As marijuana dollars flow to Rand Paul, some advocates are also hopeful about Hillary Clinton's softening drug stanceBy Raf Sanchez, Washington
After handing over their campaign donation cheques, the smartly dressed business people took their seats at a large horseshoe table inside the Colorado convention centre.
The room was drab and grey and the gathering looked no different from any of the other daily fundraising events that are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 presidential campaign.
But the business executives being courted by Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican senator, were not lawyers or bankers or oil men. They were the leaders of America's rapidly growing cannabis industry, men and women becoming rich selling a product that is technically just as illegal as heroin or LSD.
"It was a historic moment," said Tripp Keber, head of Dixie Brands, a company that sells cannabis-infused fizzy drinks and other marijuana products. "This is the first time a presidential candidate has openly dealt with an industry still considered illegal at the federal level."
As marijuana becomes big business in America, its political clout is also growing. Politicians are no longer embarrassed to be seen in public with so-called “pot barons” and the cannabis industry is gearing up to be a significant player in next year’s presidential election.
Just as coal companies and Wall Street banks use campaign dollars to get politicians’ attention, the makers of pot brownies and cannabis tea are prepared to spend big to get their message across. There is even talk of a marijuana super-PAC which could run television ads in support of cannabis-friendly candidates.
The “holy grail” of their lobbying efforts is to get marijuana decriminalised and out of the legal grey zone where it is now stuck.
Under US national law, marijuana is still prohibited but the Obama administration has stepped aside to allow individual states to experiment with legalisation.
That means you buy marijuana perfectly legally under state law while at the same time violating federal laws.
Cannabis is now legal for recreational purposes in four states and can be purchased medicinally in 23 states. Colorado is the heart of America’s marijuana business and laws there are more relaxed than Amsterdam, with marijuana available over the counter in upmarket dispensaries that look like high-end wine shops
Arcview, a firm that gathers investment data, calls cannabis “the fastest growing industry in America” and forecasts it will grow from its current value of $3.4 billion to more than $10 billion by 2019. Last year around 1.5 million Americans are estimated to have bought marijuana products legally under state law.
Yet for all the celebratory news coming out of the industry, business leaders and activists are still trying to strike down the federal ban on cannabis, which they compare to the failed 1920s prohibition on alcohol.
"Marijuana exists on every street corner in America,” said Mr Keber. “Why allow the drug cartels to fill their coffers and fuel narco-terrorism when we can tax it, track it and regulate it?”
And so cannabis supporters are looking for champions among the 2016 presidential candidates. Rand Paul is so far the leading contender and earned an A- ranking from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) for his calls to let states decide their own drug laws.
Cannabis leaders responded with more than $100,000 (£65,000) in donations at his Colorado fundraiser, the maximum they could give, and the National Cannabis Industry Association’s political action committee gave another $5,000.
While Bill Clinton famously said he smoked marijuana at Oxford but “did not inhale”, Hillary Clinton maintains that she has never tried cannabis and has no plans to.
Yet with polls showing a majority of Americans believe cannabis should be legal, Mrs Clinton’s own positions have softened and she is open to continuing Barack Obama’s policy of allowing states to experiment with legalisation. “States are laboratories of democracy,” she said last year. “I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”
She was given a B- ranking and activists are hopeful she will recognise marijuana reform is important to parts of the Democratic base. Many younger voters are excited by the idea and it is a racial justice issue for some African Americans, who are disproportionately prosecuted on cannabis charges.
Donald Trump earned a C in the MPP rankings and the harshest grade, an F, was reserved for Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey. A former federal prosecutor, Mr Christie promised he would “crack down” and order the FBI to resume raids even in states that have legalised marijuana.
Marijuana advocates are also finding allies among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. “When I started doing this in 2009 my emails would often go unreturned,” said Dan Riffle, a cannabis lobbyist. “Now people understand this is a serious issue and not just a bunch of stoners in tie-dye saying ‘free the weed.’”
Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from a conservative district in California, is one of those allies and recently succeeded in passing a provision that bars the US government from prosecuting medical marijuana users in states that have legalised.
Sitting on a leather seat in a Congressional hallway, Mr Rohrabacher reflected on how the debate had changed since he arrived in Congress in 1989. “Talking about marijuana used to be taboo here but it’s not anymore.”
The Republican estimated that he lost around one per cent of the vote among people opposed to legalisation when he came out as a marijuana supporter but that he picked up 5-10 per cent among liberals.
The medical cannabis business in California is worth around $1.3 billion and Mr Rohrbacher said that marijuana executives usually fill one of the seven tables at his fundraising events.
“You’ve got the credit union people sitting at one table and the energy people sitting at one table and now you’ve got the marijuana people sitting there too,” he said. “In all, it’s been a very big plus politically.”
Tripp Keber, the Colorado marijuana businessman, said that even a few years ago local politicians were anxious not to be publicly linked with cannabis and would accept donations in cash during backroom meetings while presidential candidates would come nowhere near.
Today, he is donating to candidates at the local, state, and federal level.
"Those backroom meetings don't happen anymore. Now we're in restaurants or hotel penthouses," he said. “The tide has really turned and I think the power of cannabis is going to be a factor in presidential elections going forward.”
Politics of pot: how the US cannabis industry plans to spend big in the 2016 election