Concern About the Industry Influence In the Legalization Movement

A couple of recent developments have focused attention on the newly legal marijuana industry in several states and the potential for those new businesses to have an enormous impact on the shape of legal marijuana as it is rolled out in several new states. There is a lot of money involved in the industry, and money always plays a role in politics.

Money Has Always Been a Factor

The importance of money in the legalization movement is not new. A handful of rich donors, led by billionaire philanthropists George Soros and the late Peter Lewis, have provided the bulk of the funding needed to gather the required number of signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot, and the funding to run a professional campaign, in most of the successful marijuana voter initiatives since California first adopted medical marijuana in 1996.

But those funders were motivated by their desire to end marijuana prohibition, and they were not trying to profit personally from those changes.

In a bizarre way, these traditional funders served as a (self-appointed) filter for weeding-out proposals that were not well drafted, or which attempted more significant reforms than the public was ready to support. If the polling numbers did not register support in the high-50% range, the funders would generally not provide money to help those efforts, and the proposals fizzled.

Industry Money

In California in 2010, for the first time a statewide marijuana-related voter initiative (Prop. 19, a proposal to fully legalize marijuana), was almost totally funded by one successful marijuana businessman, Richard Lee, the owner at the time of the Bulldog Coffee Shop in Oakland, modeled after the coffee shops that sell marijuana in Amsterdam; and the head of Oaksterdam University, founded in 2007 to train those who were interested in learning the skills needed to succeed in this new industry.

Lee personally donated the $1.4 million dollars required to gather the signatures to qualify Prop. 19 for the ballot, and, not surprisingly, he controlled the drafting of the language of the initiative as well. The proposal ended up losing, with 47% of the vote. Some felt the initiative could have won if it had included provisions offering the existing small growers and sellers a more significant role in the proposed new legal system.

And then, just a few weeks ago, we saw Issue 3 in Ohio, a legalization measure funded by a small group of investors who blatantly wrote an initiative that would have established themselves as an oligopoly who totally controlled the (initial) ten commercial cultivation centers in the state. Issue 3 crashed and burned on election day, receiving only 36% of the vote!

There were other factors that likely contributed to the defeat (the polling going into the vote only showed a bare 51% majority support), but the public outcry against the self-serving aspects of the initiative was clearly the reason the proposal did so poorly. Many of those voters who favored an end to marijuana prohibition apparently decided there were limits to price they were willing to pay to stop the arrests of smokers, and guaranteeing millions to these already rich investors was clearly not acceptable to them.

But that is not likely the last time we will have to deal with legalization initiatives that seek a financial advantage for those providing the money to run the initiatives. As more and more states legalize marijuana, and more and more marijuana business owners become rich and successful, these business leaders with cash to burn will seek to shape legalization in new states.

On one hand, this may be seen as a positive development because there are now more possible sources of funding available to help qualify a legalization initiative for the ballot, and to run a successful campaign; but on the other hand, we may well face more Ohio-style problems, where the language of the initiatives that qualify may be offensive to the very consumers legalization is intended to help.

Is The Industry Taking Over the Legalization Movement?

This fear of the industry influence over the legalization movement became a point of public debate recently when the chief federal lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Dan Riffle, quit his job, telling colleagues and the press that “the industry is taking over the legalization movement and I am not interested in (working for) the industry.” Riffle pointedly added, “ I felt for the last few months the industry was dominating the legalization movement’s work in general, and MPP’s specifically.”

To some degree Riffle was simply reflecting the reality that the group with which he had been working has largely become a voice for the industry. Most of their funding now comes from marijuana businesses, and the head of MPP, Rob Kampia, is one of the founders and a board member of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the principal national marijuana business lobby. Once Kampia lost his principal funder, Peter Lewis, due to a scandal involving inappropriate sexual conduct, he turned to the industry for funding to survive.

But it was nonetheless a bit jolting to hear such a strong public statement of disapproval from an MPP insider. Riffle elected to leave his job, rather than work for the industry.

NORML Remains a Consumer Lobby

At NORML we have long argued that any organization must decide whether they wish to represent the interests of the consumer, or the interests of the industry, but they cannot have it both ways. When legalization was merely an idea, and prohibition was the law of the land, all of us who opposed prohibition were on the same side; we favored legalization. It was not then necessary to get down to the details of precisely what we meant when we said we supported legalization.

But today, with legalization becoming a real possibility in several more states each election cycle, the details matter. And most business interests are principally interested in minimizing regulations and maximizing profits. We live in a free enterprise system, so there is nothing inappropriate about seeking to build a successful marijuana business.

But consumers too must have a prominent place at the table when these decisions are made.

What Consumers Want

Marijuana consumers want what consumers in most other areas also want: we want a high quality product that is safe, convenient and affordable. We want to know that the marijuana we buy legally has been tested by a state-certified lab for molds and pesticides, and is accurately labeled as to the THC and CBD content. And we don’t expect to pay black market prices for legal pot, or to drive half-way across the state to find a legal retail outlet.

And, we need the option of growing our own marijuana. Most consumers will not likely exercise this option, just as most beer drinkers do not make beer in their basement, although they are legally permitted to do so. By keeping the option of growing our own marijuana, and boycotting those retailers who sell an inferior product or over-charge for their product, we can assure the industry largely remains responsive to our needs.

So let’s pay attention to the warnings of Riffle and others of the dangers of the legalization movement being taken-over by the industry. But let’s not assume that all industry involvement is bad for the consumer, or that everyone in the legalization movement has become an industry spokesperson.

NORML has always been a consumer lobby, but we are not anti-business. We also have some successful marijuana businesspeople on our board, and we sometimes receive financial contributions from those in the industry. But when we do, we are transparent with our relationship with these business interests, and we take great care to make it clear to them, and to the public, that we will never mold or shape our political goals to accommodate business. We speak for the consumer, and always will.

And I see no indication that other legalization groups, such as LEAP or SSDP or DPA, all of whom receive some marijuana industry funding, have changed their policies to accommodate those business interests.

Most of us working to legalize marijuana are motivated by the goal of expanding personal freedom, not profiting from the new industry. Let’s keep it the way.


This column was published originally on


25 thoughts

  1. I think homegrown laws could be separated from complicated retail laws. Prohibition of homegrown violates quite blatantly the Bill of Rights which is the real law of this land. Weed is a religion in Jamaica and peaceable assembly anywhere, and needs to be redressed since identified as medicine (Amendment 1), micromanaging our homes and families is not allowed since we are not at war with plants (Amendment 3), seizure of assets for growing medicine is unreasonable (Amendment 4), compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor is not taken seriously (Amendment 6), common law applies since most people have long favored legalization (Amendment 7), cruel punishment for growing medicine (Amendment 8), and the right to new vices (Amendment 9).

  2. When you set up a way to legalize a product where there are stores, taxes and advertising, you’re setting up an industry. When that industry grows to four or five states, of course it will take over the movement. This is common sense. In other words, don’t blame the industry you helped create for its own existence and growth.

    That being said…when an industry created around a newly legalized product that isn’t legal nationwide yet, you should not only expect that industry to donate, but you should take that money with a smile and a thank you. The bigger the industry gets, the more money that goes toward the cause. It’s a snowball effect were looking at here, which is what the movement needs.

    Because let’s face it, the scale the movement is now in, grassroots absolutely won’t cut it. Either work with the industry you helped create, or watch all your hard work fizzle and go down the drain.

  3. All I ever wanted as far as legalization is concerns is to just not go to jail for possession and cultivation.
    As far as I’m concerned, the stores are unnecessary.

  4. Y’all speak from the heart! God Bless you all and Thank you for all of your hard work Norml. Much Love…..

  5. First put the issues of popular concern into the definition of marijuana, then work on rescheduling marijuana. This definition does so, and in contrast to the current definition, it clearly conforms to the Necessary and Proper clause:

    16. The term “marijuana” means all parts of the smoke produced by the combustion of the plant Cannabis sativa L. which is prohibited to be grown or sold by any publicly traded corporation or subsidiary company.

    This year is a good time to reform the federal definition of marijuana.

