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Cannabis Companies Take The Lead In Funding Legalization Efforts

Last November’s five legalization drives were funded almost entirely by marijuana firms with mixed results.

The push for legal adult-use marijuana reform in the United States, once exclusively bankrolled by advocacy groups and wealthy individual benefactors, is now being funded by large and influential cannabis companies. As first reported by Mjbizdaily, this last election had five legalization initiatives on the ballot. Of the $20 million raised to support those efforts, over 95% of the money came from marijuana firms.

Early in the legalization movement, most financial support came from advocacy groups like MPP and Drug Policy Alliance. In addition, wealthy individuals like Peter Lewis, the late Progressive Auto insurance chair, financier George Soros, and early Facebook investor Sean Parker provided substantial financial assistance in securing legalization. These organizations and individuals were crucial in getting recreational marijuana legalized in Colorado, Washington and California.


However, in recent years, more of the burden of providing funding for additional state legalization efforts have been taken on by large marijuana businesses. For some industry experts, this is the next logical phase in establishing a nationwide multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry.


As Mason Tvert (VS Strategies), a key individual in Colorado's 2012 legalization campaign, shares, "People feel the mission's been accomplished." With almost 40 states having some form of legal cannabis (recreational or medicinal), it does appear that the lion's share of the work of legalization advocates has been achieved.


"People feel the mission's been accomplished."

- Mason Tvert, Partner at VS Strategies


Nevertheless, despite the impressive gains, there is some hesitation just to hand over the reins to big marijuana companies. Indeed, most of the funding for the recent ballot initiatives in Maryland, Missouri, Arkansas, and South and North Dakota was provided by cannabis firms. However, the failure of three of those campaigns (Arkansas, S. Dakota and N. Dakota) points to some problematic issues surrounding the true motives of those businesses backing the legalization efforts.


According to industry experts, the ballot initiatives in Arkansas, South Dakota and North Dakota did not fail because the people did not want legal adult-use marijuana. Polls in all three states showed strong support for legalization. They failed because specific details of each bill met with disapproval by voters.


When states like Colorado and Washington began the pioneering effort of legalization, the goal was just to get marijuana legal for recreational use. There were no concerns over market structure, licensing caps, taxation, social equity components and criminal expungements. Fast forward to 2023, and the landscape has become much more layered and complex. Voters care about the details and are also wary of big business getting involved in shaping legislation.


It is almost like having the fox design the hen house and then asking the chickens to trust that it is safe. Large multi-state marijuana operators are like any other for-profit concern. They want what is best for their bottom line first and foremost, and every other detail is secondary. Thus it is no wonder that some of the more recent initiatives included language pushing for limited-license markets in adult-use states.


Another example is the ballot measure for Arkansas that failed to pass this past November. It included a ban on all home grows while ensuring that the limited number of current medical cannabis cultivators in the state received the first crack at an adult-use market. Some passionate advocates for a fair and less corporate-friendly marijuana industry point to these examples to highlight the need for a balanced mixture of business influence and consumer/market protection.


Shaleen Title, an attorney and former Massachusetts state marijuana regulator, echoes this sentiment in saying, "It's not a coincidence that we are seeing more industry-driven legalization measures and voters in more places rejecting legalization measures. Voters care about the details of legalization bills. Voters care about market structure. (Unfortunately), when you have wannabe monopolists directly writing measures, the trend has been for them to propose market structures that are increasingly brazen and unserious."


"It's not a coincidence that we are seeing more industry-driven legalization measures and voters in more places rejecting legalization measures. Voters care about the details of legalization bills. Voters care about market structure. (Unfortunately), when you have wannabe monopolists directly writing measures, the trend has been for them to propose market structures that are increasingly brazen and unserious."

- Shaleen Title, Attorney and Former Mass. Cannabis Regulator


Critics like Title believe this is a case of industry overreach at the expense of the legalization effort's social justice origins. Title and other pioneers of the movement's early days are passionate about ensuring that fair market structure, social equity concerns and criminal justice reform remain ahead of corporate greed and profit. She concludes, "The lesson moving forward is to give up on the idea of buying or tricking voters into giving you a monopoly by funding a ballot initiative."


The presence and financial influence of cannabis companies in the continuing fight to end prohibition and make recreational marijuana legal nationwide are inevitable. Their deep pockets and political power have a positive role to play as more and more states join the roll call of legal adult-use marijuana members.


However, the desire to make the industry bend to their economic will must be checked and balanced by lawmakers, industry stakeholders and advocates. Otherwise, marijuana runs the risk of becoming too much like the next alcohol industry, and history has already demonstrated that it is a path no one wants to go down.


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