Washington — The cannabis industry has flexed its muscles in 15 states where it's legal to smoke marijuana for medical purposes. Now the industry is ready to go to work in Washington.
A new trade group, called the National Cannabis Industry Association, is an attempt to bring together sellers, growers and manufacturers and to promote pot on Capitol Hill.
"Our intent is to be the go-to organization in Washington for this industry," said Aaron Smith, the group's executive director.
For the past five years, Smith worked as the California director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
"Coming out of California and expanding into this national field is pretty exciting," he said. "There's been a lot of enthusiasm. ... It's pretty clear that the medical marijuana industry is becoming recognized more and more by the mainstream as a fully legitimate part of the economy."
Even though California voters last month rejected a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for all adults, Smith said it was just a matter of time before the drug was fully legalized.
"Legalization is looking inevitable," he said. "It didn't happen in 2010, but it's likely to happen in 2012. ... It's going to be relatively soon we're going to see states move from medical marijuana into broader legal markets. And the federal government needs to catch up. Frequently the American people are ahead of the Congress."
But Smith will have a hard time finding many marijuana advocates in Congress.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted 400-4 to back a resolution sponsored by California Republican Rep. Wally Herger that calls on authorities to get tougher with those who cultivate marijuana on federal land.
In a speech on the House floor, Herger said the presence of Mexican marijuana cartel operations in national forests in Northern California "poses a serious threat to our public safety and use of our public lands."
Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen of Wisconsin called medical marijuana "a misnomer," adding: "There is nothing safe about smoking. There is nothing safe about smoking an illicit product called marijuana."
Smith said the association officially formed this month, putting together a 23-member board that includes leaders in the cannabis industry, who represent dispensaries, operators, publications and insurance providers, among others.
The association's first target will be a federal law that prohibits marijuana use even if states have legalized it. The law has resulted in confusion amid overlapping jurisdictions, with state authorities enforcing state laws and federal officials enforcing federal laws.
But President Barack Obama's administration has been easing up. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to back away from cases against medical marijuana patients and to focus on higher-level traffickers or money launderers.
"I'd like to see that codified by Congress, to become the law of the land, not just an executive order," Smith said. "This industry's biggest challenges are the obstacles presented by federal law, so that's why we're focusing on the change to federal law first and foremost."
With Republicans poised to take control of the House, Smith said: "I can't say that I'm super optimistic, but we'll definitely be pushing the message of federalism, which the Republicans should listen to. All we're really asking for is to allow the states to essentially make up their own minds on marijuana policy."
Smith noted that the issue of medical marijuana has bipartisan appeal: Republican candidates won a clean sweep in Arizona last month, but voters still approved the use of medical marijuana.
"This is not a left issue," he said. "This is a mainstream issue, and Republicans should embrace it."