“Greatest Challenge Is the Purchase of Policy”—Marijuana Lobbyist Bows Out

    At Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, in January, Justin Strekal fought back tears, reflecting on the storied congressional cannabis lobbying career he was leaving behind to tend to his family back in Ohio.

    The day before, Strekal was doing what he’s become best known for: sitting in a wood-paneled room advocating for marijuana reform on Capitol Hill—informing legislative staff about the complex dynamics of the issue in hopes that the message might eventually translate into meaningful action in Congress.

    But when he left that informational session, he carried the weight of a secret he’d only disclosed to a small group of sources and confidants. That meeting would be the last of its kind for him. Strekal was hanging up his hat and returning to Cleveland indefinitely, in large part so that he could fully commit to serving as caretaker for his ailing grandfather.

    As he walked away from the congressional staff briefing on his last official day of duty, Strekal spotted Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) passing by on the opposite side of the street. “Thanks for all you do, Bernie,” he called out to him, “and please keep up the fight!”

    The senator pivoted, waved and replied, “I will—and you too!”

    It was a bittersweet moment, but one that underscored what Strekal has come to represent to the movement in Congress. The senior Vermont senator, widely known for his work to end federal marijuana prohibition, recognized the bespectacled advocate as an ally who still had work to do himself. Yet only one of them would be returning to the job.

    As he departs, he worries that the federal cannabis debate is at risk of being seized by the well-resourced representatives of Big Business.

    What makes Strekal especially relevant to today’s cannabis policy debate is his ability to navigate thorny politics, always careful to balance his advocacy for equity-centered reform with the realities of what’s achievable in Congress. He’s honed that strategy over nearly a decade, where he’s held titles including political director for NORML and later as founder of his own political action committee, the BOWL PAC.

    As he departs, he worries that the federal cannabis debate is at risk of being seized and possibly won by the well-resourced representatives of Big Business who would be content, for example, to see cannabis industry access to stock exchanges enacted first, without due deference to the needs of communities that have endured generations of harm under criminalization.

    But Strekal says he still has hope for the movement and the colleagues who remain in the fight. “Rebellions are built on hope,” he said, quoting the “great philosopher-warrior” Cassian Andor from Star Wars: Rouge One.

    Even so, with the prospect of federal marijuana rescheduling looming—in addition to the lingering possibility of another Senate push for cannabis banking reform—Strekal is leaving cannabis advocacy at an inflection point. And as many who’ve worked with him have commented since he announced his departure, the movement will feel that loss, even as it presses forward with rebellion.

    “As long as there are still people who are carrying the torch, there is always going to be hope that things can be improved,” Strekal said. “That doesn’t mean they will—but there’s always hope.”

    Strekal spoke to Marijuana Moment in late January about his career in cannabis advocacy, his advice to the next generation of activists and more. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


    Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become involved in the cannabis reform movement in the first place?

    Justin Strekal: I’m gonna give you two separate answers. The first one is the answer you’re looking for, which is it was a happy accident that I found myself working on [Virginia Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin’s] congressional campaign in 2014 and, through that experience, built a strong rapport with the state senator and got to know the local activists with NORML, talking about federal marijuana policy.

    Ebbin, who had always been philosophically supportive of marijuana policy reform, but had never substantively engaged with it as a legislator, committed after the campaign to introduce a decriminalization bill to the state Senate. He subsequently hired me to be his legislative aide, so it was on me to help draft that initial bill that was introduced and it was the first bill to decrim in the upper chamber in the Commonwealth. That experience, you know, I learned a lot and I was fascinated about the intersections of where this policy is. That led me to say “yes” when recruited to join NORML a couple years later as their political director, because it was something that I thought that I could lend my perspective and my tenacity to do good.

    My second answer to that is, I sold weed when I was young. You know, nothing weight—the most I ever moved was a [quarter pound] in a week, right? And that was during college, but it was partially out of the desire to be able to consume for free, as a person growing up generously described as lower middle-class. And later—

    “I used that money to be able to cover my cost of living while I did unpaid political internships. So weed brought me here.”


    Do you mean to say you got high on your own supply?

    [Laughing] Exactly. I had very regimented portions every time I’d re-up, I’m like, “Okay, this little bit is mine and this I sell,” but yeah, it was my own supply.

    I think I was very fortunate that I was in a position where I could pay all of my bills through my job, and I saved all of the money that I made from selling pot and I saved up approximately $30,000 as a teenager selling weed. I used that money to be able to cover my cost of living while I did unpaid political internships. So weed brought me here. I would not have otherwise been able to do unpaid political internships, coming from a family that was not willing or not able to financially support my desire to get into politics.


