Cannabis industry lobbying in the Colorado state legislature in fiscal years 2010–2021
The cannabis industry has an interest in creating a regulatory environment which maximizes profits at the cost of public health, similar to the tobacco, alcohol, and food industries. This study sought to describe the cannabis industry’s lobbying activities in the Colorado State Legislature over time.
This retrospective observational study analyzed publicly available lobbying expenditures data from fiscal years (FY) 2010–2021. Measures included inflation-adjusted monthly lobbying expenditures by funder and lobbyist, origin of funding, and lobbyist descriptions of cannabis industry clients. This dataset was supplemented with business license documentation, legislative histories, and public testimony.
- The cannabis industry spent over $7 million (inflation adjusted) from FY 2010 – 2021 to lobby the Colorado legislature on 367 bills.
- Over $800,000 (11% of total cannabis spending) was from out-of-state clients.
- In 48% of lobbyist reports lobbyists did not disclose their funder’s cannabis affiliation, and cannabis organizations used strategies that may have obscured the true amount and source of funding.
Lobbyists and agencies concurrently represented the alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis industries, possibly facilitating inter-industry alliances when interests align.
The cannabis industry dedicated significant resources towards lobbying the Colorado State Legislature on behalf of policies intended to increase cannabis use. Creating transparency about the relationships between the cannabis industry, related industries, and policymakers is essential to ensure appropriate regulation of cannabis products.
Commercial determinants of health
Commercial determinants of health research, which studies the commercial drivers of poor health outcomes, has identified mechanisms of influence that the tobacco, food, and alcohol industries employ to promote products in ways that compromise public health. Tobacco, alcohol, and gambling companies, for example, hire lobbyists to influence policy, connect with front groups and allied industries to oppose regulation, and build relationships with policymakers through political donations. Tobacco, alcohol, and food interests orchestrate lobbying across industries and transnationally to promote policies favorable to consumption. The cannabis industry has a similar interest in maximizing profits by creating a favorable regulatory environment.
Links between addiction industries
Cannabis corporations share links with the alcohol and tobacco industries. Tobacco companies Altria (Roberts, 2021), Imperial Brands (Auxly Cannabis Group, Inc., 2019), and British American Tobacco (BAT, 2021), have all made significant investments in cannabis, a long-anticipated development (Barry, Hiilamo & Glantz, 2014). Constellation Brands, maker of Corona beer, has also made investments in Canopy Growth, a Canadian cannabis corporation (Nair, 2020).
Tobacco and alcohol interests have openly formalized a cannabis-focused political association as members of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation, a lobbying group that lists Altria, Constellation Brands, and Molson Coors Beverage Company as members (CPEAR, 2021).
Employing tactics used by the tobacco industry for decades (Crompton, 1993), cannabis companies are also vested in major sports through sponsorship of athletes and leagues in the US (Wise, 2021).
Lobbyists employed by cannabis affiliates represented both that industry and other industries. Although some lobbyists exclusively represented cannabis affiliates, others lobbied for cannabis and the tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical, and gaming industries. This shared representation may have allowed opportunities for inter-industry alliances. Axiom Strategies represented cannabis affiliates including the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, and Folium Biosciences in addition to the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Association, Altria Client Services, Reynolds American, Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Colorado, Alkermes (a biopharmaceutical corporation) and Isle of Capri Casinos. Axiom Strategies’ largest client was HCA Healthcare. Capitol Focus, LLC represented Gold Dome Access, the Marijuana Industry Group, the Colorado Gaming Association, Genetech, Glaxosmithkline, Johnson and Johnson, The Wine Institute, The Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Colorado, the Smoke Free Alternative Trade Association, and JUUL Labs.
Some lobbyists and agencies represented multiple interests whose priorities appeared conflicted. The researchers found 3 examples of lobbyists that represented both cannabis affiliates and health organizations. Gold Dome Access was paid $1,228,259 by the cannabis industry to lobby from FY2010–2021, and also received at least $11,795 from the American Heart Association FY2011–2013 and at least $23,887 from the Colorado Distiller’s Guild from 2016 to 2020. Young Public Affairs represented the cannabis business LivWell while also representing Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. Peak Government Affairs LTD concurrently lobbied on behalf of the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, the American Heart Association, and the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association.
Extent of cannabis industry lobbying spending
Between fiscal years 2010 and 2021, 89 cannabis industry affiliates spent $7,345,585 lobbying the Colorado state legislature.
After legalization in November 2012, annual lobbying expenditures increased by over 13 times, from $108,725 in fiscal year 2010 to a peak of $1,498,096 in fiscal year 2019 (Fig. 1).
Cannabis industry affiliates paid lobbyists to monitor amend, support, or oppose 367 bills between fiscal years 2010–2021. Of these bills, 220 (60%) mentioned the words cannabis, marijuana, or hemp, and dealt with issues related to licensing and physical requirements for cannabis businesses, biomedical research, public safety, product standards, and public education. Examples include support for HB16–1373, which allowed primary caregivers to administer medical cannabis to K-12 public school students and opposition of HB15–1298, which would have prohibited cannabis retailers from advertising to pregnant women and required signage warning pregnant women about the potential risks caused by cannabis use.
Big picture: growing lobby for cannabis consumption and against public health policy
The study findings suggest that after recreational marijuana legalization the cannabis industry expanded its lobbying activities and used tactics comparable to those used by similar industries seeking to promote consumption. The dramatic increase in cannabis industry lobbying expenditures over time mirrored growth of the cannabis industry following recreational legalization in November 2012, which also coincided with an increase in cannabis consumption. Funding originating from out-of-state sources also increased over time, suggesting the development of a national network of cannabis affiliates with similar interests.
Legislators, public health advocates, and community organizers should therefore expect industry resistance to cannabis control measures from local and national sources as well as proactive industry efforts to promote consumption and profits through policymaking channels.
Cannabis lobbying lacked transparency. Colorado lobbyists characterized their clients ambiguously almost half of the time, meaning that cannabis affiliates could only be identified through lengthy investigation. These characterizations resulted in the appearance that many funders supported (or opposed) some proposed legislation, which may have created a false impression of a broad coalition. In reality these interests shared common owners, represented the same professional associations, and used the same lobbyists.
The researchers also found some evidence suggesting that public relations agencies may have hidden cannabis industry funding by paying salaried lobbyists on the behalf of funders without identifying them.
Cannabis affiliates used lobbyists focused solely on cannabis as well as sharing lobbyists with other industries including tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical, and gaming. Like other industries, the cannabis industry is likely to work with these business interests to further their own profits. Using the same tactics employed by these industries, cannabis industry representatives self-reported lobbying positions opposing clean indoor air laws, health warnings for pregnant women, and potency restrictions, while supporting investment, onsite consumption, and access to medical cannabis in schools.
Cannabis industry funding peaked in 2019, which may be related to the change in state governor: Governor Hickenlooper (2011–2019) was moderate on cannabis, vetoing several pro-cannabis bills, while successor Governor Polis had voiced support for the cannabis industry (Polis, 2018) and was publicly supported by cannabis affiliates. The industry may have viewed his first year in office as an opportunity to pass pro-cannabis industry bills, including cannabis hospitality businesses, that had failed in previous years (Eason, 2019; Vendituoli, 2019).
In light of the sophisticated and well-financed influence campaign conducted by the cannabis industry, policymakers should push for stricter separation between the industry and the policymaking process. Frameworks designed to prevent undue influence from other commercial determinants of health including the alcohol, food, and tobacco industries can dampen industry influence by creating firewalls between corporations and policymakers.
Example policies, including the guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (World Health Organization, 2008), the World Health Organization’s Framework for Engagement with Non-State Actors (World Health Organization, 2016), and the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development’s recommendations for preventing policy capture (OECD, 2017), could serve as starting points. These frameworks stand in opposition to the system of private interest institutionalism in Colorado which encourages the inclusion of all stakeholders and prompts regulators to make policies that synthesize stakeholder input.
If formal mechanisms preventing cannabis industry influence in policy are not established, legislators should at least guarantee an equal voice to health advocates through balanced and accessible stake holding processes.
An unintended effect of recreational cannabis legalization was an expansion of industry activities that can compromise public health, including advocacy for policies intended to increase cannabis use.
Research on commercial determinants of health has found that tobacco, alcohol, and food interests have developed multiple tactics to encourage policy changes that encourage consumption, including hiring lobbyists, obscuring industry funding, and building alliances with related industries. The cannabis industry in Colorado began using all these strategies following recreational legalization, and alliances with related industries may have strengthened their coalition.
The expansion of cannabis industry lobbying in Colorado led in at least one case to public health advocates being excluded from the development of policy, and ultimately resulted in the legalization of cannabis consumption establishments that are exempted from clean indoor air laws.
Ensuring appropriate regulation of products that pose a risk to public health requires increased transparency to reveal relationships between cannabis affiliates, related industries, and policymakers, and providing an equal voice to health advocates.