The Marijuana Policy Project Helped Bring the US to the Brink of Legalization. Now What?


Cannabis Wire co-founder Alyson Martin had a one-on-one interview with Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project to discuss the future of an organization that has been on the ground floor of cannabis legalization in the US since the 1990s. That was when California became the first state to allow a patient to grow cannabis for personal medical use, or to have a caregiver grow for them. The cannabis landscape in the US — and abroad — could not look any different today, with cannabis a booming, multibillion dollar industry, as well as a hot topic in Congress and among presidential candidates.

As we wrote in a newsletter last August, with Hawkins at the helm, MPP is charting a new course forward after a challenging period. Rob Kampia, MPP’s founder and longtime executive director, left his post as executive director in November 2017 to become director of strategic development, according to an MPP news release about the move at the time. In a December 2017 City Paper follow-up story about sexual harassment allegations against Kampia covered by the paper in 2010, which resurfaced amidst #MeToo discussions, Kampia told the alt-weekly that he was getting a “lateral promotion.” Days later, Kampia had fully departed from the organization.

Hawkins is the former president of Coalition for Public Safety, a criminal justice focused organization, former executive director of Amnesty International, and the former executive vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Cannabis Wire asked what is top of mind for Hawkins, and what role the organization will play as new groups and lobbyists surface, and as industry members increasingly take their needs into their own hands.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alyson Martin, co-founder of Cannabis Wire: What’s MPP’s role in the national cannabis industry today, in 2019? How is it changing?

Steve Hawkins: We have five states in play right now. We’re working on another five in 2020 and have our sights on another 5 in 2021.

Steve Hawkins (Image credit: MPP)

And our view is that if we get to the halfway point — where we have not only half the states in the country, we’ll have 50 U.S. senators at least with the states that we’re looking at, we’ll have like 286 members of Congress, I think—at that point, the prohibition that exists, federally, gets called into question. I think then we have enough political momentum in Congress to actually take marijuana off of the Controlled Substances list and get it descheduled. I think it will take a little bit more of a chorus of state voices to add pressure. I’m a big believer that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington a lot of times. But I think the ultimate goal for us is to see Congress end the prohibition on cannabis. And our goal is to get enough states to the tipping point so that Congress really has to act.

Martin: There’s been an uptick in Congressional legislative activity in the past couple of years, both with the number of bills being filed, and in the number of sponsors. But, what, in your opinion is the most important legislation for Congress to pass? And what stands the best chance?

Hawkins: Well, the most important legislation for Congress to pass, in our opinion, is to legalize cannabis. That’s our ultimate goal and the most important for MPP. Are there other efforts that I think can be building blocks towards that? Absolutely. That could be changes in banking. That could be changes in how the IRS treats business. That could certainly be seen as the SAFE Act, as sort of an initial carve out. But all those are stepping stones towards the ultimate effort, which will be to see Congress legalize cannabis. And then that, of course, changes the industry in ways that will really be a sea change, because then Nasdaq and the stock market here open up and nothing going on in Congress will accomplish that right now.

Martin: You brought up the SAFE Act. I know that nobody has a crystal ball but it appears to really have momentum. What are your thoughts on the SAFE Act?

Hawkins: I think it’s an important stepping stone. Now, the question of whether it can pass this year or next is, I think, unanswered that at this point. We know that this is a difficult political climate with all that’s going on in Congress. And then, 2020 is a presidential election year. And that slows down most legislation—certainly anything that’s controversial. So, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get some changes out of this session of Congress.

Martin: In the earlier years, it was mostly MPP and Drug Policy Alliance doing the heavy lifting on cannabis policy, and most of the laws, up to now, were due to MPP or DPA work. Acknowledging the work that NCIA does, there’s also now the Cannabis Trade Federation and now former House Speaker John Boehner’s group, all in a pretty short period of time. I’m curious how that plays into or changes people’s work at all. Are there any conflicting priorities at all that MPP is considering?

Hawkins: Well, I certainly welcome more advocacy in the area. We need it. How I would differentiate among the groups that you mentioned is: some are focused federally, like CTF and Speaker Boehner’s. And others like MPP and DPA are focused at the state level.

What I think separates MPP from all the rest is that MPP is the only organization that’s focused on the entire national map, with respect to the states. DPA selects specific target states. But we’re the organization that’s looking with the broadest vision, in terms of how we want to change state policies to ultimately influence federal policy. I would add, my view is that in order to effectuate change in Congress there needs to be two things that need to happen. There needs to be a strategy that’s inside the Beltway, which is lobbying Congress in the congressional office buildings, and having the best D.C. lobbyists to help do that work. And the creation of CTF and Boehner’s group help push that effort.

And at the same time there needs to be an inside the Beltway strategy to influence Congress, there has to be a strategy that’s outside of the Beltway to influence Congress. Because at the end of the day, if Senator Graham, just use him as an example, if he’s only hearing voices for change inside the Beltway, and no one back in his district office or the business community in South Carolina is concerned, then I don’t think we’re robustly engaging the congressional effort, as I see it. So, there has to be an outside the Beltway strategy that goes to the state level that begins to ensure that members of Congress are hearing from their Chambers of Commerce, their business leaders, calls are coming into their local district offices. And I think when we have both of those going on, and that’s what’s happening now, then I think there’s a coordinated effort between all of these groups. And so that’s how I see the territory divided, and how I see the strategies actually working in unison.

Martin:  There are of course big differences between the STATES Act and the Marijuana Justice Act. I’m curious, are there any considerations or concerns around spreading resources too thin? Or any conflicting messaging coming out of these groups’ support of one piece of legislation versus another? Or is it more that these groups are actually all working together just on different priorities?

