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Top Marijuana Advocacy Groups Consider Merging Amid Fundraising Challenges And Leadership Transition

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One of the nation’s leading marijuana reform organizations is undergoing some major changes as it fights to restore a level of funding that has enabled it to help end cannabis criminalization in states across the U.S. And as that philanthropic support has gradually dissipated amid an increasingly challenging political and economic environment, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is now considering a variety of paths forward—including a possible merger with NORML—Marijuana Moment has learned.

MPP hasn’t publicized the fact that its executive director, Toi Hutchinson, recently stepped down and has been temporarily replaced by longtime senior staffer Matthew Schweich. But part of the reason for that silence is because the organization is still reconciling with the restructuring. MPP staffers revealed in interviews that the organization, at least for now, is suspending its ballot campaign arm, meaning it will be exclusively focusing on state legislatures due to financial restraints.

As the organization considers next steps and seeks a permanent executive director, officials have also been engaging in preliminary talks between MPP and NORML about a potential merger, though nothing has been finalized.

MPP was founded in 1995, before any state had even legalized medical cannabis. In the nearly three decades since its founding, the organization has helped put marijuana on the ballot and enacted legalization through diverse legislatures in numerous jurisdictions.

“I do believe that we were victims of our own success,” Schweich told Marijuana Moment. “We’re highly effective. We passed so many laws through so many states and so many ballot initiatives. And people just got used to our success.”

He said MPP is still in “a strong position long-term to maintain its current operations,” and the rationale behind the restructuring “is to ensure that we can operate effectively for years to come.”

“So that’s important to know—but if people want there to be a stronger MPP like we saw in the past, we’re going to need philanthropic donors to return to the fold,” he said. “It is just not sustainable to maintain the type of scale that we should have without philanthropic donors returning to help our costs.”

In the early days of MPP, those philanthropic donors were key to funding often expensive ballot campaigns. As the group put wins on the board—and businesses emerged in a seemingly lucrative new industry—that philanthropic support started to dry up. Schweich said that charitable donors asked the question: shouldn’t operators in the newly legal cannabis industry “step up and fill that gap?”

“In certain situations, that has happened. There are certain cannabis companies that have been tremendous allies over the years in different states at different times,” the MPP interim executive director said. “But for the most part, it’s proving to be very difficult to maintain the scale of MPP with a whole-on ballot initiative team given the fundraising landscape.”

There’s another factor behind the shakeup. While most Americans live in a state where there’s some form of regulated access to cannabis—often thanks to the work of MPP and other advocacy organizations like NORML—grassroots funding to continue their work is not at a sustainable level. And convincing the everyday marijuana consumer that their small-dollar donations could make the difference for people living under prohibition in other states has been challenging.

“It’s one of the hardest positions to be in—when all the people that you need funding and resources from look at everybody else like, ‘Why should I have to do it?'” Hutchinson told Marijuana Moment.

“At the end of the day, we still have an industry that is not as inclusive to Black and brown folks as it should be. We still have people who are living every single day with the remnants of the war on drugs—both on their own personal records and what it did to communities, whole swaths of communities,” she said. “And we have a reality right now where the benefit of stigma coming down is not translating into an increased understanding of how we need to continue this work.”

Hutchinson is no longer executive director of MPP—but she says that its “mission is so wrapped around my heart, there’s no way I could let go of that.” She said she had to make an ethical calculation: continue to take a paycheck to represent the organization, or depart so that the team she admires and previously worked with as an Illinois state legislator fighting for reform could continue its operations, even in a more limited capacity.

In conversations with Marijuana Moment, MPP staff expressed serious appreciation and respect for Hutchinson, who they would like to see come back to lead the group if the currently tumultuous funding conditions allow for it. Hutchinson returned the praise to the team, and emphasized that “the door is never going to be closed for me.”

For now, however, Schweich has found himself in a familiar position—taking the helm of MPP amid a leadership changeup. MPP was founded in the mid-90s by Rob Kampia, a former NORML staffer, but he stepped down in 2017, after which point Schweich took over in an interim executive role for nearly a year before the position was filled by Steve Hawkins. Then Hawkins left in 2021, and the organization hired Hutchinson later that year.

At the same time, Schweich is also leading South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws (SDBML), which is actively signature gathering to put legalization on that red state’s 2024 ballot.

Schweich has repeatedly said that he would not run a full-fledged South Dakota campaign again if he wasn’t sure the funding would be there. That hasn’t changed. If it doesn’t ultimately make sense for MPP to back the campaign, “I’m not making an exception” for the state, he said. Marijuana reform will be further delayed in South Dakota without the right financing—and that’s just one example of the plight that states across the country that continue to live under prohibition could face if the top national cannabis group doesn’t find a way to restore adequate funding.

“It’s really a shame that we’re no longer able to play a leading role in initiatives,” Karen O’Keefe, MPP”s director of state polices who focuses on state legislatures, told Marijuana Moment. “There are states where cannabis consumers will have to suffer under prohibition for a decade or more longer probably because there’s just not the funding there to get voters there, per se.”

