Episode 99

A conversation with Politico reporters Natalie Fertig and Mona Zhang

Mar 9, 2020 | Length: 0h 30m

Politico reporters Natalie Fertig and Mona Zhang call into the WeedWeek studio from the nation’s capitol. The Capitol Hill journalists draw stark distinctions between the policies of Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and update us on CBD and veterans’ access.

Natalie Fertig

Mona Zhang

Politico Cannabis Coverage

Alex Halperin’s Cannabis Dictionary

Litfest Pasadena

Sign up for free WeedWeek newsletters, to get weekly info on North America’s most interesting industry delivered to your inbox: www.weedweek.net

Email us your comments, questions or suggestions at hello@weedweek.net

Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Podcast transcript

Alex Halperin (00:06):
Welcome to WeedWeek. I’m Alex Halperin.

Donnell Alexander (00:08):
And I’m Donnell Alexander. This is the WeedWeek podcast, you can subscribe to our free newsletters, WeedWeek, WeedWeek California, WeedWeek Canada, all at www.weedweek.net. And you can find us on Twitter and Instagram @weedweeknews. Got any feedback? Write to us at hello@weedweek.net. Subscribe, review or like this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher.

Alex Halperin (00:29):
Specially iTunes. This week, we’ve got two reporters at Politico in Washington DC: Mona Zhang and Natalie Fertig, and they are covering the many but very slow-moving developments surrounding cannabis in our nation’s capital.

Donnell Alexander (00:45):
My favorite thing about it was not the slow moving, it’s something she said about the Republicans’ support for cannabis not exactly dovetailing what we are seeing in DC, that struck me as significant to our talking point today, our introductory topic, and that is our event at the Pasadena Literary Festival.

Alex Halperin (01:04):
That’s quite a Segway.

Donnell Alexander (01:04):
It is a great Segway because I was trying to explain to my kid who is in college what we were doing, and I told him we are putting chocolate in their peanut butter. That is one of the reasons the festival organizers are so excited because they don’t have anything like this. I feel like we are in the avant-garde of cannabis in California and we are introducing new things and there is just none of that in the south. The people can have their popularity and affinity for bud, and it doesn’t go anywhere. Do you get what I am saying?

Alex Halperin (01:32):
I am not exactly sure what you are saying.

Donnell Alexander (01:35):
When we talk about what is going on in the south and the new popularity of cannabis, it reminds me of the popularity of it everywhere and the sort of schism between what happens in political circles and what happens in reality. And in DC, when we are talking about there being a lack of action and interest in the legislature and in president’s office.

Alex Halperin (01:54):
There is. Cannabis doesn’t have the kind of saturation in DC that so many other major issues have, like energy or health care, stuff like that, there are developments and there are developments on several fronts but it’s not a consuming industry of the way health care policy is or energy policy is.

Donnell Alexander (02:16):

Alex Halperin (02:16):
You know what state has the most dispensaries? Oklahoma.

Donnell Alexander (02:22):
Oh yeah, I am sorry I didn’t know that. It’s a popping place.

Alex Halperin (02:22):
And because they legalized medical, they sort of, I guess, did it in the state tradition of unfettered capitalism. And now there are, I will say around 2,000 marijuana dispensaries in Oklahoma. So presumably, it’s not that hard to get a medical card there, in the place of Okie from Muskogee, which is one of the great anti-counterculture anthems by Merle Haggard, who was later rather a prodigious marijuana smoker, but that’s neither here nor there, but it begins, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” I don’t sing very much on the podcast, so lucky you, but in case you’re an editor and listening to this, I would love to go to Oklahoma and write a story about their industry. So, if you are interested in that story, get in touch.

Donnell Alexander (03:16):
The gap is something that I think is cultural. We’re going to have this moment, and now we’re going to move on to politics with our guests, Mona and Natalie, here they are.

Music (03:33):
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take no trips on LSD. We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street.

Alex Halperin (03:52):
Natalie and Mona, thanks so much for joining us.

Natalie Fertig (03:54):
Thanks for having us.

