There's a crowd of a few dozen people mingling about the Capitol grounds in dark suits, striped ties, power dresses and sunglasses on a summer-like spring day in the nation's steamy capital. They look like they're ready for a Republican fundraiser, but they're actually marijuana business owners – everything from edible bakers to dispensary owners – from 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. There are no Birkenstocks or marijuana leaves in sight, well except one old hippy draped in a marijuana flag and one U.S. Congressman, Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, rocking a bowtie polka dotted with cannabis leaves.
The congressman is flanked by five of his Democratic colleagues and one Republican who are all here pushing their latest effort to reform the nation's banking laws when it comes to the nation's burgeoning legal marijuana industry, because marijuana is still on the federal books as a Schedule I narcotic, along with the likes of heroin and peyote. These lawmakers have an eager audience. A group of about 250 marijuana business owners have been storming congressional offices this week, trying to convince Republicans and Democrats alike to treat their businesses like every other legal business in the nation: They want access to the banking industry so they don't have to operate as all cash businesses. They also want Section 280E – an obscure section of the tax code that bars cannabis businesses from taking deductions – changed, because it hits them with double and sometimes triple the tax penalty of federally recognized businesses. Democrats from the states that first legalized recreational weed have long championed the effort, but they're now slowly picking up Republican support, too.
"This is an issue of fundamental fairness that legal, licensed, American businesses that are involved in legitimate trade are not allowed to deduct their business expenses. It's fundamentally wrong, it's unfair and it has to change," Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo tells the crowd. "These are the types of businesses that we should be promoting, because they're doing business the right way, under the law, consistent with their state's regulations."
There's lots of cheering and clapping as the lawmakers take turns giving their little pre-packed, though impassioned, speeches. Chelsea Hopkins, who owns a dispensary with her husband in Eugene, Oregon, is standing in back of the lawmakers as they talk. But she's the one with a real story to tell. Because they can't write checks like other businesses, every month she and other marijuana business owners have to personally drive their cash deposits to Salem to pay their tax bill. There are some private security companies who have popped up to make the delivery for them, but that cuts into profits and not every mom and pop cannabis business can afford that.
"Most small business owners are driving $20,000 or $30,000 in cash once a month up to the capital to pay their tax bill," Hopkins tells Rolling Stone. She says she doesn't feel safe having all that money around and that she sometimes gets scared when people eye her when she whips out a fat wad of twenties. This is the 29-year-old's first time coming to Washington to lobby Congress, and she says she's been surprised how receptive lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been.
"Honestly I didn't expect as much welcoming as we've received here. There are a lot of people on our side whether they're Republicans or Democrats. That was definitely a little bit shocking to me," Hopkins says.
The marijuana advocates are also pushing the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017. The bill – which, when introduced at the start of the new Congress, had six Republican and six Democratic cosponsors – would ban the DEA and FBI from enforcing the federal prohibition on weed that’s in conflict with the 29 states and D.C. that have legalized some form of the plant. There's already a law on the books, which Congress reaffirmed last month in their bill to fund the government, that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its resources to prosecute and police marijuana business in most of the states that have legalized weed for medicinal purposes.
But when President Trump signed the massive government funding bill into law, he issued a signing statement that has marijuana advocates worried. "I will treat this provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed," it reads. And the federal prohibition on weed is still the law of the land, even if the majority of voters in most states have rejected that outdated thinking. Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn't seem to mind though.
"I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable," he said earlier this year. "I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana."
That stance has lawmakers in both parties worried that he may go over Congress' head and use the resources of federal government to go after legal marijuana businesses. Democratic Congressman Blumenauer – the one in the marijuana leaf bowtie – says he's concerned, but that he thinks his side is winning the debate both at the local level and, eventually, here in Washington.
"We've had to have legislative intervention even with the Obama administration," he tells Rolling Stone, before offering a quiet warning to the current president. "I think the facts are that last fall more people voted for marijuana, in the nine states that it was on the ballot, than Donald Trump. There were millions of Trump supporters who voted for it. The public, in the most important public opinion polls – at the ballot box – have reaffirmed it." Now he's trying to get the majority of his colleagues to do the same.