From Forestville to Washington, D.C., El Molino High School grad Aaron Smith leading cannabis lobby on Capitol Hill

Access the full article here, by Julie Johnson from the Press Democrat on Aug. 15, 2017.

From Forestville to Washington, D.C., El Molino High School grad Aaron Smith leading cannabis lobby on Capitol Hill

As a co-founder and the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, Aaron Smith said he’s never successfully grown a pot plant nor has he ever worked in the marijuana trade.

An El Molino High School graduate, Smith now lives in Denver, arguably the nation’s cannabis capital. But he’s more often than not on a plane heading to Washington, D.C., where his trade association is lobbying Congress to pass laws allowing the cash-based industry to put its money in banks and deduct ordinary business costs as tax deductions.

Or he may be on a flight to Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas and other places across the country to promote fair laws for the cannabis sector at all levels of government.

“States should be the laboratories of democracy,” Smith, 39, told an audience of several hundred wine and cannabis industry professionals at a recent conference in Santa Rosa. “We should encourage above-board economic activity.”

Smith said he’s not a businessman, and his motivation for founding the trade association in 2010 — with Colorado lobbyist and cannabis advocate Steve Fox — stems from a place of activism with a social justice-Libertarian point of view.

“The ‘war on drugs’ is a major affront to freedom,” Smith said.

That belief took root on a rainy night in 1994 in Forestville. Smith said as a high school teen he was choked, hog-tied and arrested during an encounter with a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who found a joint’s worth of marijuana in his pocket.

“It was unreal — I lived a sheltered, bucolic life in Forestville,” Smith said. “That was a catalyst for me.”

Smith, whose account couldn’t be verified because of laws preventing public disclosure of certain juvenile arrest records, said the charges were ultimately dropped.

Smith graduated from El Molino High School two years later and said it took him several years to channel his anger over his arrest into something productive.

He took some classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College. He got a job in quality control with a local aerospace firm.

By 2004, he was president of the Sonoma County Libertarian Party, on the radio debating drug prohibition with Democrat Noreen Evans, then on the Santa Rosa City Council. He was a dark horse Libertarian candidate challenging Evans for a California Assembly seat representing Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Napa County and part of Solano County. Smith got 5,051 votes, but Evans won the seat with 101,130 votes, and ultimately served three terms before being elected to the state Senate.

The campaign was a chance for him to draw attention to issues like an unjust enforcement of drug laws, he said.

“My passion was in political work,” Smith said.

The next year, Smith started working with the Marijuana Policy Project, organizing patients in parts of California where local governments hadn’t implemented laws allowing medical marijuana activities. He testified before supervisors in red counties such as or including Fresno, Orange and Kern.

He was in Arizona pushing a voter referendum in support of medical marijuana, which ultimately passed with 50.1 percent of the vote, when he co-founded the National Cannabis Industry Association in 2010 with Fox.

The association’s first donation was a $5,000 check from SPARC, a San Francisco dispensary which has recently joined with Sonoma County’s Peace in Medicine dispensaries.

SPARC founder Erich Pearson said he joined the trade group’s board immediately because he knew about the successes of Smith and the Marijuana Police Project supporting states seeking to pass medical marijuana laws.

“Aaron is an extremely hard-working, level-headed guy — it’s not an easy industry, and it’s certainly not an easy industry to get to the table,” Pearson said.

Today, the National Cannabis Industry Association is a nonprofit with a $4 million annual budget, 14 employees and about 1,400 members in 40 states and China. Half of the organization’s members come from California and Colorado and about two-thirds of its member businesses represent design, packaging, human resources and other firms that don’t work directly with the plants themselves.

The meat of its work is lobbying Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and, until then, passing laws allowing banks to work with cannabis businesses and prevent federal interference in states where marijuana is legal.

Smith counts as one of his organization’s major victories the 2014 passage of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prevents the U.S. Department of Justice from using federal funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. The amendment, a budget rider, must be renewed each year, which occurred in May.

“That’s a pretty big victory,” Pearson said. “When the biggest banks in the world are taking our money, then you’ve crossed a major hurdle. When more states pass laws and more governors are speaking up for their states, with that critical mass, D.C. can’t help but follow.”

The association has hired lobbying firm Jochum, Shore & Trossevin, founded by a former Republican congressional staffer, to represent its interests on Capitol Hill. As a trade association, the organization also works to promote best practices within the industry and this year has launched a policy council, an internal think tank charged with developing positions on issues like testing standards and pesticides.

The ultimate goal for the organization, Smith said, is to change federal drug laws that still put marijuana in the same category of highly addictive and dangerous drugs like heroin and force businesses to operate with cash, putting employees at risk.

“It’s a government-created crisis,” he said, adding, “The banks would be happy to work with this industry. Congress is at least 10 years behind the people on this issue.”