'Big Marijuana': Watch this lobby group grow

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Big Oil has one. Big Telecom has one. Big Pharma has one. If you're an industry with a true foothold in Washington—a "Big" lobby, in other words—you've got to have a "revolving door."

And increasingly, it seems like the $2.5 billion-a-year (and growing) American cannabis trade is building its ownlet's call it a "revolving hotbox," to use the pot smoker's parlanceattracting a growing number of ex-politicians and former political staffers to the industry's cause.

Earlier this summer, Jack Lavin, former chief of staff to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, resigned to become a lobbyist. One of his first three clients was a marijuana start-up company, which hired Lavin specifically to lobby the governor's office.

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William Delahunt, a former U.S. representative from Massachusetts, started a nonprofit medical marijuana company last year. That outfit became the subject of controversy last month, when the state pulled its three dispensary licenses, after public outcry over its financial ties to a consulting firm Delahunt runs.

Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential candidate, recently became CEO of Cannabis Sativa, a publicly traded marijuana company whose stock price has been skyrocketing of late.

"Overall, I don't see a downside to any of this," Johnson said of the increasing involvement of people like him. "From the standpoint of the legalized environment nationwide, it is all headed that way, and it is headed that way very quickly."

Steve Katz, an upstate New York Assembly member, has boasted of his intentions to get into the weed business after his term in office expires.

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And the National Cannabis Industry Association, the nation's leading marijuana trade group, hired Michael Correia, a former GOP congressional staffer, to be its first full-time lobbyist.

While "revolving door" politics often has a pejorative connotation, harkening to a system of conflicted interests between corporate America and the government, marijuana advocates wouldn't mind joining the club of the maligned. After all, an industry must have enough pull to make the doors revolve.

"It is a signal that the market or the public policy idea has reached a turning point and point of maturation," said Chris DeLaForest, a Minnesota-based lobbyist who has advocated on behalf of pro-pot groups. "In many respects, it is a good thing."

"Big Marijuana" isn't turning the gears like Big Oil, certainly not at this point, but as the industry grows both financially and politically, it will no doubt attract more people with governmental experience to till its fields.

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"I think you will see more money available to be pulling people like me," said Correia.

The market potential (or potential market) is already driving up competition in a lobbying sector that has, until now, been carried out by a cluster of low-paid true believers.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the largest nonprofit cannabis advocacy group, recently lost its congressional lobbyist, Dan Riffle, to a California-based law firm that offered him significantly more money.

"Looking ahead, the nonprofit advocacy side is going to have to pay morenot because our people are in it for the money, but because we don't want them to get raided," said Rob Kampia, MPP's executive director. "I am going to have to jack up the salaries of the people in my organization."

Still, Kampia is skeptical of marijuana's short-term "revolving door" potential. "I don't know of any politicians who are quitting their job to work on marijuana," he said. "It might be enough for a frustrated state legislator to quit their job."

Correia declined to tell how much he is being paid by the NCIA (which has yet to release its latest annual tax filings), but said his salary is more in line with what he made on the Hill a decade ago.

"I am a different breed, so don't look at me as an example," he said. "I am a person who wants to chase a cause. I am not looking at this as a stepping stone to the next great six-figure salary."

That said, he added, "There's a lot of money to be made from the consultancy standpointand a lot of potential that private industry is going to be pulling the people with that experience."

—By Daniel Libit, special to