    For readers who aren’t familiar with you or your background around this issue, what does an average workday look like for a federal marijuana lobbyist?

    I was at NORML for over five years, where I had the great privilege to be the pot smoker’s lobbyist. And I took that responsibly, at times, maybe too seriously. The totality of harm that is inflicted as a result of criminalization, of prohibition, is staggering. And during my tenure, the number of full-time nonprofit cannabis reform advocates dwindled. We saw [Marijuana Policy Project] go from having two full-time people to zero. We saw Americans for Safe Access go from having a full-time person to not. [The Drug Policy Alliance] has maintained having two people and now actually they have a full-time contractor.

    There’s just so much to do, and at NORML, the organization just never had leadership who was willing to go out and raise the money to build the organization to be a little bit stronger. And I think that it’s a shame that they they are currently seemingly rudderless and ill-equipped to meet the moment. When I was there, there were eight staff. Today there are three. They haven’t had a chapter director to support activists around the country since 2018.

    While I was there, I split my time trying to be a resource for activists all around the country—which ranged from providing comments and support for their legislative efforts that they’re working on to being a resource providing how-to guides, things like lobbying, organizing lobby days and advocacy meetings, to even just being a thoughtful ear that they can bounce ideas off like a quasi-therapist. That’s an incredibly necessary support structure for activists, and unfortunately that’s one that currently absolutely nobody is providing from a national perspective and it’s profoundly sad.

    Then my federal lobbying duties, I would regularly be scheduling meetings with different offices. It would ebb and flow from broad-based organizing such as putting together a briefing, trying to develop a compelling narrative and speakers, wiring every single congressional office twice, seeing who shows up, getting the list of those who showed up and then doing follow-ups with the offices that I didn’t already have a relationship with. To the slow, boring [work] of painstakingly engaging with legislative sponsors and other stakeholders, negotiating the verbiage of a half of a clause. There’s so much behind the scenes, and it’s my hope that, after my departure, more advocates will somehow find a way to send resourced, tenacious, brilliant individuals to DC to continue to engage in the battlefield and take up more space … and that I don’t leave a vacuum.

    “I’m deeply troubled at the prospect of stock market access before the end of prohibition.”


    For that next generation of advocates, what challenges do you think they’ll face and what advice might you offer them?

    The greatest challenge is the purchase of policy. The number of times I was offered financial support in exchange for buying my position on regulatory policy that would support either existing large operators exclusively, or somehow disproportionately benefit the larger operators and not the smaller operators—particularly in regards to the ability to access stock markets and other securities listings. That is something I’ve raised the alarm about in the past.

    You know, legislation has been put forward known as the CLIMB Act [which would grant cannabis business access to major US public stock exchanges without legalizing cannabis]. My personal response to that is, you can climb over my dead body. I’m deeply troubled at the prospect of stock market access before the end of prohibition. That’s my biggest troubling concern—the idea of legalizing the money before the people, the consumer and the small business.


    Does that concern stem from your sense that we may be on that pathway right now?

    I absolutely am concerned and I would not bring it up to you if I was not. I would not be saying it in my exit interview, ringing that alarm bell. No, I truly am concerned. I mean, I was willing to lobby for the SAFE Banking Act, because that as a standalone industry measure seemed modest enough, and I felt that with great integrity I could say that this would more level the playing field for emerging cannabis businesses. That is absolutely not the case with stock market listings and securities listings.

    And there’s a lot of people who I believe, at the end of the day, are good people who are espousing this horrible policy and it profoundly saddens me. I hope that those who are espousing it, who have the capacity, will see the error in their ways and reverse course. And I hope that those who are espousing it with their ill intentions of hoping to corner the market as quickly as possible before it’s even federally legal, I hope they fail. I hope they fail, and I hope nothing but bad things happen to them.

    “I think there’s a very real possibility we could be five years away from federal legalization for the next 15 years.”


    What about any advice you’d give your succeeding advocates?

    Really the advice I would give to activists all the time is do not set yourself up for failure. Do not try and take on more than you are in a position to take on at once, because that will just lead to burnout very quickly, and then you’re not doing anybody any good. You know, be very thoughtful with what you engage in, and work to build the networks of solidarity with those who are already experts and well-established and well-positioned in the space to be able to collectively lift one another up.

    I think that the Marijuana Justice Coalition is a terrific example for groups that are on the quote-unquote left, and to engage where they have a really broad swath of organizations on there. Very few of them have full-time lobbyists working on the issue, but that provides a forum for them to all come together and uplift each other. On the quote-unquote, right, there’s the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, who I’d love to see be able to be more effective in the future to engage with Republican offices, to get them to supporting the the outright end of criminalization and focused on the underlying criminal justice reform issues. I appreciate their thoughtful leadership on on the reparative justice, criminal-legal reforms.

