Image of Cheech & Chong
Burgess Everett ~ Politico ~
 
Looking to shake the stoner stereotype, the marijuana industry drops famed smoker Tommy Chong as an activist.
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The marijuana lobby is tired of the “Cheech & Chong” stoner jokes and wants to be taken seriously in Congress.
 
That’s why the National Cannabis Industry Association dropped actor and marijuana activist Tommy Chong from its Capitol Hill lobbying push slated for the end of April. According to an internal email obtained by POLITICO, the cannabis industry wants to move past the stoner stereotypes embodied by Chong as it tries to remake itself as a serious and respectable segment of the economy.
 
In a Monday email sent to Chong’s representatives and allies, NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith said that after deliberations and feedback from “allied members of Congress,” the group decided Chong is not the best representative in stodgy Washington, particularly when it comes to lobbying right-of-center lawmakers.
 
“Having Tommy out in DC for the NCIA Lobby Days will detract from the overall message we aim for with the event, which is that cannabis business people are regular professionals and relatable to the generally conservative members of Congress we are looking to appeal to,” Smith wrote. “We are here to break ‘stoner’ stereotypes rather than reinforce them.”
 
The NCIA was particularly concerned with a recent farcical YouTube video starring Chong that shows him smoking pot in a car, nodding off at the wheel and using a “Tommy Chong’s smokeswipe” to banish the smell of marijuana on his clothing before a meeting with a parole officer.
 
“This was released less than a week ago and only intensifies my previous concern,” Smith wrote. “This sort of message is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do with our efforts to legitimize the industry by showing it in a positive and responsible light.”
 
The email was shared by an anonymous source sympathetic to Chong’s work on a successful 2012 campaign to legalize marijuana in Washington state. The source noted that Chong has served jail time for his role in the pot industry.
 
Pete O’Neil, who runs the C & C Cannabis Company in Seattle, said in an interview he’d dropped his membership from NCIA over the group’s “disrespect” toward Chong and said he’s looking for a new lobbyist.
 
“Maybe there’s a reason marijuana is still illegal. Maybe we don’t have the right guys in D.C.,” O’Neil said. “In a couple of years as we mature as an industry we’ll get better representation in D.C., more professional.”
 
Reached for comment on Tuesday, Chong’s spokesman attempted to downplay the rift.
 
“We do not want to escalate this event in any manner. NCIA made a decision based on their understanding of the landscape along with their goals and objectives for the event,” the spokesman said. “We all want the same thing here and we do not want to cause, or be part of, any ripples in our allied goal.”
 
Taylor West, deputy director for NCIA, said the group still hopes to work with Chong in the future. But members worried that Chong’s celebrity would distract from their goal of meeting with congressional staffers and lawmakers to push the message that “people in this industry just want to be treated fairly.”
 
“When we talked about the possibility of having Tommy there, it just seems like a celebrity distracts from that,” West said. “As soon as you have a celebrity in the orbit … stories about the event are going to be focused on the celebrity.”
 
The NCIA is an increasingly powerful force as recreational marijuana use becomes normalized across the country. Washington state, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have all voted to legalize marijuana, though Congress has stymied efforts in D.C. to set up dispensaries and tax sales. Several more states are expected to vote on legalization referendums in 2016.
 
The NCIA is backing legislation that would loosen restrictions on banking laws that make it difficult for legal dispensaries to conduct financial transactions and would also allow states that have legalized medical marijuana to operate without running afoul of federal law, which currently says there is no legitimate medical use for the drug.
 
As NCIA prepares to engage Congress during its lobbying blitz, it’s clear that the groups’ presence is more acceptable in Congress than it was just a few years ago, especially when it comes to accepting money from the marijuana industry.
 
According to OpenSecrets, NCIA’s political action arm gave $24,500 to Democratic House and Senate candidates during the 2014 election cycle, as well as $500 to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican who’s fought for state autonomy on marijuana law. Smith gave $250 to Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who has introduced legislation that would allow the feds to regulate marijuana.
 
NCIA spent $80,000 on congressional lobbying in 2014, up significantly from the $50,000 total it spent from 2011 to 2013. The group’s members are set to descend on Capitol Hill for a lobbying blitz beginning April 27.
 
West said last year the group met with more than 60 offices on the Hill, and this year’s campaign is expected to improve on that total and bring an array of pot business owners to D.C. But O’Neil said he won’t be among them.
 
”We pulled our membership and I’m not going,” he said. “We’re looking for a good lobbyist.”
 
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