Pot smoking on Capitol Hill

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 8, 2011

Pot smoking on Capitol Hill

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Feb 8, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: If you want to get something done in Washington, you pretty much have to hire somebody there to make your case to hang around Capitol Hill and lobby. And there’s a little something for everyone. There’s a registered lobbyist for UFO believers. The American League of Lobbyists — I love this one — lobbies for lobbyists. And there’s the National Cannabis Industry Association, which is more straight-laced than you might think.

Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

Nancy Marshall Genzer: Steve Fox is the picture of establishment Washington. His dark hair is cut short with a little gray at the temples. He’s wearing a dark green suit, white shirt and tie. His shiny brown shoes carry him briskly through the lobby of a Senate office building. Fox is all business.

As the chief lobbyist for the National Cannabis Industry Association…

Steve Fox: There’s a lot going on.

Fox takes me to one of his favorite haunts, a cafe tucked into a corner of the building. And Fox explains that this is a joint effort by growers and sellers to promote pot on Capitol Hill.

Fox:I simply believe it’s wrong that the government uses its power to punish individuals who just want to relax and use cannabis.

Fox used to work for medical marijuana user groups. Their focus was on individual rights. Now, he’s switched to representing the medical marijuana business.

Fox: Being in Washington, it’s no secret that money talks. We are small businesses. We are creating jobs. We are generating tax revenues. And we need to have our voice heard.

Fox’s group turned to Congressman Barney Frank. The Massachusetts Democrat has unsuccessfully introduced at least four bills over the years in support of medical marijuana. This year, he’s trying something new, legislation that would decriminalize marijuana nationwide. That would clear up confusion in the 15 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Frank says it’s wrong for the feds to ignore states’ decisions on the issue.

Barney Frank: I don’t see why the federal government should say, “Oh yeah, you may say that, but we’re going to have the FBI come in and get ya.”

Fox knows the prospects for Frank’s legislation are grim, but he says, at least he can call attention to the issue. Republican Congressman Wally Herger of California is paying plenty of attention. His opinion of Frank’s bills?

Wally Herger: I don’t think you’d find very much support for that. And certainly I, with the experience I have in my area, would be very strongly an opponent of that.

Herger introduced a resolution cracking down on the cultivation of cannabis on federal land. It passed by a vote of 400 to four. And that was in December, before the Republicans took over the House.

Back at the cafe, Fox says he’s also lobbying the Obama administration, trying to change how it enforces federal law. Take money laundering: Fox says right now it’s hard for growers in states that have legalized medical marijuana to set up bank accounts, because banks are afraid of violating federal money-laundering laws.

Fox: We have some people who are driving around the state of Colorado with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, because they can’t find a bank to work with them in their area.

Fox says, the Treasury Department could tell banks not to worry about growers in states that have legalized medical marijuana. If Fox can get a couple bank accounts opened, he’ll consider that a major victory. Knowing battles over the big questions, like legalization, will take years.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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