Not many, if any, cannabis law reform organizations have done more to help bring bipartisan support to sensible reforms at the federal level than the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). Led by activist Aaron Smith, NCIA has done a tremendous job raising awareness about the need to treat cannabis businesses the same as any other business, with sensible tax regulations and access to banking services. Denying banking access and imposing burdensome taxes upon the cannabis business really invites tax evasion and puts people in harm’s way when they are forced to deal with cash.
I was pleased that Aaron had a few minutes to answer some questions ahead of his upcoming presentation at the International Cannabis Business Conference in Vancouver next week. (If you are in the cannabis industry, or thinking of joining, you should really join Aaron, Ed Rosenthal, Brendan Kennedy, Kirk Tousaw, Robert Laurie, Tommy Chong, and many others, at the ICBC on October 13-14.)
Anthony Johnson: What year did NCIA start, and what gave you the idea to start the first cannabis industry association?
Aaron Smith: In 2010, after working for MPP (Marijuana Policy Project) as the California State Policy Director for several years, it was clear that legal medical cannabis — and soon adult-use cannabis — was about to become a booming industry in several states. And that industry needed a voice at the national level.
Myself and a few other cannabis reformers came together to form NCIA in order to be that voice and to ensure the cannabis business community was well-represented in our nation’s halls of power.
You come from an activist background, so working within business must be very different than non-profit advocacy. How does one transition from representing advocacy to representing business while maintaining the core principles that made you become an activist in the first place?
In the cannabis industry, business IS advocacy, and will continue to be until the day that people are no longer put in cages over a plant. Cannabis is safer than alcohol and safer than opiates, not to mention the many medical benefits the plant offers to so many people. These core principles will never fade even as the industry itself becomes more sophisticated and part of our country’s mainstream business community.
Right now, NCIA is helping lead the way at the federal level to improve our cannabis laws. What is the feeling like on Capitol Hill now that more and more states are coming into a legal market? Does it feel like progress is speeding up with each and every state that comes on board? Does California seem like a game-changer?
We’re taken more seriously than ever before. Yes, it certainly does feel like progress is speeding along, and this upcoming election cycle is particularly exciting with a record number of ballot initiatives up for adult-use or medical marijuana programs. In California — the sixth-largest economy in the world — voters will decide on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. If passed, California’s legal marijuana market is expected to grow to nearly $7 billion dollars by 2020. The more states come on line, the more Members of Congress representing those states feel comfortable supporting reform, and then the dominoes will really start to fall fast.
What are the biggest issues you are working on at the federal level, and what are the roadblocks to implementing these policies?
NCIA’s primary legislative focus is on opening up access to banking services for our members, as well as reforming Section 280E of the tax code which doesn’t allow these businesses to take normal business tax deductions, essentially suffocating their resources as they are forced to pay upwards of 70-80% effective tax rates.
The biggest roadblocks, in addition to continuing to smash stereotypes about cannabis in the hearts and minds of the general public, are gaining the support of the Members of Congress who have the power to enact legislative changes. The reality of how government works is that this kind of influence carries a hefty price tag — which is why NCIA receives donations from our members to the NCIA-PAC which is the vehicle for us to make donations to important lawmakers who support our issues, and co-sponsor our priority legislation.
Does NCIA have a policy preference on whether the United States should reschedule cannabis or remove it completely from the list of controlled substances?
NCIA advocates for marijuana to be removed from the list of controlled substances altogether and treated similarly to alcohol, thereby allowing states to regulate medical or adult-use cannabis in a manner consistent with the values of that state. Rescheduling marijuana would do little to help our cottage industry nor would it make whole-plant medical cannabis more available to the patients who need it.
We even have a hashtag we use in our social media efforts. I encourage you to use #DescheduleNow in your Tweets and Facebook posts when talking about removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
Would you mind putting on your crystal ball and making a few predictions on states that will join the ranks of legalized states this November, both for adult use and medical?
Other than Arkansas, where two competing initiative ended up on the ballot, I think we have a great shot in all the states in play this year if we, as an industry, adequately invest the financial resources to get us over the finish line.
Thanks, Aaron, see you in Vancouver at the International Cannabis Business Conference!