Capitol Cannabis Summit Seen as Positive Step Toward Legalization
WASHINGTON — Caroline Phillips could not suppress a smile as she walked to the podium.
From the moment she reached the microphone on Thursday morning, she really would be presenting to a congressional forum inside the U.S. Capitol for the National Cannabis Policy Summit.
And for the next four hours, she would welcome several members of the House and Senate to explain their views on cannabis and why federal laws restricting its use should be struck down in favor of more sensible legislation.
If you’d asked the native Washingtonian in 2016, the year she launched the National Cannabis Festival, if such a moment would ever occur, she likely would have laughed the question off.
“I grew up in a world of prohibition,” she said onstage and later, during an interview with The Well News.
So does this signal progress in regard to cannabis legalization?
“My answer is a resounding yes,” she said, adding after a pause, “But with an asterisk.”
We’ll return to the asterisk in a moment. But first, a little bit more about Phillips herself.
She founded her first public relations and event production company, THS Presents, in 2014, intent on cultivating projects that leveraged business and advocated for social good.
The National Cannabis Festival came two years after that, and in 2018, she expanded the program to include the National Cannabis Policy Summit and Four20 Week, a week of educational and entertainment events at venues throughout the Delmarva region.
This year the Wake Forest graduate (who completed post-graduate studies at Howard University and received her master’s degree from Georgetown University) launched another event, 420 Food Week, a new initiative in which specified restaurants offered new and special menu items and pricing in the week leading up to the festival.
Now, back to the asterisk.
On Wednesday, the day before the policy summit at the Capitol, Phillips learned that her application for Special Event Fee Relief Funding with the District of Columbia had been rejected, meaning she wasn’t eligible for financial assistance to help cover municipal services incurred by the event.
“It’s a program designed so that small businesses like mine can receive a little bit of extra help as we come out of the pandemic,” Phillips told summit attendees on Thursday morning.
“Of course, this isn’t the first denial my company has gotten, and we know exactly why we were denied: because of the word ‘cannabis’ in the name of the National Cannabis Festival and National Cannabis Policy Summit,” she said.
“We were also denied a Save Our Stages grant [by the federal Small Business Administration] that helped a lot of venues and small business owners across the country,” Phillips said. “But we were not alone.
“Many cannabis business owners were denied federal funding during the pandemic,” she continued. “As a result, many of us had to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, look back to our communities, and hope that there was enough support and love there to keep our businesses afloat.”
As frustrated as she felt as a business owner, Phillips said she knew her plight was nothing compared to patients who are criminalized for turning to cannabis for pain and other relief, or those who fear they’ll lose a job or a scholarship because of recreational use, or those serving long sentences for minor cannabis-related offenses.
“I’m standing here to represent business owners, but I’m also standing alongside all those who advocate for those who have been discriminated against because of this plant,” she said.
With that, the summit itself, held in an auditorium beneath the Capitol Visitor’s Center, began.
It featured a series of moderated discussions with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are dedicated to advancing new cannabis policies at the federal level.
The speakers included Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., David Joyce, R-Ohio, Brian Mast, R-Fla., Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., as well as Sens. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
“I feel like we’re standing at the crossroads of prohibition and legalization,” Phillips said as she arrived in a side office just off the main hall to talk to The Well News.
“To have the opportunity to be in a space like this and to be here together. It’s something that I know I’m going to love to remember for a long time to come,” she said.
Phillips admitted she had a more formal, “curated” welcome planned for the attendees, but said she felt the story of her real life experience in the last 24 hours would be more valuable to canned “welcomes” and “thank yous.”
It even seemed more right when she talked a little more about the festival and how this year’s event came about.
Traditionally, she said, the policy summit has been held at an off-site location the day before the festival, but this year, due to pandemic-related shortfalls in funding last year, it appeared that the policy gathering just wasn’t going to happen.
“That’s when Justin Strekal, the festival’s co-founder and co-chair emeritus of our federal relations committee, said, ‘You know, there are members of Congress who love this event and might be interested in helping us.’ And sure enough, we reached out to Congressman Blumenauer and he said, ‘I’d love to host your event on the Hill.’
“It’s really exciting,” Phillips said, her broad smile now even wider than it had been earlier. A short distance away, an audience composed of activists, advocates, congressional staffers and individuals simply interested in the issue applauded as Merkley suggested a reform of the national cannabis policies is closer than ever before.
“I think it will happen, but I think what has to happen first is for more people who are passionate or who simply care about this issue to register to vote,” Phillips said.
“And I think that would accomplish two things: First, it would make the electorate a more accurate reflection of the nation as a whole when when it comes to this issue, and second, it would enable members of Congress to really be able to see that in every state the majority of their residents are ready for legal cannabis.”
After that, Phillips said, getting actual, meaningful federal cannabis reform legislation over the line will take a combination of factors.
“We’re witnessing one of those things right now,” she said. “I think there needs to be more open conversation, where we’re talking about the real issues and we’re getting lawmakers on the record about what they’d like to hear from us.
“I think the idea of having Rep. Nancy Mace speak earlier today, on the record, about the medicinal properties of cannabis, is an incredibly powerful thing. And I think it is statements like that by people like that that will move and change some minds on this issue.”
Phillips was asked about public perception, particularly in light of all the hemp and CBD products — everything from pain creams to cooking oils to snacks foods — that are widely advertised and available for purchase.
Might some people assume the cannabis issue is largely settled?
“You know, I think the larger effort is to make a safer environment for all cannabis consumers. Right now, it really isn’t safe,” she said. “There’s a patchwork of laws from state to state that could have some who purchased medicine legally in one state running afoul of laws in another state.
“And I think Washington, D.C., is a great, kind of, microcosm of that,” she said. “I am sure we had people coming to this event today who paused and asked themselves, ‘Can I bring … whatever … with me? I’m in Washington, D.C., where possession of cannabis is legal, but I’m going to the Capitol. It’s in Washington, D.C., but it’s federal property.’
“The answer, of course, is no, you can’t bring cannabis onto the Capitol grounds. It’s not legal on federal property. So, that’s another reason why we need a change in the federal law, because it will make things safer for everybody,” Phillips said.
“But I am hopeful for the future. I am hopeful because we’re all here today. Being here feels really good,” she said.