Big Pot Rising: On Capitol Hill, a Full-Time Marijuana Lobbyist Makes his Rounds

Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, does lobbying to build support for the cannabis industry’s issues on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post )

It took Michael Correia more than a week after getting his new job to tell his parents he was a marijuana lobbyist.

“I just got a job lobbying for a small-business trade association that focuses on taxes and banking issues,” he told them four months ago, after being hired by the National Cannabis Industry Association.

He wasn’t lying, but for a guy who had been working for Republicans and conservative organizations for the better part of 16 years, telling his mom and dad about representing Big Pot wasn’t exactly high on his list. It wasn’t the first time he neglected to tell his parents about marijuana in his life. He smoked it about a dozen times as a teenager before deciding that all it did was make him hungry and tired.

“That’s news to me,” says his mother, Joanne, noting that she counseled all three of her children against the dangers of drugs. “If he ever smoked it, I don’t think we were ever aware of it. But if he did he got past it, obviously. Now he doesn’t even drink coffee.”

Unlike his past usage, Correia, 44, didn’t plan on hiding the details of his new job forever. Eventually, Correia let them know he was the first full-time lobbyist on Capitol Hill for the NCIA — essentially the Chamber of Commerce for marijuana. It was true that he was focusing on small businesses; they just happened to have names such as Weedmaps, Chronic Clinic and Haze City.

“When he told us, it never entered our minds, ‘Good grief that’s illegal, immoral or anything,’ ” Joanne says. “He’s not going to do anything that’s not all right. We’re in­cred­ibly proud.”

Standing at 6-foot-4, with a beak of a nose, the remnants of a California tan, a full head of hair, a power-red tie and a black overcoat, Correia, a guy who never saw the inside of a principal’s office growing up, is the new face of marijuana in Washington. Gone are the culture warriors, the fliers of freak flags. They’re not needed here anymore. In 1969, a Gallup poll found that only 12 percent of the country supported legalization of marijuana. Last year, that number was up to 58 percent.

The battle over whether marijuana is a moral turpitude is over. It has been replaced by a series of smaller, professional fights: where it should be legalized, how it should be taxed and how it must be regulated. But add up all those little skirmishes and what you have is a fight for the soul of the marijuana movement.

“I think what we’re seeing now is the transition from the movement to the lobby,” says Mark Kleiman, a University of California Los Angeles professor who moonlights as Washington state’s drug czar. “The hippies are being pushed aside by the suits. That’s too bad, because the interest of the hippies has been consistent with the public view, and the interest of the suits is opposed.”

That’s one way to look at it. The other is that the movement has grown up.

“It’s really a legitimate and respected force now,” says Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and one of the leading voices on marijuana reform in the House of Representatives. “It’s not just true-believer activists running around, getting off message.”

The bottom line

It would be impossible to mistake Correia for a “true believer.” Even today he won’t say whether he supports the legalization of marijuana or not.

“Luckily, I don’t have to get into that argument or discussion,” he says. Correia is a hired gun, someone who understands how things get done in Washington more than he cares about whether people get high.

Born into a family of Democrats, Correia found a different political identity when he went to the University of California at San Diego. After college, he spent nine years working as a Republican staffer on the House Committee on Resources before getting a job leading external outreach to Capitol Hill and the White House as the director of federal affairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that helps draft conservative legislation with financial support from the Koch brothers. Among other things, ALEC has in the past helped write harsh sentencing laws for drug users.

Though Correia was a generalist at ALEC (he worked on issues like Internet taxation and also maintaining alumni relations), he says he had no dealings with their drug policy work. He thus felt no moral qualms about applying for a job with NCIA last year. If you take out the word “marijuana,” Correia’s job sounds incredibly boring. His main job is to convince lawmakers to do two things: change the tax code to lessen the burden on entrepreneurs, and give these small businesses access to banks.

It comes across as small-bore to some marijuana activists.

“We want to switch out the engine, and they just want to make a quarter turn on a screw on the carburetor,” says Allen St. Pierre, the head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “Myself, I’ve always been much more comfortable advocating for civil rights, rather than someone’s bottom line.”

St. Pierre smiles when he says this. A self-described “polemist,” he’s always looking for a fight, but he also knows the major battle has been won.

For proof, St. Pierre picks up a receipt for $73.01 — Super Lemon haze: $22.16; Kool Aid Kush: $22.16; Exit Jar: $0.82; Wana Rolls: $14.77; tax: $13.10. A legal purchase from Terrapin Care Station in Boulder, Colo.

Look around their office and it’s easy to tell that, for NORML, it’s always been about the weed. There’s a he vintage “Acapulco rolling papers” advertisement, a fake potted marijuana plant, a scale with a pot leaf on it, and an old “Reefer Madness” movie poster.

But don’t be fooled, this paraphernalia is no longer a demarcation of the counterculture. Pot is becoming square.

“I pick up the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Forbes,” St. Pierre says, “and they’ve written more about marijuana in the last 18 months than the prior 24 years I’ve been here. And they are writing about it as pure capitalism.”

New set of challenges

NORML has come a long way since Keith Stroup founded the organization with $5,000 in seed money from Playboy back in 1970. Stroup, who currently works as legal council for NORML, says it’s a luxury to nitpick over issues like whether marijuana needs to be stored in a locked box or not. And yet, the shift from movement to industry does come with it’s own set of problems.

“People in the industry are primarily interested in getting rich,” says Stroup, whose long white hair and prominent cheekbones make him look like a composer from the 1600s. “When we were a distance off, you see people as either being for legalization or opposed to it. Those were the sides. Now, it’s not that simple.”

Now there are folks like Kleiman, the Washington state drug czar, who worry that Big Pot could start to look like Big Tobacco; there are medical marijuana groups who worry that recreational usage could cut into their market share; and there are members of Congress who might want to make change but have other forces to deal with.

“I’ve seen plenty of movement among our constituency,” says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who supports a state’s right to legalize marijuana. “It’s the elected Republicans who are still cowering, thinking that if they would support any type of legalization, they would face negatives ads portraying them as pro-drug-cartel.”

Congress tends to lag behind public opinion, but it usually catches up. And in this way, Correia has one of the most exciting jobs in lobbying.

“I used to be able to cycle through my Rolodex in a couple of days,” says the Marijuana Policy Project’s Dan Riffle, the other full-time lobbyist working on marijuana issues on the Hill. “Only a couple of offices were willing to meet. Now it’s fair play in every office.”

Correia has only been on the job for four months, but he already knows this to be true. With more than a dozen years working on the Hill, there are plenty of familiar faces. But no, his Republican colleagues don’t avert their eyes when they see the newest pot lobbyist coming their way.

“After saying congratulations on the new job,” he says, “the first thing they ask me is if I have any samples.”

Big Pot Rising: On Capitol Hill, a Tull-Time Marijuana Lobbyist Makes his Rounds

Article by Ben Terris for the Washington Post