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Cannabis’s ‘Friendly Conservative Face’ Tackles Congress

Aug. 14, 2019, 9:30 AM

Marijuana lobbyist Don Murphy took it as a compliment when one Republican U.S. senator told him he was like “gum on one shoe”—hard to get rid of and always there.

Murphy, a former Maryland state legislator, has been a rare Republican in the legalization movement for two decades, adding a “friendly conservative face on marijuana policy.”

His job has gotten easier as Republican support for legalization has grown, rising from 22% in 2000 to 53% last year, according to an Oct. 2018 Gallup poll. Republican allies like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, where legal cannabis sales have totaled $6.7 billion since 2014, have also helped.

Murphy, who serves as the Marijuana Policy Project’s (MPP) federal policy director, is now part of the fight to pass legislation (H.R. 1595) designed to ensure pot businesses have full access to financial services. The bill, known as the SAFE Banking Act, would help legitimize a growing state-level legal cannabis industry.

Murphy is optimistic about the bill’s chances, especially after Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) eased his anti-cannabis stance and held a hearing on the bill July 23.

Twenty years ago, that kind of attention would have been inconceivable, but Murphy’s decades of advocacy have made in-roads among his Republican colleagues.

Michael Correia, a fellow Republican lobbyist for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said Murphy is well known by lawmakers as “that cannabis guy” often waiting on the Capitol steps to squeeze in a conversation with members.

“If we had ten Don’s, cannabis would be legal by now,” Correia said.

‘Mr. Law-and-Order’

A Maryland native with salt and pepper hair, and a beard to match during particularly busy periods of lobbying, Murphy left a real estate career for politics in 1994. He beat the Maryland General Assembly’s Democratic House Majority Leader in a district which included parts of Baltimore.

“I was a law-and-order, conservative, pro-life, all that. The usual Republican, no taxes stuff,” he said. His interest in marijuana policy began after his 1998 re-election when he met Darrell Putnam, a veteran and farmer who used marijuana to treat his cancer, then illegal in Maryland.

Putnam’s story led Murphy to sponsor the state’s first medical marijuana bill, the Darrell Putnam Compassionate Use Act, which passed in 2003 after he left office. Putnam died before the bill became law, and the issue stuck with Murphy.

“Mr. Law-and-Order was suddenly the pot guy,” Murphy said. He began working with MPP at the state level before joining full-time in 2014 as their federal policies and conservative outreach director. He connects with Republican members of Congress by drawing upon their shared values and his political knowledge as a former lawmaker.

Murphy said many Republicans fear losing future elections and angering constituents if they support cannabis, but his own career has helped ease those worries.

Murphy was an elected delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention from a conservative district in Maryland, “because of, or in spite of,” his advocacy. He was elected again in 2008 and 2016, proving that a pro-marijuana stance wouldn’t sink a conservative career.

Now, Murphy speaks to around a dozen lawmakers and staffers every day and estimates that he’s one of the most active federal lobbyists. He used to track each of his conversations and meetings but stopped after 700 in one year.

Changing Attitudes

Not a single state had legalized medical or recreational marijuana when Murphy was elected to the Maryland General Assembly in 1994. Only eight states had legalized medical marijuana when the Darrell Putnam Compassionate Use Act passed.

Today, recreational and medical marijuana are legal in 11 states, and medical use is legal in another 22 states, according to the NCIA. New Mexico, North Dakota, Illinois, and Hawaii decriminalized or legalized marijuana this year, and multiple cannabis reform bills have been introduced in Congress.

Since 2016, MPP has given more money to Republicans than Democrats, reversing its previous pattern. In the 2018 midterm election cycle, MPP donated $12,000 to Republicans and nothing to Democrats, compared to a 2012 low of $500 to Republicans and a 2008 peak of $78,400 to Democrats.

“It’s been amazing watching the public acceptance of this change,” Correia said. “I joke now I don’t even answer my phone because so many politicians are calling me wanting our money, wanting our endorsements.”

Murphy said advocating for marijuana when it was widely unpopular was difficult—“Lobbyists who were never on board laughed at what I was doing.”—but it’s been satisfying to see people come around. Murphy now gets calls from formerly anti-cannabis politicians seeking information medical marijuana for constituents.

“They think I got all the drug dealers on speed dial,” Murphy joked.

Pending Legislation

Murphy said his focus isn’t a bill to legalize at the federal level, but to clear the path for states to develop legal cannabis industries and legislation without fearing federal interference.

“The Republican side of the aisle is much more comfortable with the notion that I’m not pro-marijuana, I’m pro-states’ rights,” Murphy said. He’s now concentrated on the SAFE Banking Act and a separate bill (H.R. 2093) that would block Justice Department funds from being used to intervene against state legalization.

The SAFE Banking Act, subject of the July Senate Banking Committee hearing, would end legal cannabis retailers’ dependence on risky and inefficient cash transactions. Groups like insurance companies and realtors could indirectly benefit too, said Saphira Galoob, a marijuana lobbyist who has worked with Murphy since 2016.

Murphy cultivated many friendly relationships with lawmakers, including Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), the one who called him “gum on one shoe.”

“He said it with a smile,” Murphy said, “and I said, ‘Senator, I’m working hard to be gum on both shoes!’” His wife didn’t think it was a compliment, but Murphy thought it meant he was doing his job well.

He named his blog Gum on One Shoe after Moran’s quip, where he shares tips for other advocates and emphasizes showing up and being persistent. In an Oct. 2018 post, Murphy encouraged lobbyists to meet with their representative and both senators.

“To be an effective advocate, you have to know your three members,” he said, “but to be really influential, they need to know you.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington at rchen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com