NCIA & NORML: Comparing Pot Advocates
Industry Lobbying Defined
Lobbying and lobbyists. The terms tend to carry a negative connotation in the media. Lobbies have imposing names that make them sound like sinister monoliths of social engineering. There’s “Big Coal” and “Big Tobacco;” there’s “Big Oil,” and with the dominoes of cannabis prohibition tumbling, “Big Pot” rises.
Is the marijuana lobby as ominous as some of the other lobbies previously mentioned? To think objectively about it, the dictionary defines a lobby as, “an organized group of people who work together to influence government decisions that relate to a particular industry, issue, etc.” A definition like that can include voter blocks, but the marijuana lobby isn’t a voter block; it’s organized advocacy.
The lobby has been around for a long time. The newest organization on the scene is the National Cannabis Industry Association, which was formed in 2010 to advocate for marijuana-related businesses. However, the marijuana lobby started way back in 1970 as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws set out to improve the public’s perception of marijuana.
The Cannabis Lobby
While both organizations have marijuana-related missions, their aims and messages are slightly different. The NCIA is more of an advocacy group for the businesses engaged in marijuana commerce, while NORML is more of a consumer advocacy group. Both groups obviously support the end to prohibition, but one group represents the businesses and one group represents the people.
According to NORML’s about us section of its website, NORML wants to change the negative public perceptions of marijuana, and make it easy and safe for people to access and use responsibly. People shouldn’t have to buy marijuana of questionable quality from criminals; they should be able to go to a store without fear of harassment.
In NORML’s FAQ section, the organization also reaffirms its values on marijuana being an adults-only recreational activity, and that its use can never be an excuse for bad behavior. Being that NORML is for legalization, it supports “[...] the development of a legally controlled market for marijuana, where consumers could purchase it from a safe, legal and regulated source.” As part of its commitment to consumer advocacy, NORML has created the NORML Business Network, which they describe as a Better Business Bureau for marijuana businesses.
All this sounds well and good, but NORML is not without its critics. Now that marijuana has breached the surface of prohibition in some states, some people are wondering about NORML’s relevancy in a world where marijuana is actually legalized. There are also questions about the strength of the organization’s leadership.
According to a 2012 article in Culture, many cannabis activists accuse NORML’s director, Allen St. Pierre, of having, “[...] an arrogant leadership style intolerant of dissent;” furthermore, “critics are now openly criticizing the leaders’ performance. Some are flat-out asking for St. Pierre to step down or be removed.” Despite this, St. Pierre currently remains director.
In face of criticism, NORML is still highly visible and has a number of celebrities sitting on its advisory board. Public figures such as Bill Maher, Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, among others, are current advisory board members, while film director Robert Altman and “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson were associated with the organization before they passed.
We’ve covered the NCIA in the past, as well as one of its trade shows. NCIA’s mission is to create a legitimate cannabis industry, and focus on creating a social, economic and legal environment in which the industry can thrive. Moreover, they employ the “power in numbers” principle, meaning that cannabis businesses also represent a significant portion of the country’s economy, enough that they deserve a voice.
Businesses can become members of the NCIA, where they receive benefits, such as full access to the organization’s blog. The NCIA also provides member’s-only events across the country, and boast that they are running the only pro-marijuana Political Action Committee in the country. They list taxes, banking and prohibition among their federal policy objectives.
The Washington Post called the NCIA the “[...] Chamber of Commerce for marijuana.” Michael Correia, the director of governor relations for the NCIA, has been associated with Republicans in the past. Before telling his parents his job at the NCIA was marijuana-related, he made note that it was “[...] a small-business trade association that focused on taxes and banking issues.”
Mark Kleiman of UCLA noted in his article about marijuana’s first full-time industry lobbyist, “I think what we’re seeing now is the transition from the movement to the lobby,” and further, “The hippies are being pushed aside by the suits.” Kleiman isn’t pleased about that; however, he added, “the interest of the hippies has been consistent with the public view, and the interest of the suits is opposed.”
Yin and Yang
Ultimately, the picture this paints is that the NCIA is the Yin to NORML’s Yang. In a world with legal marijuana, there must be business, and business needs must be protected. However, where there is influence, there is the potential for overreach, and any such industrial overreach, with regards to product quality, public safety, and other consumer concerns, should be met with opposition.
Considering legal marijuana’s tenuous footing, it would be better for consumer concerns to come from an organization that is sympathetic to the industry. The alternative could be reactionary politics, or marijuana ingredients that read like they were written on a box of kids’ cereal.