    Just don’t set yourself up for failure. This battle will continue. One of the most common utterances I’ve heard in my nearly 10 years has been, “Oh, we’re like five years away from legalization,” and I think there’s a very real possibility we could be five years away for the next 15 years. There’s a very real possibility that the American republic could fall before prohibition does.


    Why do you think it is that this issue has proved so difficult to advance in Congress, even with a majority of states having legalized in some form and the public clearly supportive of reform?

    Our reform movement’s biggest enemy is apathy. I’ve heard a lot of really wonderful people I agree with on many, many things, about a number of other theories as to why they think we haven’t won yet. For me, it’s apathy. In Washington, DC, the most precious resource is attention—and that is why moneyed interests so thoroughly dominate the debate in the halls of Congress and the administration, because the moneyed interests have the ability to retain lobbyists who have networks of relationships to be able to capture the attention. It’s not the money by itself, right? It’s the money in conjunction with strategy.

    Now we’re meeting a moment where we’re seeing other aspects of the American economy taking notice on cannabis and the spigots are starting to open, if you will. I tried to do what I could in the time that I served, to acknowledge that I can’t prevent those spigots from turning on, but directing them in as constructive of a way as possible and one that promotes the most harm reduction in lieu of being able to promote justice.

    I think that as drug policy advocates, a lot of us use the term harm reduction all the time, thinking about it on the individual level and consumption of substances. But I think that that also needs to be applied more often to our thinking about federal public policy, because there are going to be harms associated with us getting what we want and we should be as thoughtful as possible to mitigate those harms while, within reason, not preventing reforms that do good things as well. That’s the tension, right?


    Can you explain the importance of NORML and the unique need for the organization to be effective in its mission?

    Just as the most important commodity on Capitol Hill is attention, the most important foundational aspect for any organization is brand recognition. And NORML has a monopoly on that in marijuana reform. Period.

    That is due to the tenacious efforts of generations of activists and advocates and just earnest fucking citizens who had the audacity to say, “Hey, I like to smoke pot or I love somebody who smokes pot. I don’t think that I/they should be a criminal.” I am jealous of the fearlessness that the advocates who carried the banner back, back when it only had 12 percent support amongst the public when NORML was founded. I’m jealous of their bravery. I wish I could say that I would have done the same at the time. I do not believe I would have.

    So out of respect to all of those who have come before, and those who are still in the trenches today, either carrying the NORML banner or engaging in marijuana policy reform, maybe not with the NORML banner because they had concerns about the organization, and in respect to that whole spectrum, it’s my sincere hope that the organization starts to do better. I worked very, very hard with wonderful people who I did not always agree with, but we worked to advance the organization—but unfortunately, my understanding is it’s never really had leadership who was willing to go out there to raise the money that we needed to have a full complement of staff to engage in the totality of work that it found itself in at the moment.

    “Biden is hamstrung by his personal worldview, which is drugs are bad, and his ownership over increasing criminal penalties—nobody ever likes to say ‘I was wrong.'”


    How would you grade President Joe Biden on marijuana policy during his first term so far? How many points should he get for granting thousands of pardons and directing a scheduling review?

    President Biden needs to be graded on the curve—and that curve is his experience from being a champion of increasing criminal penalties [as a senator] to now seeing some things we like, but doing very small things that we acknowledge were positive. I would give him a C+. There’s still a long way to go, but he’s being graded on a curve for sure. Now, if we were talking about President Cory Booker and he had the same record, I would be giving President Booker a C-, if this was based on their  history and their problems and their promises. During President Bernie Sanders, I would give him—he would have done better.

    Statecraft is hard and more complicated than our political ecosystem permits us to discuss. That’s what’s so hard, and I think President Biden finds himself in that position, right? He is hamstrung by his personal worldview, which is drugs are bad, and his ownership over increasing criminal penalties—nobody ever likes to say “I was wrong,” including President Biden. But no, I think if nothing else, he will go down in history as the first president to do something positively forward-looking. Prior to him, it was just the Obama administration doing something that was positively neutral with the Cole memo.


    Do you expect Biden will take any additional meaningful steps with the rest of his term?

    I sincerely hope that the proposals crafted by United for Marijuana Decriminalization that are scheduling-ambivalent can be put into effect. That is a newly revised Cole memo to address both business and individuals, expanding the scope of pardons and directing the DOJ to use whatever mechanisms possible to address expungements, and laying the foundation for that and putting together a commission to begin to evaluate what a real thoughtful pro-small business regulatory structure could look like under descheduling.


