congress to consider."
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In West's view, "that's an evolution from previous years. Where before we might have been getting meetings as a way of representatives sort of checking off a box, now we're getting legislative staffers who are genuinely desiring more information about the issues we're talking about."
By way of example, West cites "a meeting with the staff of a Republican representative from Michigan, which has medical marijuana. And for a lot of Republicans, this issue is interesting to them as a matter of personal liberty. Limited-government Republicans recognize federalism is at play here, and if they're supportive of federalism, they're supportive of states forging their own path on this issue without federal intervention."
Further greasing the skids for the NCIA has been the group's collaboration with tax reformer Grover Norquist's organization.
Did the NCIA crew receive any notable turn-downs?
Continue for more of our interview with the National Cannabis Industry Association's Taylor West. "The way it tends to work is you don't so much get a 'no' as you get a non-response," West allows. "And there were definitely some people we didn't hear from after multiple attempts to reach out." But she says even the number of passive-aggressive rejections was lower than in past years.
Additionally, the NCIA held a briefing on March 13 that was open to congressional staffers and the media, at which three representatives -- Colorado's Jared Polis, plus Oregon's Earl Blumenauer and California's Dana Dana Rohrabacher -- were featured as speakers.
Among the most memorable questions: Polis was asked for an estimate of how many members of Congress are marijuana smokers. "He said he didn't have any personal knowledge," West recounts, "but because Congress is not that much different from society at large, and a member of Congress' average age is about sixty, he guessed 1-3 percent, meaning somewhere between five and ten. And I think that's as fair an assessment as you can make."
West hopes the cannabis industry can build on the gains achieved at this year's lobbying day (the third in the group's history) via continuing contact and visits over the course of the next twelve months. In the meantime, she believes one of the most important achievements at last week's get-togethers "was just putting real faces on the industry in front of these members and their staff. The best way to combat the stereotypes about the industry is to show them these are responsible, passionate small business people who are facing very real challenges.
"It's easy for folks to kind of make jokes and laugh it off when they only experience the industry through the stereotypes," she acknowledges. "So putting them in front of staff and letting them see these are people working in an industry just like anyone else makes a huge difference."
Here's a video of Polis fielding the question about marijuana use among members of Congress.
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More from our Marijuana archive circa January 23: "Read Jared Polis's invitation to President Barack Obama to tour a dispensary and pot grow."