Eric Goepel is an Army veteran who recently founded a nonprofit called Veterans Cannabis Coalition. Focused on making cannabis-based medicines available to veterans, VCC engages in a spectrum of advocacy efforts that range from direct federal lobbying, organizing and training veteran advocates in key states, and creating messaging campaigns that highlight the positive impact that cannabis has had on veterans’ health. As an expert on this cutting-edge industry and the legislative battles it faces on the local, state, and federal levels, we spoke with Eric to discuss the current state of cannabis reform and why grassroots advocacy can benefit organizations in other emerging industries.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into the advocacy space.
I served in the Army for seven years, six of which were in the special operations community providing communications and intelligence support, deploying twice to Iraq and once to the Philippines. After my enlistment, I worked as a defense contractor in Afghanistan for a year before returning to college to complete my degree. My education led me to D.C., where I worked as an intern in a think tank, then as a legislative fellow in the Senate, and most recently as an assistant director at a veteran service organization. Throughout my post-military career I’ve focused on public policy and its impact on people. That work experience has provided me an opportunity to see how policy, advocacy, and politics come together to shape our laws, for better or worse, and how citizens can organize to exercise influence and win support for their respective interests.
What do you do in your current role as Founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition? What is the mission of VCC?
As founder and CEO I set the strategic vision of the organization, build partnerships, and fundraise—but we’re a small outfit, so I do a little bit of everything, really. VCC’s mission is straightforward: to see cannabis fully legalized and decriminalized, making good on our motto of “Equal Access without Stigma,” and to ensure that the Department of Veteran Affairs funds, researches, and develops cannabis-based medications to meet veteran health care needs. We think legalization requires an incrementalist approach, but our bottom line is to further our understanding of cannabis and treat it appropriately. As advocates, we do not get to set the agenda of Congress—although we try—and have to be able to shift and adapt as needed to the current political reality while maintaining sight of our ultimate goal.
Why and how did you get involved in cannabis reform?
My focus and motivation in cannabis reform is rooted in the same reasons why I joined the Army as a teenager. I wanted to have the opportunity to do something good for the country or for others during my service.
I know at least a dozen veterans who’ve told me personally that that cannabis saved their lives. After dealing with complex injuries like traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, and being prescribed cocktails of opioids, tranquilizers, stimulants, and antipsychotics, they found they had turned into different people. Depressed, anxious, in chronic pain, disconnected from themselves and others, suicidal—this is the reality for some. But for those who discovered cannabis, there was relief. They could sleep, they could relax, they did not feel on constant guard or plagued by memories of war. Most of those veterans now medicate with nothing else but cannabis; they’ve kicked a host of powerful pharmaceuticals and end up having a much better quality of life in the process.
Now I’m in a position where I have the tools and support necessary to take ending cannabis prohibition out of the realm of ