As efforts to pass cannabis reform in Congress multiply, so, too, do cannabis groups.
The newest group, launched Tuesday, is called the Cannabis Freedom Alliance. As perhaps suggested by the name, the group leans Libertarian, and its founding members include the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the Reason Foundation.
The group aims not only to end federal cannabis prohibition, but to do so “in a manner consistent with helping all Americans achieve their full potential and limiting the number of barriers that inhibit innovation and entrepreneurship in a free and open market.” This includes pushing for “competitive” and “reasonable” tax rates. (The Kochs have long supported legalization, in particular from a states’ rights perspective, though this is the closest they’ve come to an effort to shape the national industry.)
Just last month, a group with backing from major alcohol (Molson Coors) and tobacco (Altria) companies launched, called the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation. Cannabis Wire was the first news organization to reveal Altria’s involvement in cannabis at the state or federal level in the US, after first discovering that the company registered to lobby on cannabis sales in its home state of Virginia.
And, the month before that, yet another cannabis group launched, called the U.S. Cannabis Council, which, as Cannabis Wire reported at the time, includes dozens of the highest-valued cannabis companies in North America, as well as several trade and advocacy groups.
This is happening in tandem with mounting cannabis reform efforts in Congress, which, like the cannabis groups, have differing priorities and aims. At the start of 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, announced that they would put forth a comprehensive cannabis reform bill with a focus on criminal justice. While that bill is expected any day now, that hasn’t stopped lawmakers in the House and Senate from resurrecting legislation that gained traction in years past: the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, but lacks specificity or guidance on next steps, and the SAFE Banking Act, which would clear the path to banking services for the cannabis industry, but leaves federal prohibition in tact.
Major cannabis reform legislation stands an unprecedented chance at passage in this Congress. While too many groups pushing in too many directions could threaten the momentum needed to get a bill passed, especially considering the Democrats’ control is slim, as Cannabis Wire noted earlier this year, the opposite scenario is possible, too: that the buy-in from giant tobacco and alcohol corporations, or Libertarian groups, could attract the Republican support needed to see cannabis legislation through the Senate.
Still, the new voices on Capitol Hill are not necessarily welcomed by some of the older advocacy groups, like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Drug Policy Alliance.
Following the formation of the Coalition, for example, DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique put out the following statement: “It is predictable, but reprehensible, that industries that have allowed the arbitrary distinction between licit and illicit drugs to stand for so long now want to end a form of prohibition in order to bolster their bottom line.”
NORML’s executive director Erik Altieri sent an email blast about the Coalition that read, “Winning the battle against corporate influence won’t be easy. These entities have limitless supplies of cash at their disposal. Nonetheless, we’re positive we can overcome them — just like we defeated the ideological prohibitionists of yesteryear.”
The prohibitionists, at least when it comes to the warnings about tobacco and alcohol influences, agree with NORML and DPA. Kevin Sabet, the founder of national anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, tweeted a screenshot of NORML’s email shortly after it came out last month, with the caption, “Guess @NORML gets it now.”
This overlap does not foretell the makings of strange bedfellows so much as it signals that the national cannabis legalization debate has entered a complex and critical new phase.