Mona Zhang (03:55):
Yeah. Thanks for having us here.

Alex Halperin (03:56):
Can you tell us a little bit about how Politico thinks about its cannabis coverage?

Natalie Fertig (04:00):
Mona and I are the two reporters on the cannabis team, and I focus on federal policy. Paul also does a lot of reporting and editing but we fit into the full Politico model in terms of, we focus on politics and policy, we are not reporting on culture or business of cannabis, except in terms of how it intersects with policies.

Donnell Alexander (04:26):
And Paul is who?

Natalie Fertig (04:28):
Paul Demko is the editor of the cannabis vertical at Politico. I think Politico really decided to start a cannabis vertical because cannabis policy intersects with so many other coverage areas of Politico, things like health care or agriculture, all of these regulated industries that Politico covers normally, cannabis is increasingly intersecting with these.

Alex Halperin (04:57):
So, we just had super Tuesday and the headline news on that one would be that Joe Biden, who doesn’t support marijuana legalization, became the front runner over Bernie Sanders, who very much did support cannabis legalization. What are your other key takeaways from the night?

Mona Zhang (05:13):
This is Mona by the way. It’s exactly what you say about Biden not supporting it so much and Sanders supporting it. I mean, I think Bernie Sanders legalization plan really reflects a deep understanding of the conversations that are going on on the state level with regards to cannabis reform. He addresses everything from expungement to social equity and he wants to legalize it through executive order by ordering his attorney general to do so. Whereas Biden’s plan is slim on details. He says he supports decriminalization; he says he supports more research and that he wants to expunge cannabis conviction. At the same time, he says he wants to move it to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act, which doesn’t decriminalize it. You know, cocaine is a Schedule II substance, methamphetamine is a Schedule II substance. So, his proposal just isn’t really thought through. And I don’t think that this is really an important issue to his campaign.

Alex Halperin (06:21):
It wouldn’t work for the industry either. I mean, it’s almost like with Mike Crapo, Senator Mike Crapo of the Senate Banking Committee saying, well we want to put in THC caps, when really he’s being asked about banking, sort of out of his lane.

Natalie Fertig (06:37):
This is Natalie. It’s interesting that you bring up Senator Crapo.

Alex Halperin (06:41):
Excuse me, Mr. Crapo, Senator Crapo.

Natalie Fertig (06:44):
One of the things that’s important to think about when we’re looking at the presidential race and the candidates’ views on marijuana is that they’re not capable of doing anything really substantial without the legislature. So whether or not it’s Biden or Bernie, and whether or not the democratic candidate wins, is also going to be dependent on if Democrats take back the Senate, because if Mitch McConnell is still in charge of the Senate, marijuana legalization is still not going to happen, except for through this sort of gray area attorney general, which could potentially even end on a rescheduling, not entirely even a cold, deep scheduling. So, the president and the president position on this is not where it starts and ends necessarily. I can see a path forward if Democrats also take the Senate and the house somehow manage to come to a consensus on this, but even a presidential candidate like Biden could potentially come to a deal with Congress and Bernie needs Congress to pass legislation.

Donnell Alexander (07:52):
So, Natalie, I have a question about the legislature that you mentioned being so crucial. Is there enthusiasm for cannabis amongst the conservatives? You know, it’s easy to hear when someone like Beto O’Rourke, a Congressman like that says something or a former Congressman, I guess, but I wonder if there are others who are more supportive than they have been in the past.

Natalie Fertig (08:10):
I think the thing that you have to recognize is that cannabis is not a down party line strict topic on Capitol Hill. I mean, I was sitting in a Veterans Committee hearing last week waiting to see if one of the Veterans Advocacy Organizations would bring out medical marijuana research, which is a big issue for a lot of different Veterans Advocacy Organizations. And I was surprised to see that the one question on medical marijuana research came from Republican Senator Dan Sullivan from Alaska. It wasn’t from the democratic side of the bench, it was on the Republican side of the bench, a lot of times being pro cannabis. While the democratic party sort of stand in a pro cannabis state, what you see more is that the people who want to act on it are coming from legal states. So, Alaska has Republican Senator Cory Gardner who is probably the most influential Senator in the Senate right now, even though he’s from the majority. And he’s high up in Republican leadership and is very pro cannabis and dug a lot on it. There are senators like Tom Cotton who comes from a state with medical marijuana who still just refuses to discuss it. So that’s more of an ideological perspective, but then, senators like Kevin Cramer had a lot to say about it.

Alex Halperin (09:31):
What does he have to say about it?

Natalie Fertig (09:32):
Today, we were talking about the veterans’ medical marijuana research bill and he is very on board with expanding its medical marijuana research and he’s on the Veterans Committee. And so, him and I were talking about the bill chances. We also talked a lot about the banking bill because he’s on the Banking Committee. He continues to say that he’s not pro legalization. I wonder if that would change if the state legalized, because he’s been very active in pushing the interests of the medical marijuana market that his state does have, but Republicans often start coming on board with this issue when their state legalizes.

Alex Halperin (10:11):
You mentioned Senator Cory Gardner earlier. And I mean, he’s really pushing for the banking bill, which I think he cosponsored with Elizabeth Warren, but he seems to see that as part of the key to his reelection, where he’s probably the underdog. Is that something you think he’s going to be able to push across the line? I mean, it will require Senator Crapo on board and probably Mitch McConnell as well.

Natalie Fertig (10:36):
We’re sort of in an interesting space with that bill right now and he sponsored that with Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren is a cosponsor of that bill. I’d say right now it’s stalled. I’m not going to say yet, but it’s dead. But I spoke to Senator Gardner earlier this week about it and he was all, “It’s totally going to happen and we’re going to get a markup, and I expect to see it on the floor of the Senate by summer.” That to me, at the moment, in talking to advocates and lobbyists, seems not totally rooted in reality, but I am not also going to say that it’s not going to happen. I mean, I do know for a fact that there are conversations continuing to happen on Capitol Hill between Gardner’s team and Crapo’s team. And when those conversations stop happening, that’s when this will be dead, but those conversations are still happening.

Alex Halperin (11:31):
What are some of the state races that you’re paying attention to?

Mona Zhang (11:34):
You mean as far as ballot initiatives or concerns?

Alex Halperin (11:37):
Or other state issues.

Mona Zhang (11:39):
This is Mona. Yes, there are so many potential ballot initiatives going on this year. There are really notable ones in conservative states because when it comes to ballot initiatives, the blue states that offer ballot referendum, they have already mostly legalized marijuana.

Donnell Alexander (12:04):
I’m going to follow up Alex’s question. Specifically, I’m interested in the ballot initiative in Ohio and also Arizona.

Mona Zhang (12:10):
The Ohio initiative has been submitted by advocates and the attorney general has until March 12th to approve it or reject it. So, Ohio is not a done deal yet. But it is very interesting to me that there is even a group on the ground trying to get this on the ballot because it probably takes like 3 million dollars just to collect signatures for a valid initiative in Ohio in a presidential election year. It is very expensive. And that’s why you’ve seen groups like MPP choose to not invest in an Ohio campaign because for the price of an Ohio ballot initiative, you could do ballot initiatives in maybe four to six other states. It’s interesting that there is a group on the ground and one of the petitioners in Ohio has a medical marijuana license in that state. So, whether or not it will actually get on the ballot is another matter and once it’s approved for signature gathering, whether they can actually collect the necessary signatures is also an open question. They need over 400,000 signatures, so it is a lot. And then with Arizona, there are sort of competing ballot initiatives and those haven’t been certified for the ballot yet. I think the only petition that’s actually made it onto the ballot has been in South Dakota. And that’s a state that some are very excited about because they’re going to be voting on medical marijuana and recreational in the same election. But all these other initiatives, Ohio, Arizona, they haven’t actually made it onto the ballot yet; if they do, it could potentially impact voter turnout in a way that favors Democrats and the general election. I think that’s been sort of the prevailing wisdom of cannabis advocacy up until this point. But as Natalie said, it’s really not such a part of an issue anymore. So, I wonder if that will still be the case going forward. Our colleague, Eric in Florida, had a really interesting story last fall pulling data in Florida that showed that Trump supporters overwhelmingly were also supporters of recreational marijuana. So, a lot of these kind of conventional thoughts about who comes out to support marijuana may be expanded, now that we’re at 11 states and over 30 states have medical marijuana. People are getting more used to it.

