The U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC)—a coalition of marijuana industry stakeholders and advocacy groups—has named a new executive director and made additional changes to leadership as it works to navigate cannabis reform under a divided Congress, the group told Marijuana Moment exclusively ahead of a formal announcement on Thursday.
Edward Conklin, who’s served as vice chair of USCC’s board and previously worked as the head lobbyist for the cannabis company Curaleaf, will lead the advocacy organization as executive director. Conklin will replace interim CEO Khadijah Tribble, who stood in after the organization’s founding executive director Steve Hawkins left last year.
Jessica Billingsley, chair of USCC’s board and CEO of Akerna, said that Conklin “has the kind of high-stakes, government affairs experience required to advance cannabis reform in Washington,” adding that she’s “worked alongside him for years” and believes that he’s “uniquely positioned to take the helm.”
Canopy CEO David Klein, Curaleaf Vice President of Government Relations Matt Harrell and representatives of the cannabis businesses GTI and Verano are joining the board. Former Colorado Rep. Dan Pabon (D) will take over as vice chair.
David Culver, who formerly worked as head of government relations for the international marijuana company Canopy, will now serve as USCC’s head of policy, replacing Bo Bryant, who recently retired.
Culver—who hosted an interview series called “Under the Canopy” in his prior role, featuring top congressional lawmakers and industry players—told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that he’s optimistic about the prospects for reform this session, though he said it will be largely contingent on advocacy groups and trade associations becoming more strongly aligned on shared goals.
“We’ve seen a lot of joint efforts between the trade associations already. I think we’re going to see more of that,” Culver said. “I think all of the advocates that are in the cannabis space right now, working the important issues on Capitol Hill, are really rowing in the same direction. And that’s a good thing. That’s something that’s really critical for us to be successful.”
One of the key challenges for USCC—which was formed in 2021—and other advocacy groups in the 118th Congress is building bipartisan consensus around legislation that stands a chance of advancing through the divided Congress, with Republicans in control of the House.
Culver said that it’s important to take lessons from the failure to pass significant reform proposals during the last Congress, when Democrats controlled both chambers.
“It was a disappointment,” he said. “We went into it—everybody in cannabis space—thinking that we were going to get a number of things accomplished, and we didn’t. It was difficult. It was really hard at the end of December last year.”
“But going into 2023, even though there is a divided Congress, I get out of bed every morning incredibly optimistic about the possibilities for reform measures,” he said. “And I think that one of the big changes in terms of the strategy is the introduction of various packages in the Senate, and letting the Senate lead on this.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other lawmakers similarly offered an optimistic outlook on what’s achievable on the cannabis front this year during speeches at a 4/20 event at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Schumer pledged to “work like hell” to advance reform, announcing plans to refile his comprehensive federal legalization bill while continuing work on a package of more modest cannabis legislation.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the so-called SAFE Plus package of cannabis banking and expungements legislation, acknowledging that failure to advance a financial fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.”
Culver said that, in his view, a standalone Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which was reintroduced in both chambers on Wednesday, is passable in the current Congress. And while he’d prefer comprehensive legalization, he argued that it’s imperative for advocates to unite around incremental reform that is achievable and then build from there.
Despite the bipartisan support for SAFE Banking and Democratic majorities last session, “there was still discomfort” around equity-centered provisions that were being proposed as part of the SAFE Plus package last year, he said.
A series of House marijuana bills have been filed in recent weeks, including bipartisan proposals to incentive state and local cannabis expungements, allow marijuana businesses to take federal tax deductions, protect the Second Amendment right of cannabis consumers and create a Justice Department commission to prepare the federal government for eventual legalization.
“We’re enthusiastic that [SAFE Banking] will be amended at some point before passage in the Senate in a way that can really address some of the other major issues that USCC has been focused on—like expungements and access for veterans and preparing for that ultimate federal regulatory structure,” Culver said.
But the push for reform isn’t just about convincing more lawmakers to get on board. The new USCC executives and board members will also need to find common ground with advocates who are increasingly concerned about the role of multi-state operators (MSOs) and the corporate consolidation in the industry.
“This has been a concern that I’ve heard for many years,” Culver said. “We have been dealt a hand, politically this year, which is going to focus on incremental reform most likely.”
“I think that that incremental reform is actually going to be very significant in terms of helping the MSOs, small operators, minority owned operators—in fact, I know it will,” he said. “Many of these operators are hanging on by a thread simply because they don’t have access to capital.”
The SAFE Banking Act “is going to be transformative for so many of these these small businesses and the equity licensees that are across the country,” Culver added. “We intended this group to be a broad tent organization. That’s still the intention.”
Yet another challenge for the advocacy coalition will be striking the right balance of supporting federal reform efforts and state-level cannabis initiatives. Culver said that, if he has it his way, there will be a “full state government relations program within USCC” to advance state reform at the same time that the organization works to build consensus around cannabis legislation in Congress.
“This is what many of the successful trade associations in Washington do,” he said, “and I think we need to replicate that. But it’s going to come down to resources.”
USCC’s Billingsley said in a press release that the organization is “gaining vital new members and talent.”
“We are bullish on achieving meaningful reform this year and will work relentlessly to end federal prohibition and promote restorative justice for impacted communities,” she said. “On behalf of USCC and its members, I want to extend my gratitude to Khadijah Tribble and Bo Bryant for their commitment and contributions to USCC and to Edward Conklin and David Culver for their hard work and achievements yet to come.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
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