No Industry Without Advocacy

That was the message of “ Investing in Your Industry,” a session at the Marijuana Investor Summit on April 22, 2015, co-hosted by Taylor West of National Cannabis Industry Association, Kelley Crosson of Marijuana  Policy Project, Ellen Flenniken of the Drug Policy Alliance and Betty Aldworth of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Shockingly, despite the fact that the legal industry relies on legalization advocacy efforts, very little funding for three of the “Big Four” of marijuana advocacy organizations comes from within the industry.

Ellen Flenniken, Deputy Director Development for the DPA, described it as “the largest drug policy reform organization in the world, having raised and spent roughly $150 million since 1994.” Nonetheless, she estimated that no more than two to three percent of their $10 million budget currently comes from the industry.

“At the very foundation of this work,” she said, “is the fact that our country is addicted to mass incarceration. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and much of that is fed by the drug war.” The DPA’s goal is to mitigate the disastrous political, social, economic and human costs of U.S. drug policy. In 2016, the top ballot initiative priority will be California, where legal reform will not only advance social justice but will open up the largest legal marijuana market in the world.

Betty Aldworth, Executive Director of SSDP, estimated that less than 10 percent of their $700,000 budget comes from within the legal marijuana industry. SSDP was organized in 1998 to work for the repeal of the Higher Education Act Elimination Penalty that disallowed student loans for those convicted of drug offenses.

It is now the largest single-issue student advocacy organization in the country. It advocates for initiatives such as a Good Samaritan 911 campaign so that students may call for emergency help for classmates who have overdosed, including on alcohol, without fear of punishment, and for changes in campus disciplinary policies so that marijuana offenses are treated in the same way as alcohol offenses. In 2014, their Campus Campaign put staffers on the ground in ballot initiative states who reached out to 41,000 people. The organization also mentors students for leadership roles in marijuana advocacy and industry after graduation.

Kelley Crosson, Major Gifts Officer at MPP, estimated that only 2 to 3 percent of their $10 million budget comes from within the industry. MPP is among the largest and oldest of marijuana reform organizations, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. According to Crosson, “Its mission is to change federal law to allow states to set their own policy.” MPP works in collaboration with other reform organizations on both the state and federal levels.

Only, NCIA, a dues membership-based cannabis trade organization, receives a substantial portion of its annual budget from the legal marijuana industry. In its fifth year of existence, NCIA, according to West, is the face of business and professionalism on Capitol Hill. The two issues on which the organization has particularly focused are banking access and reform of section 280E of the tax code. Both are massive obstacles to the growth and development of the legal cannabis industry.

All four panelists acknowledged the financial support of ArcView Investors and Troy Dayton, an SSDP alumnus according to Aldworth. Other bright lights from within the industry and from the non-cannabis business world have also stepped up for each of the advocacy groups, and may provide a model of financial leadership for others to follow.

David Friedman, CEO and Publisher of Panther Media, which publishes Marijuana Investor News, said, “These four organizations have the most significant impact on the industry and our ability to create a job or investment or business of any kind.” He pledged his support to keep the message and role of legal reform organizations front and center in the awareness of the marijuana business and investment community.

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