Marijuana industry finds new allies among conservatives

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WASHINGTON — Hoping to get marijuana legalized in Nevada, an investment company 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 will spend about $500,000 this year to support legalization of pot.

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 Association, he is a former GOP staffer who for two years worked as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that works with state lawmakers to block health care reform, 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 smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said. And he hasn't 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 expressed annoyance, for example, 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.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., 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."