  6. if I had to choose between a few millionaires getting richer or more people getting locked up for marijuana I’d choose to make the millionaires richer

  7. Wow. $#!+ just got real. Ever had a gut feelin about an organization? The guts probably right.
    I’m so proud to have given the lion’s share of my donations to a consumer-advocacy group like NORML. While I agree, there’s nothing wrong with business, and I don’t regret what I’ve given to the MPP, Keith is locked on target when he identifies the slippery slope of representing business over consumers. The line drawn is NORML, who can rate the DPA and LEAP and keep our misson priority consumer over business.
    Having had the awesome opportunity to have met Keith and Allen, ever so briefly, I can say with certainty that we have leaders that represent the interests of consumers and victims of the drugwar first. Ive seen how the phone calls pour in simultaneously from people facing drug charges to even Congressman needing support and advice.
    Thanks Keith! Thanks everyone at NORML; The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory!

  8. @nunya
    Waitaminute, waitaminute… “Fizzle out?” …”down the drain?” What were you born yesterday? I realize the “industry” is an ally, not an enemy, but were talking priorities here. Show some respect; youre talkin to a man that saw 15 years of NOTHIN in the legalization “movement” and never quit fighting for our cause.
    Our cause, by the way, is to never forget the rights of the individuals who continue to have their lives destroyed by laws that seek to punish our right to self-medicate and grow our own sustenance and sustainability… Not create traps for the small farmer or the family farm, or the person with Chrone’s disease trying to grow their own without going broke in a merging medicinal/recreational market. Consumer Representation for our taxation is the way to regulate both personal freedom and industry; Less we become the “industry” we are lobbying against…

  9. Julian, I think that you misunderstand. Don’t get me wrong, what’s happening to this evil law is something to be praised from every rooftop – literally. I thank God almighty every day for the strides that have been accomplished. But looking at how the opposition is now fighting the way they are, and the fact that those millions from Soros are already spent, grassroots simply won’t cut it anymore. Sticking to your ideals is a wonderful thing, but there are two flaws to that in this fight.

    1. To fight any kind of a war, you need money. Lots of money. A few thousand people donating to this is not going to be enough. I wish I could say differently here, but it’s the truth.
    And the wealthy investors being the likes of George Soros? The man who makes it his life’s work to destroy the economy of nations? What kind of spokesman is he for this?

    2. As I said before, the ones who wrote the ballot initiatives and the ones who pushed the stores, advertising and tax structure for it – they created this industry. NORML, MPP and every other legalization organization that fought for/is fighting for are responsible for our plant being commercialized like it is. They intentionally created an industry and then refuse the money said industry wants to give them.

    Going by everything I just said, and looking at that last sentence again – I have to ask why?

  10. I wish we could hurry it up. Can’t wait to get here to rant about the high grade hemp fields getting too darn close.
    Cannabis the Trillion dollar crop.

  11. @nunya,
    Allow me to take this opportunity to tone down my rhetoric and see if we can have a civil, elevated conversation about this issue. Forgive me for being rude. Sometimes people… Industry lobbyists or individual consumers alike… tend to exaggerate or make pundits to make a point, (i.e. “Down the drain” or “born yesterday,”) but I would caution that we avoid that or risk perhaps an even more serious derailment of policy… Marijuana legalization has often been a measure of prioritization, with the lesser of evils being pretty much anything better than the mass incarceration of nonviolent pot consumers and the widespread violence of drug enforcement agencies gone rogue.
    Its good policy for the burgeoning industries of cannabis to back consumer-prioritized legislation. What other consumer base in the world besides legal marijuana consumers is not only conscious of the cost and availability of their vendors license but are even willing to back legislation where marijuana is sales taxed heavily? The Industry, the family hemp farm and average marijuana consumer have much more in common than not.
    But to answer your post will require yet another post…

  12. It’s easy to get lost in the forrest for the trees. In that I guess I’m saying that we risk letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Or, to suffice it to say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    I am, also, concerned about this whole movement being hijacked by big money. However, we have to ask ourselves, where’s the money and muscle going to come from? Granted, the latest Gallup poll has 58% in favor of legalization/decriminalization. However, how many of those people have any skin in the game? How far can grass-roots go without the cash to continue lobbying efforts in the capital?

