Cannabis Industry Flexes Its New Political Muscle
It was a classic political fundraiser — semi-formal, with chicken, potatoes and salad on the menu.
The jovial donors sipped gin cocktails and Oregon pinots at the Left Bank Annex on Portland's East Side earlier this month.
But the 300 attendees who came to support Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, represent a newly energized group: They're members of the cannabis industry, now in an era where their product is legal for recreational use.
"People that I’ve been working with — in some cases for years dealing with trying to modernize our marijuana laws — came together and they threw me a little party," Blumenauer said. "It was great fun."
Fun indeed. The June 5 event raised more than $100,000 for Blumenauer.
The Oregon Cannabis PAC hosted the fundraiser. Its leaders say that's the largest sum ever contributed by the industry to a politician during a single event.
As the marijuana industry grows around the county, its political clout is growing, too. For members of Congress who are constantly fundraising, the industry offers new, high-yield donors. But it also raises questions about where the money came from and what those donors expect in return.
"As the marijuana industry scales up you’ll see a growing legislative presence," said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. "Right now, you’ve seen it go from a small lobby group that was about legalization to a more mature industry that’s affected by state taxes, state regulations, local regulations about where you can open stuff."
Washington state will mark its first year of recreational pot sales at about the same time Oregon gets ready to enter that market on July 1. And although it's a young industry, it has money. So far, Washington's retail marijuana stores have exceeded $230 million in sales.
The industry already has a number of political action committees. But Donovan said he expects there will be more lobbyists targeting both members of Congress and state lawmakers.
Since 2002, the cannabis industry has donated more than $400,000 to members of Congress and federal candidates, according to data analyzed by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics and campaign disclosures from industry groups.
During the last decade, the cannabis industry has donated about $440,000 to state-level candidates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan Helena, Montana-based nonprofit, that tracks the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and policy.
"On a nationwide perspective, these totals are relatively small," said Peter Quist, research director at the institute.
But, he said, the cannabis industry is still relatively new and has only been giving larger donations for the last few years.
"For what they’ve given in the past, the increase is pretty sizable," Quist said.
By comparison, the beer, wine and liquor industry contributed more than $10 million to members of Congress and candidates just in the 2014 election cycle, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Back in Oregon, organizers of this month’s Blumenauer fundraiser said the purpose of the gathering was to thank him for his efforts. But it was also an opportunity to showcase what cannabis donors can do for supportive politicians.
"We are willing to come out for you if you if you support us," said Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney and founder of the Oregon Cannabis PAC.
As for where the industry’s contribution money came from, Margolis said it’s all above board.
"The voters in Oregon have overwhelmingly supported the adult use market," she said. "We’ve had the medical market since 1998 and I don’t see any reason that a legislator from a state that has so overwhelmingly supported this shouldn’t be able to take that money."
Margolis said right now the industry wants access to banking and a change in federal law to allow businesses selling pot to be eligible for tax exemptions.
And Blumenauer? He seems on board with that.
"They should have a bigger political footprint," Blumenauer said. "Because it’s insane that the federal government interferes with doing things like having a bank account or being treated fairly in the tax system."
Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting