In late September, two California cannabis entrepreneurs received the impromptu invitation from 48th District Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to catch a red-eye to Washington, D.C., and advocate for their industry in front of some of the nation’s most politically powerful people.
Over the next 48 hours, Brad McLaughlin of BudTrader — a Craigslist-style site for cannabis-specific exchanges — and Jason Beck — owner of southern California’s first medical dispensary in West Hollywood — discussed the industry’s present and possible futures with other congressional lawmakers and presidential cabinet members in private meetings, as well as at a National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) fundraiser attended by the President himself.
Shortly thereafter came Congressman Rohrabacher’s tentative confirmation via social media that these meetings might yield legislative action on medical cannabis “as soon as 2019,” potentially marking a major shift in the current administration’s previously-hostile stance towards cannabis and legalized states.
DOPE had the chance to speak with McLaughlin — who considers himself a Libertarian and has donated to Congressmen Rohrabacher in the past — before he and Beck embarked on their second advocacy trip to D.C., in a lengthy conversation touching upon everything from the divide between legal and non-legal states to his reservations about the impending progress on federal cannabis policy.
DOPE Magazine: Hi Brad, how’s it going?
Brad McLaughlin: Good! Sorry I missed your call, I was on the other line with Congressman Rohrabacher’s chief of staff. We’re gonna go out to Washington, D.C., one more time before the end of the month, try to see if we can finalize this deal or get something done.
Sounds great. And how’d you first get in contact with Congressman Rohrabacher?
It was when we first started BudTrader, I learned about him and that he’d been advocating for us since 2003, back when it was super unpopular to advocate for cannabis. Myself and a lot of other people in the industry saw him as one of the only politicians that’s really our ally or cares about cannabis legalization. So I started meeting with him and getting along better, just wanted to see that his intentions are pure, because I normally have a distrust for politicians or super-rich guys — same category. [Laughs]. I’m a tech guy, computer scientist, so we always feel like Wall Street and those big money guys cause a lot of the problems.
From there, I continued working with him and kept running into him at charity events. Then I talked him into giving a speech at our BudTrader Ball in April, on 4/20. Last year was our best year — Dana came and gave a speech, the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, came, the mayor of Santa Monica … That was when I feel like we got a little bit closer — that’s when we really spent some time together, and the relationship kind of formalized. We stayed in touch, and when I got the call to go back with him, he called and said, “Brad, you need come to Washington, D.C. — your country needs you.”
And how can you deny when it’s put in those terms?
I know, right? I felt like Jason Bourne. But he told me he asked Jason Beck [owner of California’s oldest dispensary in West Hollywood] and myself to kind of tag-team these lawmakers together, so I was comfortable right away, because I’ve worked with Jason before and he really knows his stuff and presents well.
I was on a red-eye that night to D.C., and I landed like at 7 a.m. on Sept. 27. Then by 9:30, Dana’s campaign manager came and got me at the Trump Hotel. Congress was in session, so while Dana would go off to work on his committees, I would go with his chief of staff to meetings, and he teed it up for two days — we talked to everyone. Not just Republican leaders, but Democrats, as well; people from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy … It was two full days of talking about cannabis, defending it, overcoming the same arguments we always hear.
It was super last-minute and unexpected, but I feel like I had to do something. I believe in this thing, I believe in cannabis. You know, my business cards are made out of hemp paper! People forget — especially here in California — that almost half of the country still lives in a prohibited state. I know the reason weed’s so popular is because it works, and it’s like, there are people who need relief sharing the tiniest remnants of a joint.
And what were the arguments you made that most surprised these lawmakers who were still skeptical about cannabis?
Every elected official had something different that they wanted, or something that was their hot-button that would get them to move, or wake them up. It became a task of figuring out what it was — some of them were interested in the tax revenue. For some, it was just getting over reefer madness; one guy said that everyone who smokes cannabis becomes hopelessly addicted to heroin for the rest of their life. I was like, “Sir, I’m sorry — you are wrong.”
One of the things I did too was — Marijuana Business Daily always has great graphs and surveys, and I had those teed up, so I’d show them studies done on states that legalized cannabis, and you know, there’s a drop in overdoses, in DUIs, in emergency room visits for drugs … Just because people are using cannabis to get relief instead of these other drugs, so there’s a direct correlation between legal cannabis and less drug abuse, lower crime rates, etc.
Some of the other politicians, their hot-button issue was when I’d tell them: we’re gonna be as big as cigarettes by 2020. Do you really want to alienate an industry bigger than tobacco? Imagine an industry bigger than them that you’re dismissing. I talked to both sides about that argument, Democrat and Republican — do you guys want to be on the right side of history? Over 90 percent of the population is okay with medical cannabis, so why don’t we have that? If the Feds do something as far as making medical cannabis legal, which is kind of what they indicated they want to do, that is not a polarizing issue that anyone’s gonna take flak for.
“One guy said that everyone who smokes cannabis becomes hopelessly addicted to heroin for the rest of their life. I was like, “Sir, I’m sorry — you are wrong.”
Some of the lawmakers, too, I’d tell them, “Listen, you seem like a realistic person, and this is happening. You may not want it or your politics may not agree with it, but it’s happening. So at least do roll it out right in your state. Trying to punt or wait till the next election is no longer gonna be effective. In California, a lot of cities and counties got to punt ‘til next year, and they’re going to get beat up by their constituents who want more dispensaries. It’s happening, and you have to realize that.” And every one of them was like, “We do realize it’s happening.” They were all at least realistic to know it’s happening, and those kinds of comments came from super-conservative states, like Utah.
Some of the elected officials I had to motivate by saying, “You know, Canada’s kicking our ass.” They’re at least five to 10 years ahead of our industry here just because they’ve embraced it, as opposed to what we’re doing with one foot in and one foot out. Being in limbo is not helping our industry. For the U.S. economy, I think with total legalization we’d see the amount of money pouring into Canada from all over the world come here instead of there. That was a way to convince a lot of these lawmakers, especially from states like Texas, where they don’t necessarily need the money and their constituents want it, so they’re punting. When I told them we’re getting our ass kicked by Canada, that could be enough to get them out of their chair, like, “Wait a second — America doesn’t lose to anybody.”
It became almost a marketing or branding mission to figure out what they cared about most, and trying to appeal to that.