Since 2012, cannabis legalization has swept mostly across blue states. Some red — and purple — states have been in the mix, too. But only recently has the legalization push truly taken root in the South and Midwest and on the east coast in more conservative states.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers held their first legalization hearing in the General Assembly in early February. Ohio saw an adult use push in 2022 and while voters won’t see legalization on their November ballot, they likely will in 2023. A medical cannabis push in Kentucky resulted in House passage in March, but fizzled in the state’s Senate; the governor, however, is pushing ahead. A medical cannabis push cleared the Senate for the first time in South Carolina, and percolated in Wisconsin, too.
What all these states have in common, beyond Republican-controlled legislatures, is that they are on the priority list of a powerful organization: Americans for Prosperity, the conservative and libertarian-leaning group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
While the group has worked on criminal justice reform for years, it has only more recently formally turned its attention to cannabis reform at the state and federal levels. In addition to identifying these five states as priorities, and lobbying on cannabis at the state level, the group registered to lobby on cannabis reform at the national level for the first time in late 2021.
This push ramped up in a major way last week as Americans for Prosperity joined the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, a coalition group that aims to end the federal criminalization of cannabis and create a “free and open market,” to meet with 30 Republican members of Congress about the “need for federal cannabis reform,” Jeremiah Mosteller, a senior policy analyst on criminal justice for Americans for Prosperity, told Cannabis Wire. Mosteller focuses on the organization’s cannabis policy efforts.
Americans for Prosperity’s formal and multi-pronged push on cannabis policy comes at a significant moment. In November, the most comprehensive Republican-led federal legalization proposal emerged in Congress, called the States Reform Act. And this year, should Democrats lose ground — and perhaps even control — in the midterms, Republican support will be more important than ever.
The group, which applauded the introduction of Mace’s bill, also registered to lobby in support of it, “because it will end the federal government’s inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement of federal law and allow states to make the best decisions for their citizens,” Mosteller said.
The States Reform Act is a sort of GOP response to another comprehensive federal reform proposal announced last year in Congress, called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAO Act), led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden. While both proposals would end the federal criminalization of cannabis, the Republican States Reform Act is far lighter on equity provisions and on taxation and regulation, as Cannabis Wire has reported.
While these markedly different approaches to federal cannabis reform could yield new paths forward in Congress, it also has the potential to deepen existing fractures in the broader cannabis movement, as Cannabis Wire also has reported. Much is at stake for the advocates and groups that have worked toward legalization for decades. Will equity and social justice—fairness to those groups most hurt by the war on drugs—be the fulcrum as legalization priorities are balanced? Or will business-friendly policy be the heart of the matter?
It’s too soon to tell. And while the CAO Act is expected to be formally introduced later this summer after a lengthy public comment period on its draft form, cannabis industry leaders are, like Americans for Prosperity, throwing their support behind Mace’s States Reform Act. A Cannabis Wire analysis showed that more executives at the largest cannabis companies in the US are contributing to Mace’s campaign than to any other Congressional candidate backing reform. This is true for Democrats like Schumer, Booker, and Wyden, and for Republicans like Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, who introduced a legalization bill last year, called the Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act.
Americans for Prosperity started working on cannabis policy on a “limited scale” more than a decade ago, first with New Jersey and later on sentencing reform in Arizona, cannabidiol (CBD) oil reform in Georgia, and other efforts in Louisiana, Montana, and New Hampshire, Mosteller said.
But last year, the group decided to make cannabis reform “a major priority.”
“As we’re looking at increases in violent crime across the country and people really calling for more public safety, we continue to see drug crime being something that distracts law enforcement, and it just takes a lot of resources away from their focus on serious and violent crime,” Mosteller said. “So, we believe now is the time for cannabis reform, both at the federal level and at the state level.”
Americans for Prosperity sees a moment to strike on cannabis, specifically with the States Reform Act, and aims to be what it calls a “third voice” in the cannabis policy debate.
“We kind of see two voices out there in the cannabis reform space,” Mosteller said. On one side, there are the groups in the criminal justice reform community that “want to get legalization at all costs and aren’t thinking about the regulatory structure,” Mosteller said, and on the other side, there are “industry participants that care a lot about what the regulatory structure looks like, but don’t care as much about the people that have been impacted by the war on drugs.”
The group is pushing for the States Reform Act with the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, a coalition of groups including the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation; the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce; and The Weldon Project, which is working on the release of people incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes.
The Cannabis Freedom Alliance’s goal was to identify a federal bill that met its needs for public safety and “a proper regulatory structure” — one that in its view allows “innovation, industry, and research to thrive,” Mosteller said. Low barriers to entry and low-restriction business licensing, he added, would enable “new entrepreneurs,” including those who previously operated in the illegal market, to “compete on a level playing field.” The Democrats’ Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, meanwhile, is more explicit on this front and would use cannabis tax revenue to establish “three grant programs aimed at creating opportunity for those harmed by the war on drugs,” according to the proposal, two of which would focus on community reinvestment and equitable licensing.
A priority for the Alliance, on the other hand, is a bill with a low “total tax burden.”
“We’ve seen that if there is too heavy of a tax burden imposed on the industry, it will not be able to effectively compete against the black market,” Mosteller said, “and that is something that we think is very important is to begin to chip away at the black market, and the associated violence with that market.” Americans for Prosperity is talking with state lawmakers about its concern that heavy taxes are dragging down the licensed, regulated market, Mosteller said, and allowing unregulated operators to grow.
Libertarian support for cannabis reform is not new. Rob Kampia, who in the 1990s founded the Marijuana Policy Project, the organization behind many of the nation’s first legalization initiatives, was outspoken about his libertarian perspectives on cannabis while at the helm of the organization. The Cato Institute, a D.C.-based libertarian think tank, has championed legalization for years. And, one of the earliest cannabis legalization supporters in Congress was former Rep. Ron Paul, whose views are often described as libertarian.
But Americans for Prosperity putting its political muscle behind cannabis reform could be a catalyzing force at this moment. Any piece of cannabis legislation needs a significant nudge from Republicans to secure passage, which could come from some of the legwork that the Koch-backed organization is doing in states and on The Hill.
Still, the group has its work cut out for it, as Republicans at both the state and federal levels are more reluctant than Democrats to embrace reform. Mace’s bill has four co-sponsors, all Republican; one, Rep. Don Young has since died.
Mosteller told Cannabis Wire that the meetings with Republican members of Congress last week were “very productive and signal that Republicans have heard the calls for reform by their voters.” He added that the Cannabis Freedom Alliance plans to continue to push “to advance valuable solutions like the States Reform Act.”
National polling shows that two-thirds of Americans favor cannabis legalization, though lawmakers have historically been slower to evolve on cannabis law reform than voters.
“This is actually a particular reason why we believe that the States Reform Act is so important, because on the federal level, we need both parties to come to the table here,” Mosteller said. “And we know that in their districts, a majority of voters want to see Congress, regardless of the member’s party, move forward with cannabis reform.”