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Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives

The growing industry is making money and building momentum, driving GOP lobbyists and lawmakers to work with pot advocates.

By Evan Halper

12:57 AM EDT, March 23, 2014

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WASHINGTON — Hoping to get pot legalized in Nevada, an investment firm specializing in the fast-growing marijuana industry invited the ballot initiative's backers to pitch 150 financiers at a Las Vegas symposium.

Within 10 minutes, they raised $150,000.

Political contributors are not the only ones taking notice of the new realities of the marijuana business, said San Francisco-based ArcView Chief Executive Troy Dayton, who estimated his group would pump about $500,000 into pot this year. Officeholders and candidates now jostle for the stage at investor meetings, he said.

"A little more than a year ago, it would have been worthy of a headline if a sitting politician came to talk to a cannabis group," he said. "Now they are calling us, asking to speak at our events."

No clearer example of the change exists than the industry's newest full-time lobbyist, Michael Correia. An advocate for the 300-member National Cannabis Industry Assn., he is a former GOP staffer who worked two years as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that has worked with state lawmakers to block the Affordable Care Act, clean energy incentives and gun restrictions.

"People hear the word 'marijuana' and they think Woodstock, they think tie-dye, they think dreadlocks," the San Diego native said. "It is not. These are legitimate businesses producing revenue, creating jobs. I want to be the face of it. I want to be what Congress sees."

Correia doesn't like to smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said. And he isn't among those who have been in the trenches for years fighting for legalization.

For him, the work is largely about the federal government unnecessarily stifling an industry's growth. Any conservative, he said, should be troubled when companies can't claim tax deductions or keep cash in banks or provide plants for federal medical research.

"I have legitimacy when I walk into these offices and say, 'This is a cause you can get behind,'" Correia said. "I am not the stereotypical marijuana movement person. I grew up supporting these principles of limited government and federalism and fairness and individual liberty. This is the ultimate poster child for all of that."

As pranksters and protesters give way to lobbyists and consultants in pinstriped suits, longtime pot advocates welcome the reinforcements, but sometimes bridle at the bottom-line agenda.

Officials at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, expressed annoyance when some industry players in Maine recently opposed a legalization bill in their state. Full legalization threatened to break the monopoly on pot sales that current medical marijuana sellers enjoy.

"A lot of these companies are just in it for the money, the way any entrepreneur is," said Erik Altieri, a lobbyist with NORML.

Moreover, some marijuana advocates confess, the all-business approach has taken a bit of fun out of the job.

"I used to go to cocktail parties, tell people I was a lobbyist for marijuana, and their minds would be blown," said Dan Riffle, who advocates for the Marijuana Policy Project. "You could see their eyes light up. They would be like, 'Whoa, that is a real job? Tell me more.'"

Now, Riffle said, "I tell people and they are like, 'Oh. OK. I work for the energy sector.'"

But along with a certain staidness comes new partners.

Correia's association, for example, recently formed an alliance with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform. In the fall, Norquist stood at a news conference with a longtime nemesis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the most liberal members of Congress, to promote a measure that would allow marijuana enterprises to deduct business expenses from their taxes.

"Grover's view is government should not pick winners and losers," Correia said. "It is a fairness issue. This resonates with him."

When dozens of owners of cannabis businesses fanned out across the Capitol this month for a day of lobbying, Correia advised them not to dwell on philosophical issues about the war on drugs, but to talk with lawmakers and their staffs about how the federal government was undermining growth of a legitimate industry.

"What Congress wants is more money," said Lev Mallinger, a Pasadena accountant with the firm Bridge West, which represents hundreds of marijuana sellers eager to claim tax deductions. Changing the tax law, he said, "will bring in more money. It encourages more dispensaries to be forthcoming with their financials and pay their taxes."

Now that the industry has legitimate money, politicians would like the favors to go both ways.

The Marijuana Policy Project used to get a request for campaign donations about once a week, Riffle said. Now, "I oftentimes just don't answer the phone when I see a 202 area code because I know it is going to be someone calling asking for money."

Pot lobbyists acknowledged that passage of any of the half a dozen measures they currently support probably remains at least a couple of years away. But the federal government, they believe, can be out of sync with a growing number of states only for so long, and victory is inevitable as soon as the politics of pot catch up with the fast-changing realities.

The Marijuana Policy Project recently purchased a building in Washington's vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood, complete with a rooftop deck. On a recent warm evening, it hosted its first fundraiser there for a Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa.

The next day, Rohrabacher noted the "evil weed" some loiterers had been inhaling outside the building: "They were smoking tobacco," he said.

Rohrabacher is a coauthor of a bill that would require the federal government to defer to state laws that allow marijuana sales.

"If it was a secret ballot," he said, "the majority of my Republican friends would vote for it."

evan.halper@latimes.com