The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated exclusively to cannabis policy, has had another busy year, not only driving... Illinois Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Allowing Drug as Painkiller Alternative

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated exclusively to cannabis policy, has had another busy year, not only driving reform efforts across the country, but also coming under new leadership.

Earlier this month, the organization hired Steve Hawkins as its new executive director. Hawkins previously served in leadership roles at the NAACP, Amnesty International USA and the national Coalition for Public Safety; he takes the place of Matthew Schweich, who served as MPP’s interim executive director since November. (Schweich will now work as a deputy director to support ballot initiatives to legalize adult-use cannabis in Michigan and medical marijuana in Utah in the November general election.)

MPP has been an advocate for federal cannabis policy reform since its launch in 1995 and has led most of the major state-level reforms, including the successful initiatives to legalize and regulate cannabis for adult use in Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, as well as the successful medical marijuana initiatives in Arizona, Michigan and Montana. The organization also worked on lobbying and grassroots efforts in Vermont leading up to the passage of the first-ever legalization measure through a state legislature earlier this year.

Jeffrey Zucker, founder and president of Colorado-based Green Lion Partners, a cannabis-focused business strategy firm, and vice chair of MPP’s board, says the organization is excited to move forward under Hawkins’ leadership.

“We recently went through a transition period after the founder of the organization left, and we’re really excited to have Steve Hawkins on as our new executive director,” Zucker says. “He brings some incredible experience and energy to the table.”

Here, Zucker discusses what the change in leadership means for MPP, the campaigns and efforts the organization has been working on this year and what comes next.

Cannabis Business Times: What does this change in leadership mean for the organization and its efforts?

Jeffrey Zucker: In general, I think the most exciting thing is to have someone that is invigorated to end cannabis prohibition. That’s what we’ve all been working on all these years, and we’re excited to have Steve on board. Ideally, he’ll invigorate our fundraising efforts, as well.

I think overall, we’re trying to continue the way we have been. We’ve been so successful as an organization since the mid-’90s, and we’re going to continue to focus on making changes at the state level while still being active on the federal level, as well, but the strong focus is on the states.

Right now, we’re very focused on winning in Michigan and Utah in November. We really need legalization in the Midwest to start rolling out. Michigan is a huge opportunity for that, and Utah is a great opportunity to pass some cannabis law in a very socially conservative state. We think that’s one that could have a bit of a trickle effect.

CBT: How has the organization been helping to drive these initiatives in Michigan and Utah, and what other efforts and campaigns has MPP been focused on this year?

JZ: Overall, Utah is a state where we’ve been trying to get a medical program passed for quite a long time, and we’ve been working with local organizations on the ground just to help them be as successful as possible with their cause. …

One aspect of it that’s been difficult is there have been lawsuits that are trying to get the state involved with telling state organizations what stance they should have on this, and the Church of Latter Day Saints has also recently launched an initiative against this medical cannabis campaign. It’s frustrating for us because we lead with compassion in our efforts to bring medical cannabis into these states. So, hopefully we’ll be able to get past what they’re doing and have the resources to really push this thing through.

CBT: What does the organization plan to focus on after the November elections, and what does its 2019-2020 strategy entail?

JZ: We definitely have those concepts, but after the election, we’ll again evaluate the map and decide where our resources can be the most effective. There’s a number of viable states for both medical and adult-use initiatives, and part of that depends on our financial situation—how successful our fundraising efforts are in the coming months.

Nebraska is a state that we’re definitely looking to focus on for medical in 2020. South Carolina, which is my home state—we’ve had a lot of efforts focused there, as well. We’re confident that we can get a good medical program in place in the next couple of years there. South Carolina doesn’t have ballot initiatives, so we’ve been focusing on a legislative effort. In Mississippi, there’s already a lot of effort ongoing on the ground, but that’s one that we’ll likely add some focus to. Big states like Ohio and Arizona are ones that we’ll definitely spend some time on where we expect adult-use to be on the ballot soon.

CBT: What are some factors that MPP takes into consideration when deciding where to put its time and energy? How does the organization select the states and issues that it supports?

JZ: For the most part, we try to be supportive of existing organizations, so we look to see who’s having the most momentum in these states and where we think we can make the most impact, whether that’s from a lobbying effort or whether that’s other context that we have in that state via fundraisers or donors. An important aspect for us is geological areas of the country that we see don’t have a lot of cannabis presence, like the Midwest, for example. … I think it’s tough to pick and choose between states because we want this to be successful everywhere, but states where there are already a lot of boundaries in place or the bill that is being worked on is very oligarchical in structure, like a previous Ohio bill was—we tend to stay away from those. We definitely lean toward creating free markets, as well as markets that give back to the communities that were harmed by the drug war.

CBT: How does MPP raise funds? Do you foresee any challenges in securing funding for these efforts in the months ahead?

JZ: We fundraise from the cannabis industry, as well as political activists and donors—just philanthropists who are interested in this cause. Since the 2016 election where we had so much success in the past, it has been more difficult to raise [funds], whether that’s because some people who are in the industry feel that we’re already on the way and they don’t realize how much work is still to be done, or others in the industry [who] like where they are in this middle ground of being legal in their state but not being legal at the federal level, so they don’t want to donate. Or, just thinking that someone else will get it done—some of the philanthropists see momentum and think that the industry is going to take care of the costs. So, it’s definitely been a little bit more of a struggle than usual since that election.

Right now, we’re having a lot of great discussion with leaders in the cannabis industry and leaders for political change, creating partnerships with other good organizations and doing whatever we can to bring as much as we can into this effort. I think it’s exciting because we’re bringing these opportunities to these new states, but we’re [also] helping patients get access to the medicine that they desperately need, and the most exciting thing for me is to hopefully end some suffering in these states, and that all plays into the fundraising effort.

CBT: What role does education play in MPP’s efforts? Is educating lawmakers and the public a big part of what the organization does, and how does it approach that?

JZ: Education is paramount in terms of getting people into the right mindset where they understand and support our efforts. At MPP, we try to be a destination for education via our website, via our blog [and by] releasing research papers. In terms of directly dealing with the legislators, I’ve been on the ground lobbying with our staff, and I think that is our No. 1 focus in meeting with legislators is giving them any stats that they need in terms of how medical cannabis has affected other markets.

The type of statistics that we’ve seen [indicate that access to medical marijuana] can [lead to], for instance, a 25-percent reduction in opiate overdose deaths within the first year of a medical cannabis program. [We’re] seeing that … percentage continuing to increase over time. We’re definitely big on gathering statistics and educating in any way that we can and really being a resource not only for donors and for legislators, but also just for the public as a whole.

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