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The Marijuana Lobby: All Grown Up

What a difference 20 years has made for the head of the pot lobbying group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Norml.

In the old days congressmen would ask Allan St. Pierre about males developing breasts as a result of smoking marijuana— a la the government propaganda movie "Reefer Madness." Now St. Pierre has legislators calling him to help write bills.

“I wrote five last year,” says St. Pierre.

Aaron Houston, five-year chief lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, the other top D.C. pot advocacy group, agrees.

“It's really changed since last year, when [President George W.] Bush left office,” he says. "My job has changed primarily because of the urgent need to regulate marijuana for all purposes, not just medical reasons. “

So has the argument of pot advocates: It's the economy, dude.

“Prohibition is a luxury we can no longer afford, lawmakers tell me now,” St. Pierre says. “And just as the Great Depression sped up the repeal of the Prohibition on alcohol by decades, the current recession appears to be really speeding things up with respect to marijuana.”

Steve Allen | Brand X Pictures | Getty Images

And that is keeping Norml and MPP, both headquartered in Washington, busy.

MPP is probably the most traditional lobbying organization of the three major pot lobbies.

“We have a PAC (as does Norml). We've played in federal elections, and I am plugged in to groups inside the Beltway of all political persuasions. Norml tends to be more of a consumer organization for marijuana users," says Houston.

In late March, even the National Republican Congressional Committee accepted a $5,000 check from MPP.

“The GOP leadership realizes that state-level regulation of marijuana is popular among their most active constituency right now, the tea party movement, whose members would like to see states decide the issue, like we do with alcohol,” Houston told reporters. “There is a huge amount of bipartisan agreement on this issue.”

The Opposition

That's certainly more the case today than in the 1970s, when Joyce Nalepka began her fight against drugs. The founder of Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge, has been lobbying against marijuana at a state or national level since 1977, and reckons she's "met with every member of Congress" on the issue.

"It took me years to convince people it is our most dangerous drug because it’s the one that people think isn’t harmful,'' says Nalepka. "It's the gateway drug."

Her organization is a diverse international network of groups, including law enforcement, parental, educational, religious and civic ones, such as the Elks Club.

The Elks' drug awareness program page on marijuana states: "Legalization sends a clear message to youth that drugs are not that bad and that society is not willing to pay the cost to protect them."

Though anti-drug groups typically base their argument on ethical, as well as personal and public safety issues, they have little, if any, skin in the game.

That's not the case with the multi-billion dollar drug treatment industry, whose clientele includes marijuana users, many of whom do not check themselves in over concerns about abuse.

"Many people who end up going through treatment are put there because, say, you were driving and got stopped for a traffic light and you happened to have a joint, and you’re told well, you are going to get arrested for this marijuana unless you go to this three-week outpatient anti-marijuana treatment," says Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University, one of the nation's foremost experts on drug policy and economics. "The vast majority of such people have no need for any anti-marijuana treatment; it’s just a handout to the treatment sector."

History: Grassroots To Policy Wonks

Source: norml.org

Norml was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup, funded by $5,000 from the Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation. The organization successfully spearheaded efforts to decriminalize marijuana in ten of the 50 states In the 1970s,

The organization and its foundation have an annual budget of about $990,000, six full-time employees and a large grassroots network of 135 chapters. Norml formed a PAC in 2001, and has contributed $37,100 to date.

The Marijuana Policy Project was founded in 1966 by two ex-Norml employees, Rob Kampia and Chuck Thomas. It has 29,000 members, 36 staffers and an annual budget of about $6 million. The MPP board is headed by Peter Lewis, chairman of the Progressive Insurance Company, founded by his father.

The organization faces a challenging year. In January, Kampia was suspended for three months by his board after a sex harassment scandal came to light.

In the meantime, MPP cancelled its annual benefit at the Playboy Mansion, and discontinued a grant program that doled out $1.5 million in 2008 to groups including the Students for Sensible Drug Policy. In 2009, the grants were scaled back to $560,000 and none are scheduled this year.

Of the grant suspension, Kampia says, “It’s based on the fact that [Peter Lewis] is getting fed up with negative publicity. He’s getting more and more agitated and nervous about the lay of the land of this movement, and so he’s cutting the grants program entirely, which is basically going to wipe out a number of our allies.”

The third group, New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance was formed in 2000 by the merger of The Lindesmith Center, a think-tank, and the Drug Policy Foundation, a grant making organization. DPA is headed by Ethan Nadelmann, a professor of politics at Princeton University.

Contributors: Rich And Famous

George Soros
Source: World Economic Forum
George Soros

In 1995-1996, global financier and philanthropist George Soros gave $1 million—more than anyone had committed to marijuana reform—to get medical marijuana on the California ballot. It was the first major change since decriminalization in the 1970s.

As St. Pierre remembers it, “The experts agreed that $5-6 million was needed for the effort to be successful. Soros called Peter Lewis, and they got John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix. If those three billionaires hadn’t plunked down the money, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”

Their efforts were successful, and in 1996, California became the first of 14 states to make it legal to sell marijuana to people with doctors’ prescriptions.

With money from Lewis—$3 million in 1997 alone—the MPP and its message have gained traction. Even Bob Barr, the tough-talking Republican congressman from Georgia who single-handedly blocked D.C. from implementing its medical marijuana initiative after voters there approved it, has become an MPP lobbyist.

He isn’t pro-drug, he says, just against government intrusion, and he’ll now lobby for the rights of states to set their own medical marijuana policy without federal interference.

The marijuana reform movement is clearly shifting away from Washington to the states. Though pot possession is still a federal offense, 14 states have legalized it for medical use. Fourteen more states are considering its legal medical use this year.

California voters will decide on a ballot proposition this fall to tax and regulate pot. A recent poll showed 56 percent of all residents approve of the idea, while all the major gubernatorial candidates oppose it.

Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, which trains students in the marijuana business, is spearheading the ballot initiative. George Zimmer, the head of the Houston-based Men's Wearhouse chain of clothing stores, who has given money to efforts to relax drug laws before, ponied up $20,000 for the cause.

Full-legalization ballot initiatives are also well under way in Oregon, Nevadaand Washington.

"We are becoming more and more decentralized," says Houston. “The sheer volume of supporters dictates that a top-down strategy would not work at this point. Decentralization is a critical component to tactical success."

"You can’t have a true social movement funded by three billionaires,” says St, Pierre.

California Vote: Fault Line

On April 20, which has grown to be a sort of “cannabis holiday” over the years, Norml will make a big announcement, says St. Pierre. “We’ll launch a major effort in which we’ll try to redirect every dollar out there to California to help with the legalization effort this year."

Opponents have much the same thing in mind.

"There's going to be a very broad coalition opposing this that will include law enforcement," says John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents the California Police Chiefs Association.

St. Pierre thinks national legalization is in the offing, led by the California vote later this year.

“We’ve got the baby boom generation in power, a crushing recession and an Internet that allows us to get around a lap-doggish national media,” he said. “We’ve never had the support of more powerful people in this effort.”

Getty Images

President Obama, for instance, supports the concept of medical marijuana.

The current environment may be as good as it gets for the marijuana movement.

That may explain why "Esquire" Magazine made marijuana lobbyist number seven in its list of ten New Jobs For Men 2010: “As pot reform becomes a larger part of the national debate, these are the people at the forefront of the movement to de-stigmatize the drug. Just like other lobbyists, they glad-hand with politicians and policy wonks..."

“I have meetings at the Capitol. I had a meeting at the White House a couple weeks ago," says Houston.

The new Norml—so to speak.