  13. Lets see if I can answer your post within the 2000 character limit; 😉
    1. “This evil law” specifically; the Controlled Substances Act.
    2. “How the opposition is fighting” -please explain…
    3. The right to self medicate, consume marijuana without violent government intervention or sustain ones family with a hemp garden is not an “ideal,” it is a basic component of an ancient coevolution and symbiotic identity of being human.
    4. “To fight any war you need money,” In our current plutocracy of hat-switching lobbyists? Of course it takes money. But what if, as more states legalize, what we are “fighting” is no longer a war, or perhaps even a “movement” as much as a simple revelation and subsequent end of our destructive drug policies?

  14. @nunya
    (Still answering number 4):
    Who says small donations dont cut it? Look at Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton!
    But enough about the presidency;
    We’re teaching ourselves to end a war. It takes our voice, our letters and old fashioned face to face conversation with our Congressman to break the fear and show them legalization makes sense not just fights and threats.
    Take a toke and consider this: What if the herb has been telling us all along that we dont need to go to war to end a war, we just need to pass the peace pipe of education? (As Professor Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire and David Attenborough in The Private Life of Plants ask “are we using plants or are they using us?”) What if instead of simply “rescheduling prohibition” from the CSAct into little private prohibitions, we are rescheduling our perception of ourselves? We are revealing and writing to ourselves through the herb a more peaceful, sustainable educational and agricultural form of government literally founded on cannabis? (The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper). One where a fair sales tax affords fair representation? (See Oregon’s changing medical marijuana policies) We are ending the perpetual drug war by replacing it with sustainable, affordably taxed marijuana for all consumers; this is not only a chance for Marley’s and Willies to be sold everywhere (of which I will happily partake), but one where we are asking more fundamentally whether whole plants or cannabinoids can even be patented as open source so as never to be patented or prohibited by government law, industries lobby or any single individual again?

  15. By this logic, marijuana legalization simply becomes an issue of the proper taxing and zoning for our symbiotic existence with a vital crop legislatively, while spiritually, marijuana legalization becomes a portal through which we acknowledge we are merely components of a larger, living universe that lives and dies together regardless of how we govern and cultivate. And just perhaps, our coevolutionary relationship to cannabis is rooted in our human identity, speciation and entire self perception?
    By this rational, we dont have “thousands of people donating,” but instead enormous grow-rooms full of millions of legally taxed marijuana buds that are creating human industry through the plant’s very own chemical innovation. Think about it; In D.C., where home cultivation is legalized, a Congressman needs only one vaporized puff to completely reveal the economic wisdom of consumer advocacy promoting healthy, fair industry regulation while reducing organized crime and violence to all.
    5. Hey, even George Soros could see that. Legalization is good for the economy. Are you sure his millions aren’t invested in legalization awaiting a healthy harvest? California is as close as theyve ever been to recreational legalization and pushing US electorates in legalized states WAY over the tipping point. We should hesitate to judge those in power for their potential to do good or evil until we read the legislation theyre promoting. If you want to cut through all the bull in politics ask yourself two things; who owns the resources and are those resources vital to our sustained existence? Then change the law.

  16. Two good follow ups to my point about cannabis chemically lobbying for its own legal reproduction are “Botany of Desire” by Professor Michael Pollan and the documentary “The Secret Life of Plants” narrated by David Attenborough.
    (Ok now I’m just testing the number of consecutive posts I can make with 2000 characters)…
    Another good read to understand agriculture and government is “1492” by Charles Mann. Failure to properly conduct agricultural research before enacting legislation lead to the downfall of the last Chinese dynasties (1530-1892) by peasants slashing traditional hemp farms on hilltops to plant the newly introduced, more lucrative sweet potatoes and corn which lead to catastrophic erosion and flood of the heart of the Chinese rice-based economy; Because the emperor’s scientists during the Ming and Quin dynasties only studied if the sweet potatoes and corn brought from the west originally by Legazpi were safe for the emperors to eat… Not whether the Chinese people would pay their landlord’s taxes as a result of cultivating it higher up hill… vital fields of rice in the yellow river were destroyed from the subsequent erosion and precious soul was lost. The resulting chaos and starvation caused landlords to seek desperate legislation to retain resources and power, leading up to the Communism still in place today.
    In this sense, the hemp research amendment to the USFarm Bill past two years ago is some of the most important legislation we have passed so far… (And by “we” I do include cannabis… 🙂 )

  17. Here is something that I perceive as a FACT,
    regarding “…industry influence on the legalization movement…”

    IF ALL* politicians, actors/actresses, celebrities, athletes, professionals, police, judges, attorneys, scientists and doctors-

    ALL* of these people who personally who either:
    -know someone who does
    -knows the truth

    SPOKE STRAIGHT UP about the topic
    and didn’t hide behind the security of wealth and power-
    – then things would proceed as they already should have.

    (think of how many celebrities are KNOWN partakers, and are rarely rarely held accountable-
    you can bet your ASS they would push to change the laws if THERE’S was on the line!!!!!)

  18. Money is needed to grease the wheels of progress! It is also needed to get the attention of existing politicians, for they are now in it for the money. Safe access is not in the vocabulary of profiteering organizations, just control and addictive properties.

  19. Definitely need to be allowed to grow our own marijuana legally, as was reiterated. And, I don’t want to have to be buying freakin’ clones off the government or the limited licensees of the rich movers and shakers.

    That’s why I demand that viable seeds, their production and sales be legalized!

    If the cannabis from the government or limited number of licensed producers is crap, you should be allowed to grow your own, you know, but who not if it’s their crap clones or crap seeds. What’s the difference if the government or the limited number of licensees are growing and selling crap weed, and selling you the seeds for the same crap weed. Why? So you can grow your own crap weed from their crap seeds?

    Apropros seeds, WHEN Trudeau legalizes in Canada, I certainly hope he won’t be extraditing anyone for selling and shipping cannabis seeds to the U.S.! Moreover, I am expecting Marc Emery and others like him to have their records completely expunged, and without delay.

    Come on Pennsylvania! Legalize! Even so, a Canadian Cannabis Vacation would be sweet. Niagara Falls, Canada! Yeah, baby! Yeah!

  20. Or, in lieu of long-winded blogs no one will ever read, maybe we just need a good techie to create a Sim-Marijuana game where players can figure out how to zone industrial, medicinal, residential and commercial marijuana productions according to their geography and resources? I’m sure we’ll figure it out.

  21. Reefer Madness needs to end. Cannabis is a powerful medicine. The image on our products is of the cannabidiol or CBD molecular structure, which does not have the controversial psychoactive properties associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and may have a wide range of therapeutic applications, including treating conditions that are refractory to conventional drug-based approaches. Unfortunately little is known about this molecule as it has been banned to study. Lets let the powers that be, know that we would like this to change. Show your support for this plant in a tasteful, fashion statement.

  22. Is this why – and am I right about this? – NORML is supporting one legalization initiative in California for 2016 and MPP is supporting a different one? Am I right that the NORML-supported initiative is the result of the Blue Ribbon Panel, while the MPP-supported initiative was put forward by a tech billionaire? Or am I getting this all wrong?

    What I’d really love to see – and soon – is an objective, just-the-facts, point-by-point, side-by-side comparison of the three or four main legalization initiatives being circulated for 2016, so we consumers can decide which we want to support. Any chance NORML might provide one?

    [Editor’s note: In general, NORML does not publicly endorse marijuana law reform ballot measures until they qualify for the ballot. CA NORML, and other chapters in the state, have not taken a public position on the AUMA, which is largely a product of high tech (Sean Parker/Justin Hartfield) and civil society stakeholders (principally Drug Policy Alliance, estate of Peter Lewis…MPP has committed no $, their attention and $ is directed at initiatives in AZ, NV, MA and ME).

    As the other proposals lack sufficient funding for both signature gathering and running effective campaign, for all and intent purposes the reform vehicle CA voters are going to be asked to approve at the ballot box next year is AUMA.]

  23. If I can’t grow my own very high quality organic marijuana then we have accomplished nothing. Prohibition produces dangers for every aspect of society. When it is repealed like with alcohol you have Jonnie Walker. You also have 10 million gallons of Bud Light being churned out onto the market everyday. I have never seen Bud Light win an award for taste or quality. The consumer has the right to choose how they spend their hard earned money. If corporate cannabis has it’s way as it looks now. I and a small handful of people will be the only ones with the Jonnie Walker Blue Label! PEACE

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