February 8 marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), an organization created to advance cannabis legalization at the federal and state level, and promote restorative justice for communities harmed by cannabis prohibition.
Although different perspectives cohabitate within the Council on cannabis issues, in 2021, the group consolidated a strong voice. The professional lobbyists working at the USCC share a common goal: to see the end of federal prohibition and the de-scheduling cannabis, which they believe should be treated similarly to alcohol.
“That is a high goal that everyone agrees on,” said Steven Hawkins, president, and CEO of the USCC, in an exclusive interview with Benzinga.
Lobbying in America
The group recognized that when a generalized consent among the U.S. population and states coalesced around marijuana legalization, it was the moment to join forces to legalize cannabis in some form. The multiple times the House of Representatives voted to legalize cannabis, a majority leader in the Senate who supports legalization on record, and the election of a Vice President who supported cannabis legalization while a Senator, are corollaries of this moment that the group interpreted “as a right moment for change.”
“We realized we could not be effective if every organization was lobbying in Congress on its own, we would be stronger together, and that led to the creation of USCC which has over 60 members, some of the largest companies in the industry, and some of the leading advocacy organizations in the country as well as trade groups that have all come together for the highest purpose of seeing the end of federal prohibition and make sure there are opportunities for reform along the way,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins expanded on the work of the USCC and how they approach legislators in DC.
“We have had several hundred meetings in 2021 with elected officials in Congress. We work with a team of professionals who have worked in Congress before and we build on a network of relationships with ‘champion’, legislators who have long supported a change in cannabis law.”
In order to advance cannabis legalization, the group may use focus groups to get a sense of what messages best resonate with audiences, and pollings, that may be used to provide elected officials with a clear sense of where their constituency stands.
“Questions like ‘Would you support a candidate who favors cannabis legalization?’ are questions legislators are interested in,” Hawkins said. “Those are elements of a ‘campaign’ that complement personal interaction with people from their districts and conversations about cannabis legalization. Elected officials respond to seeing firsthand what it is all about.”
In addition to that direct work, the USCC seeks to influence public opinion in Congress by bringing in outside experts and making sure people impacted in the community, whether business leaders or individuals who have suffered from prohibition – are heard. Likewise, the USCC works on particular states, given the fragmented nature of current regulations.
In terms of Social Equity, Hawkins argues that the regularization of the cannabis businesses could ease the work of the Small Business Administration to engage with small cannabis businesses.
“There have been efforts to ensure that individuals from communities are getting licenses but small businesses still face challenges finding the resources to operate,” Hawkins explained.
Thus, the USCC has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force that is working with the Congressional Black Caucus on three main objectives in terms of Social Equity: licensing business opportunities, creating good jobs among people of color and ensuring communities receive cannabis taxes in return for workforce development, scholarships and community investments.
“All of our members would like to see the tax law changed. Since cannabis is considered a dangerous drug at the federal level, state cannabis businesses can’t operate legally, make business deductions and conduct businesses with large commercial banks. We want to make sure all of our businesses can take advantage of federal legislation, do business like any other businesses,” added Hawkins.
Highlights of the bills currently in Congress
For those who are not familiar with the multiple legislations introduced in Congress, Hawkins compared some of the main features of the SAFE Banking Act, the MORE Act, the HOPE Act, and the CAO Act. He considers the bills can work together.
“The MORE Act de-schedules cannabis and provides money for communities that were impacted by the War on Drugs, it is similar to the CAO Act, but we expect the CAO to go further and establish federal agencies’ jurisdictions because cannabis has different properties medical, therapeutic… and that speaks to the role of FDA, which controls anything having to do with medicine in the country,” explained the president of the USCC.
“If CAO or MORE pass the cannabis sector is free to engage in business as usual.”
Hawkins also explained that under the SAFE Act, cannabis will be illegal but there would be a recognition of the industry by the banking system. Even when cannabis is illegal, he noted, an industry that employs 300.000 people need regular financial services so they have bank accounts, take mortgages, etc. “The SAFE act curves out a space to take advantage of banking,” he clarified.
Meanwhile, Hawkins highlighted that the bipartisan HOPE Act puts resources specifically to communities impacted by the War on Drugs and would create resources for the state so they can more easily expunge records that block people from furthering their education, finding employment or housing.
Hawkins shared some of the art in his work in DC. Since particular messages might resonate more with different members of Congress, the USCC often has to tailor its message.
“People might come to the idea that cannabis should be legalized for many different reasons. In the Republican party, the libertarian message might resonate more, for example, a message that says that the use of cannabis is about personal freedom and the government should have no role in dictating what you do in your spare time. On the Democratic side, arguments on racial justice and the impact of cannabis prohibition in communities of color, might resonate more.
“Some might feel that legalization is inevitable (…) while others may not appreciate cannabis as medicinal but they cannot ignore this industry will be a $90 billion industry,” he said, noting that half the country has legalized and the industry it’s now too big to ignore, a fact that might cross political and party lines. “This industry is here to stay.”
The president of the USCC noted the case of Mississippi adopting medical cannabis. Hawkins considered the legislation signed by the Governor to be a “significant event in a state that is socially conservative”. In addition, he highlighted the development of the discussions in “the Carolinas” calling the debate game-changing.
“As cannabis businesses open up and people see the sky is not falling and the industry has a place in the state as other businesses, the idea of cannabis in these conservative states is going to change,” Hawkins said. “We are waiting to see the CAO Act this Spring. We will be working to get the SAFE Act and the HOPE Act passed, move forward with the tax relief that businesses need while working on retail sales appropriations.”
On hemispheric cooperation
Just looking at the economics, the size of the population of Latin America, Benzinga asked if the USCC has thought about hemispheric cooperation?
“The short answer is ‘absolutely’. The business community is already there, American, Canadians, joint ventures, local ventures, so it is starting to happen now,” Hawkins said. “
We have been in contact with counterparts to the USCC in Canada and we will be starting conversations with similar organizations in Mexico. There could be a strong trade block with cannabis and the governments should unleash its full potential. This industry is 80 billion in the US and it will be a great business in Latin America. The room for regional cooperation to make this the premier region in the production of cannabis in the world is huge.”