Alex Halperin (14:41):
How do you explain the sort of disconnect between Trump voters support for legalization and the real reluctance on Capitol Hill to sort of get on board with that? Like the Fox News Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram and all these other folks who Trump pays pretty close attention to that are deeply hostile to cannabis. Where does this sort of break come from? Because normally if Trump supporters like it, then everybody else seems to be on board.

Natalie Fertig (15:14):
I think part of it is because cannabis is just a low salient issue for voters or generally, they are not voting based on cannabis policy alone. And I don’t think that it has a big impact on voters and the general election like this.

Alex Halperin (15:30):
That may be why some people consider it the least partisan issue in the country.

Natalie Fertig (15:35):

Donnell Alexander (15:37):
I have a question. I wanted to avoid talking about California a lot, but there’s a question I have about how you look at us from the other side of the country, local control. You all understand that that’s our rule here in terms of who handles a regulation of cannabis, how does the rest of the country, or I guess DC in particular, look at that approach?

Mona Zhang (15:56):
This is Mona again; I think that local control is increasingly falling out of state. Well, it’s an increasingly fraught policy discussion on the state level because of the situation in California. And especially because of the situation in Massachusetts where local community agreements are really hampering many parts of the rollout of their program.

Donnell Alexander (16:19):
How is Massachusetts different from California in terms of its controlled difficulties?

Natalie Fertig (16:25):
This is Natalie. What Massachusetts has done is going even further into handing local control over to the cities and the counties. On the surface it looks like a similar situation to what has happened in California. But when you get down to the politics of how Massachusetts government work, the state really doesn’t have any control over how the local communities make their agreements. And so, the state has done things like mandate priority for economic empowerment candidates, but there is no requirement for cities to have to do that. There is no timeline for cities to have to give out their licenses. There are no rules at all for what has to go into these licenses. So what they’ve done is they’ve said, “Hey, if you think that the cannabis business is going to hurt your community in some way, if you’re going to have more traffic and you’re going to need to hire another traffic cop or another meter maid or something like that, then we can charge this business up to 3% of its revenue.” And that discussion has created a scenario that it’s a very sort of New York, Boston style, real estate battle where different companies come in and they say, well, I’ll give you this, I’ll give you 3% and then $20,000, I’ll give you 3% and then $100,000. And it has created some corruption in some of the towns.

Alex Halperin (17:52):
Isn’t there a federal investigation in Massachusetts?

Natalie Fertig (17:55):
There is a federal investigation into the corrections specifically, but I know that there are at least 30 other towns that have been subpoenaed by the federal government, the US attorney in Boston. The other thing that hasn’t been as discussed is how local rule in Boston has affected equity. And I think that that’s a conversation that applies to a lot of states, but each state sort of has its own XYZ is how it has affected equity in California. Local counties and cities are required to create their own equity programs. In Massachusetts, the state created one, but never forced cities and counties to create one.

Mona Zhang (18:38):
I guess what I would say in summary on Massachusetts versus California is that Massachusetts has given an extraordinary amount of power to the cities. It’s not a cannabis specific thing. This is how Massachusetts government functions. But what they are finding is that there are things that they want to do statewide that they cannot do because they forgot to tell cities that they have to do this. So, the state created an economic empowerment status that is a priority status for applicants, but they never told the cities, “Hey, you also should create an avenue for these EE applicants to have priority within your licensing process.” So, the EE applicants go out into their local process and they get bogged down. They run out of money. They are competing against sometimes multi-state operators or larger corporations that come in and have deeper pockets or a better prepared presentation for the city council boards that are approving applications. But it has been two years. The local rule issue is not the only reason for this holdup, but it is creating a huge backlog.

