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Money, not morals, drives pro & anti-pot movements

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Money, not morals, drives pro & anti-pot movements

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In late November 2012, voters in Washington and Colorado passed ballot initiatives to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use. Coloradans were able to start purchasing recreational marijuana on Jan. 1, 2014. As for Washington, the state issued its first retail marijuana licenses about six months later, on July 7th.

So how has Colorado been doing?

Since the beginning of 2014 though early June, Colorado had reaped nearly $11 million in sales and excise taxes on recreational marijuana, with the total take from both recreational and medical marijuana taxes and fees topping out at nearly $18 million, according to the Denver Post. In the fiscal year that begins in July, Colorado could even see $98 million in marijuana tax revenue according to a recent budget proposal from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

But Colorado is not the only state cashing in on marijuana profits. As of August 2014, 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and 16 have decriminalized it. Of course, along with the arguments for legalizing marijuana — the revenue boost, more effective law enforcement and criminal justice, less money supporting organized crime, and wider access for medicinal use — there are also arguments against it. Marijuana is a drug, and with all drug substances there are side effects — including altered perception, which doesn’t mix well with driving. In an effort to promote safe, recreational cannabis use, Colorado is spending $1 million on television ads reminding users: “Drive High, Get a DUI.” Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that marijuana can negatively affect your brain, lungs, heart, and mental health.

Whatever the health effects, the legalization of cannabis brings a formerly black market into the legal economy and gives rise to a new industry that spends money in Washington to further its interests.

On the other side of the coin…

Legalization of marijuana could take a bite out of a range of other interest groups, many of which already spend big money in Washington. (Caution: In most cases, it’s not possible to identify from lobbying reports whether a client supported or opposed an issue.)

  • Alcohol and Beer Companies. For the alcoholic beverage industry, legalized marijuana would compete for money Americans devote to leisure pursuits. As a result, some alcohol industries are very slowly beginning to lobby against the legalization of bud. For example, back in 2010 one independent distributor of the California Beer and Beverage Distributors gave $10,000 to Public Safety First, a PAC working against California’s Prop 19 which, if passed, would have legalized various marijuana-related activities in the state. At the federal level, these companies assert their heft by pouring millions into lobbying and campaign donations. Since 2009 the Beer, Wine and Liquor industry has spent at least $19.5 million each year on lobbying efforts, most of which have been focused on alcohol taxes and regulations. And in the 2012 campaign cycle, the industry gave nearly $17.8 million to federal candidates, parties and committees.
  • Police Unions. Public Safety First itself, however, is largely funded by a different industry that’s unhappy about the legalization of marijuana: law enforcement. The revenue from waging the war on drugs has become a significant source of financial support for local law enforcement. Federal and state funding of the drug war — as well as the property police forces seize as a part of drug raids — have become significant financial supplements to local forces’ budgets. While these unions exert more influence at the local level (what state or local candidate doesn’t want the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police?), they have a presence in Washington as well. Every year since 2008 the National Fraternal Order of Police has spent at least $220,000 on lobbying efforts; the National Association of Police Organizations, $160,000; the International Union of Police Associations, $80,000; and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, $80,000.
  • Private Prison Corporations. Private prisons are in the business of filling their jails’ beds, and they make millions by incarcerating nonviolent drug users, such as those convicted for marijuana use and possession, along with violent felons and white-collar criminals. The private prison company GEO is particularly successful at this. In its 2012 annual report, GEO noted that it had filled 65,949 out of 73,000 beds in its 96 facilities; on average the company had a facility occupancy rate of 95.7% for 2012. One of the largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, even stated in a regulatory filing that keeping the drug war alive is essential to its success as a business: “[A]ny changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” Since 2008, the Corrections Corporation of America has spent at least $970,000 a year on lobbying, however, in all of its federal lobbying reports it includes a disclaimer that it does not lobby for or against policies that would determine whether an individual is incarcerated. GEO has been less consistent in its lobbying efforts and has spent anywhere between $240,000 to $660,000 a year on lobbying since 2008.
  • Prison Guard Unions. Similar to for-profit prison companies, prison guard unions also have a vested interest in keeping nonviolent drug offenders behind bars. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association for example gave $1 million to the successful 2008 campaign against Proposition 5, which would have “reduce[d] the parole terms of nonviolent [drug] offenders” while emphasizing drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. At the national level, many prison guards are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most politically active labor unions. In the 2012 campaign cycle AFSCME gave more than $13 million to candidates, parties and committees at the federal level. In 2013, AFSCME spent almost $2.7 million on lobbying efforts.
  • Pharmaceutical Corporations. Retired police officer turned anti-drug war lobbyist Howard Wooldridge told the Republic Report in 2012 that one of his biggest opponents on Capitol Hill was the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), given that marijuana can “tak[e] the place of everything from Advil to Vicodin and other expensive pills.” PhRMA is certainly an organization to be reckoned with. In 2013 alone PhRMA spent nearly $18 million on lobbying, ranking it ninth in spending among all lobbying clients. Drug manufacturers gave big in the 2012 elections — nearly $21.8 million to various federal candidates and committees as well as the parties.

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