“By not having the funding to put this issue on the ballot, it delays progress in those states considerably,” she said. “And it also doesn’t have that message [to state legislatures]—especially in this high turnout election year, when we would presumably see a lot better results that can help spur quicker action in all of their neighboring states and in Congress.”

“So you know, our team, as a state legislative team, we know how to stretch a dollar. It’s much cheaper to do state legislation. But frankly, there are only so many states where it’s ripe,” she said. “It takes time to build the support for states.”

The situation at present is not ideal for reform advocates. Supporters are excited about the prospects of congressional reform on marijuana banking. There are hopes for federal rescheduling after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). But the ability of groups like MPP to do the hard work of changing policy at the state level is being undermined, and the organization is unsure how to effectively communicate to its base and consumers in legal states the necessity of stepping up.

“The need for direct grassroots involvement at the consumer level is critical,” Hutchinson said. “But breaking through the noise to tap into that possibility is harder than ever.”

“How do you get the point across?” she said. “The need for grassroots consumers is significant. And you want to balance that with, ‘Yes, you want money from industry. Yes, you want the industry to step up and invest in advocacy change,’ because that’s what created them in the first place.”

But as the industry is increasingly consolidated—with businesses struggling against their own challenges such as major barriers to financial services like banking and capital under federal prohibition, along with the 280E tax penalty—part of the problem is that even much of the marijuana market is finding itself financially strained. And MPP recognizes that.

The stakes are high, but the organization has also made clear that the difficult decisions it’s made are strategic. They’re meant to ensure that MPP not only survives the current tumult, but continues to secure wins with its limited resources.

In addition to Hutchinson, at least two key MPP staffers have recently left. Jared Moffat used to serve as state campaigns manager at the organization. And while part of the reasoning was that he wanted to focus on his separate work with New Approach enacting psychedelics reform in states like California and Massachusetts, he also acknowledges that “the ballot initiative landscape for MPP and the broader movement has changed.”

“I think that’s the reality is that we used to be in a position where we were able to raise resources and basically run campaigns—and nowadays that’s changed a lot,” Moffat told Marijuana Moment. “I think there was a lot of discussion around my role and whether the sort of ballot initiative work could continue the way it has. So in that way, I felt like it was not disruptive for me to leave MPP because the ballot landscape has changed.”

DeVaughn Ward also recently departed the organization after three years serving as senior legislative counsel.

Sal Pace, chair of MPP’s board of directors, told Marijuana Moment that the organization’s changeup is about intentionally moving resources “from the initiative team to the legislative team,” though he noted they are actively playing a “supportive role” in a ballot campaign to legalize marijuana in Ohio, where voters will decide on the reform next month.

Pace said it’s still possible that MPP may “decide to devote resources to initiatives in 2024 if the right situation arises,” but for the time being, “we have moved staff resources from initiatives into legislative work.”

“MPP has always been a pragmatic organization, funded fairly evenly from philanthropists, small donors and the industry. We’re still a multi-million dollar entity, but with the challenges that the industry has faced in recent years, we’ve seen industry support slip,” he said. “Just like any well-run business, we are moving around resources to ensure they do the most good. This will turn around eventually (eliminating the burdens of 280E with a rescheduling will help); and we will be a stronger and more efficient organization because of it.”

The possibility of an MPP and NORML merger

There’s also an elephant in the room, although it’s unclear just how big it is: Marijuana Moment has learned about talks between MPP and the nation’s other leading cannabis reform group NORML about a potential merger.

These conversations have largely happened at the board level, and MPP officials have stressed that these talks are “preliminary.”

“We are having very early discussions with NORML about various ways that we might partner with them to achieve our mutual cannabis reform goals,” Pace said. “We’re considering many options for potential collaboration, but there’s nothing new to share right now.”

On the one hand, combining the grassroots, consumer-focused appeal and sizable email list of NORML with the buttoned-up, politically connected approach that MPP specializes in could serve both groups well. But on the other hand, the simple fact that these talks have happened at all to some extent underscores the reality that the nonprofit marijuana policy reform sector is not what it used to be. All advocacy work is suffering in the new environment. NORML itself has not filled a vacant executive director position left by Erik Altieri in March as that group decides who should lead it through the dense policy terrain.

“The discussions are a preliminary stage,” MPP’s Schweich said. “And they are discussions related to a possible merger—but also deeper collaboration. And given the fundraising landscape of the cannabis reform community, I think it’s prudent for the boards to be having those conversations. But they’re still very early on in that process.”

Members of the NORML board of directors declined to comment on the record for this story.

While MPP and NORML staff have historically had a productive and collaborative relationship, Kampia’s transition from NORML staff to MPP founder was marked by controversy and resulting tension between leadership.

Meanwhile, Hawkins also led the largely industry-focused U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC) at the same time he helmed MPP, and there were some concerns about whether the organizational overlap was undermining MPP as both groups worked to achieve similar, but not always identical, goals.

Hutchinson, for recently departed MPP executive director, stressed that “we need people to understand that we still need all hands on deck.”

“We still need engagement. We still we need grassroots donors, small donors, philanthropic donors, industry folks, people who are trying to get in the industry,” she said. “We need people to understand that there are still markets to open. There are still laws to change. There’s still lots to say. Cannabis is nowhere near done.”


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