“There are dozens of unanswered questions at this point,” said Andrew Freedman, executive director of the coalition and Colorado’s former cannabis czar. ”Any one of which is enough to make anybody pause before they go forward with legalization. So we need to answer, definitively, all of these outstanding questions.”
There are now 16 states that have enacted full marijuana legalization, while 36 have legal medical markets. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has embraced marijuana legalization, calling it a priority for this Congress. Meanwhile, the industry is booming — legal sales topped $20 billion last year, according to New Frontier Data, a 50 percent jump over 2019.
The coalition’s current makeup: The coalition includes tobacco giant Altria, beer behemoths Constellation Brands (Corona, Modelo) and Molson Coors Beverage Company, two national convenience store associations, the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, and The Brink’s Company.
Many of these companies already have big stakes in the cannabis industry and stand to profit from federal policy changes. Constellation owns 39 percent of major Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth Corp. Altria purchased a $1.8 billion stake in cannabis company Cronos Group in 2018 and lobbied for Virginia’s recently passed marijuana legalization bill. In addition, Constellation and Molson Coors both produce CBD-infused beverages. Brink’s provides security for the massive amount of cash that passes through the legal cannabis industry thanks to a lack of banking access.
The coalition also has a “Center of Excellence” made up of experts including cannabis entrepreneur and former president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association Shanita Penny, Staci Gruber of McLean Hospital and Harvard University, Brandy Axdahl of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, and John Hudak of the Brookings Institution.
The balancing act: The new coalition is balancing two sides: large corporations with a vested interest in cannabis policies and regulations, and experts who may not believe the industry’s approach is the best way to protect the health of Americans or to allow equal access to the burgeoning market.
“Our experts … all came on specifically with the understanding that they will not be editorialized,” said Freedman, adding that major business players should also be part of the regulatory process. “Where possible, we’re going to consensus build. But when there is significant divergence [on an issue], we’re going to be transparent about that significant divergence.”
Penny said she accepted the invitation to join because it gives her a stronger platform to influence policy. She hopes it will be a forum where groups that often are not part of the legalization debate can discuss the parts of cannabis policy they feel strongly about, like youth access or criminal justice reform.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had over the last several years has been breaking through to the leaders of the black community — whether we’re talking about clergy, whether we’re talking about our elected officials,” Penny said. “If we have a chance to hear from these leaders, and absolutely take into account what hasn’t been heard over the years, I think we’re going to make some significant progress.”