Hawkins: The groups are working in parallel. But, yes, there are different priorities. We see that, for example, around the equity issue. DPA is a strong leader. And that’s not to say that other groups aren’t concerned about equity. That’s one of the ways that I think groups distinguish themselves in the space.

Martin: Let’s talk about equity. It means something different to different people. I’m curious, how do you define equity in the cannabis industry?

Hawkins: I view it as the four legs of a table. There are the interests that the state has in terms of tax and revenue generation. There’s business interest which don’t want to be regulated to the point where business is stifled. There’s consumer interest in this space. Consumers want to be able to have products that reach them and are safe. And then there’s the social justice issues, given the nation’s history with the war on drugs and how marijuana laws were were enforced in poor black and brown communities. So, for me, I see equity as just one of the legs and the table is stable as we build up all the legs of this table. Having said that, equity for me really falls into three categories. There’s the category that I think gets the most discussion, which is entrepreneurship and licenses and who is going to get licenses in what time period, and so forth. But other equity provisions are, for me, job creation. How does an industry go about ensuring that pools of talent come into the industry that reflect our society at large, or the region or the communities where these businesses are building. And then maybe the third aspect of equity is how the tax dollars that get generated should be used in some ways almost like a victim restitution in terms of targeting some of those dollars to help some of the communities that were target in the war on drugs. That could take many forms. So to me equity is broad.

Martin: What are your thoughts on that model equity legislation released by the Minority Cannabis Business Association?

Hawkins: I haven’t had a chance to study this one from the Minority Cannabis Business Association. We need to be able to think through some good model bills. I think going to a legislative debate without having a clear sense of something like an equity provision is what has made New York and New Jersey more difficult. I think, if anything, we need to really wrap our heads around: are there some effective equity model bills, model provisions, programs that we want to test out there? And we can build on what Massachusetts has done. We can learn lessons from the California experience. And my sense is, we will begin to see some models shape up in this area.

Martin: Cannabis used to be more of a (somewhat, broadly speaking) progressive or libertarian issue. But today, some of the loudest voices on cannabis and hemp are people like Senators Mitch McConnell and Matt Gaetz. Cannabis Wire had this big series on the rise of GOP support and lobbying money going toward the GOP. As cannabis becomes more of a bipartisan issue, does that at all play into MPP’s strategy?  

Hawkins: I spent years working on criminal justice reform and people came at that in different ways. There were fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist. There were libertarians in this space around over-criminalization. And there were civil rights and social justice critics. And I think, for me, cannabis is the same, right? I mean, I’m trying to get to the top of this mountain. As I say to my staff, there’s more than one trail up this mountain. And if some people want to get to the top using the libertarian path, I’m fine with it. If some are more from the social justice path, that is fine too. And I don’t mean to make light of this, but I do see that these are all pathways that gather the critical mass of people that you need to move this needle. And people are going to come at it differently, based on their life experiences, their political leanings, their ideological bents, and that’s fine. The goal for MPP is to be a big enough path to take all of that energy and move it together toward our ultimate goal.

Martin: The industry is growing and putting its own money directly into political contributions and lobbying. What does that mean for MPP?

Hawkins:  It means that—you know, you asked at the beginning: how have things changed? Well, with businesses now having assets coming in, they’ve grown. Companies have become far more well-resourced. And that’s good because we will need more lobbying efforts spread around the country. I see MPP’s role as helping to coordinate some of that effort. So, I think that’s an important development. Three years ago, I would say that most companies didn’t have anybody who is heading up government relations. Now, they do, and it’s a sign that the industry is maturing in this space. And that’s important, and that’s what is needed. I’m glad the industry has moved in that direction. I think it’s critical to advancing our ultimate goals.

Martin: On the topic of changing dynamics and businesses getting bigger and more well-funded, along with the changing political landscape, is MPP’s funding changing at all? The funding sources, types of fundraising, etc?

Hawkins: MPP’s fundraising model has gone through periodic changes. For example, when there were ballot initiatives we raised significant dollars around that. My goal in terms of leadership is to think about how the organization can diversify its funding more.

Martin: Has MPP had any conversations with anyone from the Trump administration about what he’s thinking, where he’s leaning, anything like that? Anything top down?

Hawkins: Not to my knowledge.

Martin: What’s the most exciting aspect of your work with MPP right now. What’s keeping you up at night in a good way?

Hawkins: What’s most exciting is seeing the efforts that are underway in states. What’s exciting is seeing political leaders who two years ago were opposed, who changed their views. What’s exciting is seeing that as political energy happens in one state it influences others. I’m terribly excited that as some of the last regions of the country are starting to get that, the map is going to start to get filled in. The energy I’m seeing with the ballot initiative in Mississippi, or conversations in Georgia and South Carolina around medical cannabis. All that excites me because it shows that there is a wave of public opinion that we’ve seen that’s changed. The public polling in ’95 was at 25%. Now it’s at 56%. That’s all exciting to me. So my goal is just to find the resources out there to match that political energy.

Martin: And is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add?

Hawkins: The one thing that we haven’t touched on is that this isn’t just a national effort in the US. There is an international movement on cannabis policy, whether it’s the World Health Organization taking a stand, obviously Canada, other countries in Europe. There very well could be a role for MPP in the future that begins to build a network of advocates around ending prohibition in other countries. I don’t think we’re that far away from seeing that reality.

Martin: I’m going to ask one last follow up. Does MPP have formal international plans, whether through partnerships, or through broader international work?

Hawkins: It is certainly coming up. We’re about to do some strategic planning and I know that will be addressed. So I would say I’d welcome the opportunity to have that conversation further with you down the road. We have not had many activists from other countries reaching out yet but we certainly do get inquiries. So we are definitely thinking about what MPP’s role can be, should be, in this broader global discussion that’s taking place.

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