Donnell Alexander (19:52):
This is the best local rule conversation I think we’ve had on the podcast. So, thanks for digging deep there. We like to sound smart at parties. We do our research, but we don’t live in DC. As people who are out in that milieu, can you tell us what’s new and what’s next? What should we be talking about to sound real cutting edge?

Natalie Fertig (20:09):
You mean like on Capitol Hill?

Donnell Alexander (20:11):
Insider gossip, hot gossip, they call it.

Natalie Fertig (20:14):
I mean, here’s the thing. The slow case of any cannabis happenings on the federal level is just very slow. So, there’s not really any hot gossip in DC. I think the states are really where the interesting dynamic cannabis policy stuff is happening, at least where it’s happening faster but that’s also how America works. Literally the point of the United States.

Alex Halperin (20:47):
Yeah. I mean, Cannabis reporting and policy it’s like a civics lesson in a lot of ways.

Natalie Fertig (20:53):
Completely. From my boring federal perspective, I do think that people aren’t watching the veterans’ legislation enough. I think that that’s the one space where I think Congress could potentially come together.

Donnell Alexander (21:08):
Well, that’s what I’m talking about. Well, tell us more about that. Why isn’t it coming together as it should?

Natalie Fertig (21:12):
Why hasn’t it come together? Why hasn’t any of this come together? Like Mona said, it’s not a huge priority for most lawmakers. I mean, even lawmakers from a lot of legal states will support these bills and will vote for them but are not actively advocating for them on the Hill. The cannabis industry also doesn’t have a whole lot of lobbying money. It may surprise you, especially with the bankruptcies that have been going on in a lot of the financial hits that the industry has taken. But even with the money of the American Bankers Association, the banking bill has not moved out of the Senate Banking Committee yet. I think that the veterans research bill could move because it is the most bipartisan thing on Capitol Hill, Republicans can’t come up with arguments against it. Democrats can’t come up with arguments against it. It’s just getting to the point where there’s kind of a groundswell and it has 104 cosponsors in the House and I just checked with six of the nine members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee today, and they all were like, “Yeah, we should talk about that, we should totally talk about that.” The Democrats on the Committee of course can’t say that they don’t want to talk about veterans’ medical marijuana research. That’s why I think it’s a thing that could potentially happen. Cory Gardner just find on the co-sponsor it. And I sort of wonder this could be a path for him to get some cannabis legislation through.

Donnell Alexander (22:48):
This is really, really good stuff, prime stuff. And the reason why we wanted you on the podcast.

Alex Halperin (22:52):
Thanks so much, Mona and Natalie.

Donnell Alexander (22:55):
Seriously, is there anything you want to add before you go?

Mona Zhang (22:58):
Like CBD stuff too. That’s cool. I do want to add about something Natalie said about the funding. I think we’re in this weird period of cannabis advocacy where the traditional backers of things like state ballot initiatives don’t want to give money to the cause anymore because so many states have already legalized it. And there is this feeling of inevitability about it. And at the same time, when these advocates who are running these state campaigns, are going to these formerly major donors, they’re saying, well, there are all these legal weed companies, why don’t you get money from them? And you guys I’m sure are very familiar with how poorly weed companies are doing these days. It’s not like they’re making tons of money and it’s not like they have tons of money to invest in these sorts of things. So, I feel like we’re at this weird juncture where it’s the traditional money that has been funding, like Soros funding Proposition 215, that’s now falling away. But the legal marijuana companies aren’t exactly putting tons of money behind these efforts. We can talk briefly about CBD if you guys want.

Donnell Alexander (24:10):
Go for it.