    It wasn’t too long ago that I was doing an exit interview for Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who also spent much of his career advocating for marijuana reform and is now retiring. You’re both also leaving your respective roles with unfinished business. What does that feel like?

    Not great. But, look, there’s never gonna be a “finished” with marijuana policy reform, right? There’s never gonna be. There will always be advocates who are calling for something to be different than the status quo. Hopefully that will be justifiably muted in the future, because there will be less glaring problems like criminalization and discrimination still baked into the cake.

    But you know, it’s been really, really hard for me to think about this. I never set out to say like, “I am going to be the marijuana policy champion.” I stumbled backwards into this through a series of incidents that I was working on campaigns, I was working on political reforms. The policy that really runs my engine, that I think about when when I wake up, is tax policy and campaign finance reform and democratic process issues. And marijuana touches all of those. But broadly speaking, since I moved home, I got engaged in wage theft reform issues, because now we’re seeing increasingly workers being misclassified as 1099 contractors when they should be full-time paid staff.

    “There is no one meeting to settle the issue—but if there was one meeting that I had that subsequently changed the trajectory, it was that one.”


    Is there an anecdote or moment from your career in cannabis lobbying that stands out to you or is emblematic of your experience?

    In early 2017, as I was just getting my feet on the ground—the first couple months, the … offices who would later become the co-founders of the Cannabis Caucus held an unofficial meeting that they called the Marijuana Working Group. And the staff all joked about how the Marijuana Work Group is like Fight Club: The first rule of the Marijuana Work Group is you don’t talk about the Marijuana Work Group, because it was going to talk about marijuana policy on Capitol Hill. The thought was that talking about it would get you ostracized—kind of similar to other political issues that we see today that are fighting tooth-and-nail to get airtime and accepted legitimacy. It was still in that category.

    I’ll never forget: There was a meeting in the Gold Room in the Rayburn office building and they had called it, and they invited their super-tight list of of individuals … maybe nine people in the room, 10 people. We all sat down and a couple of them kicked around some ideas of bills they were thinking about and tactics they were thinking about. But you know, there did seem to be a real je ne sais quoi about what to do when we walked out of that room.

    And after we walked out of that room, I remember talking with Congressman Blumenauer’s then-legislative director, like, “Why not flip the script? Why not organize bigger?” And it was then that the idea came which later evolved into the Cannabis Caucus, later evolved into sustained regular wide engagement on Capitol Hill.

    It created pathways for engagement from groups that didn’t have a lobbyist in DC to at least have their perspectives sent to congressional offices when they put them together. I used to always say to activists and advocates, there is no one meeting to settle the issue—but if there was one meeting that I had that subsequently changed the trajectory, it was that one.

    “I’m incredibly proud of the role that I played in the MORE Act.”


    What would you call your biggest achievement working on this issue in Congress, and what’s your biggest disappointment?

    I’ll say my feeling of accomplishment is in part tied with my biggest regret and what I would have done differently. I think those two things can be the same. At least in this case for me, they are. And that’s the the success and the stagnation of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. I’ll never forget being admonished and belittled and screamed at and chastised by representatives of the industry for having the gall to suggest that they should, at least publicly, express an utterance of support for that bill that would make their owners no longer criminals and included provisions that provide incentives for states and localities to expunge records and open up the [Small Business Administration] and things like that.

    You know, we we were told by all of the quote-unquote serious people that we were unserious for pushing that bill, and that that effort would never make it out of committee. Not only did that bill get out of committee, it has since passed on the floor of the House of Representatives twice. There has never ever been a vote other than than those two votes to end marijuana prohibition. And I’m incredibly proud of the role that I played in getting that done and incredibly grateful to those others who pushed hard.


    What gives you hope for the future of congressional marijuana reform?

    As the great Cassian Andor from Star Wars: Rouge One said, “Rebellions are built on hope.” As long as there are still people who are carrying the torch, there is always going to be hope that things can be improved. That doesn’t mean they will, but there’s always hope.

    And I think as we are in this reckoning—in America broadly politically—I think that what we’re seeing in the laboratories of democracy [are] such varying degrees of different [marijuana] programs and policies being set up.

    My two favorite ones to talk about are Oklahoma and New York. Wildly different approaches. Both are being widely criticized for the unintended consequences of their enactment. But I think both really strike at important aspects to consider about consumer access and ownership that seems to be much of the fixation of state-level policymakers of where the rubber meets the road, and by having a more robust discussion about ownership and licensing, offer a good pathway down the road to have a fuller conversation for normalizing the civil liberties, criminal justice reforms, etc., we’ll make that easier.



    Photograph of Justin Strekal provided to Marijuana Moment courtesy of Strekal

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Kyle is Marijuana Moment‘s Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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