Alex Halperin (24:10):

Mona Zhang (24:10):
Well today, the FDA’s report to Congress on its CBD enforcement discretion finally came out, it’s a little bit late and it was due last month. There wasn’t very much new in the report, it was a lot of the same. The FDA is concerned about the lack of science. They say that they’re actively considering certain enforcement pathways or certain regulatory pathways for CBD. They continue to say that the lack of scientific data and long-term scientific data concerns them when it comes to regulating this product. Now, I think what a lot of people within the cannabis industry miss is that a lot of people say, “Oh, well, they should just create an exception for CBD.” What I think people don’t realize is that the FDA is concerned about creating an exception for CBD because of all the other substances they regulate, they’re thinking, well, if we create an exception for CBD, everyone’s going to be wanting an exception for all these other substances, and that would be setting potentially that precedent because CBD is a drug product. You know, as the dialect is an FDA approved drug that has gone through the clinical trials process, they don’t want to set a precedent where they allow someone to use active drug ingredients in the food supply. The agency does seem to be moving a little bit, at least they emphasize that they are really actively trying to figure out how to regulate CBD. But, as it stands, the agency believes that all these CBD products that you see on the shelves, food and supplements are all in violation of federal law. So, it’s this weird tension where they have to consider the proliferation of the market with the regulatory processes.

Donnell Alexander (26:12):
Ok, I have a hemp specific question, and this is actually going to interest Alex because it’s a business question. Remember we had around like 18 months ago some new frontier data, and I’ve been going through a lot of tape because we’re having our 100th episode coming up, the episode after yours. And so, I have been listening to all this stuff. Our most emphatic statement of the entire interview was that the United States is being left behind in hemp. And that it’s a laughable distance between us and the rest of the world. Is that a real thing in 2020?

Mona Zhang (26:44):
I think that to a certain extent, yes, because you see, the UK, its health agency, food safety agency, it came out with guidance recently with regards to CBD. They are basically creating a process where CBD companies have to submit novel food applications to the agency by next year in order to keep operating. And I think that’s drawing some interest from some American CBD companies, because there are companies here in the US who are just so hungry for any sort of federal regulatory clarity, and they’re not getting it from the FDA. So, when they see the UK, its health agencies they say, hey, we’re providing this regulatory pathway that definitely piques their interest and makes them consider. I talked to someone at a CBD company who said that they are very interested in the UK now and that maybe they will go over there because nothing seems to be happening here in the US.
Donnell Alexander (27:42):
And I think we’ve reached our CBD hemp question for Alex Halperin. So, we’re going to say goodbye. This was really good, like I said.

Alex Halperin (27:51):
Thank you so much for joining us.

Mona Zhang (27:52):
Thanks. Thanks so much for having us.

Natalie Fertig (27:54):
Alright. Okay. Thanks guys.

Donnell Alexander (27:56):
And that’s our show for the week, but Alex has a tweet. It recaps the heartfelt speech from the London and West Hollywood site of the first Weedy Awards.

Alex Halperin (28:04):
The week’s tweet comes from Cannabis Doing Good @CDG Socials. Our cofounder, Kelly had an absolute blast at the #WeedyAwards a few days ago, congrats to @ViolaBrands for winning the Weedy Award for the best person of color run company, congrats to all of the other finalists and winners. You all rock. Thanks so much Cannabis Doing Good.

Donnell Alexander (28:26):
Cannabis Doing Good. The woman’s name is Perez. Very nice woman. And her daughter is working up in the fields. Cannabis family from Colorado actually, they were contenders also for that category. We had winners. We had an amazing time. It was almost Cornelly community oriented. It’s a part of the industry I hadn’t really seen. So, congratulations Alex for that.

Alex Halperin (28:52):
It was a great event. Thanks to everyone who came, and we’ll see you at the next one.

Donnell Alexander (28:56):
As always. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram @weedweeknews, or email us hello@weedweek.net. For more weed news, you can sign up for the WeedWeek newsletter, WeedWeek Canada, WeedWeek California. I will tell you again and again, if you’ve gone this deep into the episode, subscribe and review, especially at iTunes, but also SoundCloud and Stitcher.

Alex Halperin (29:15):
All right. I am Alex Halperin.

Donnell Alexander (29:16):
And I’m Donnell Alexander

Alex Halperin (29:18):
Our show’s produced by Donnell Alexander, engineered by Larry Buhl and Alicia Byer wrote our theme music. We’ll see you again here next week.

Donnell Alexander (29:25):

Alex Halperin (29:25):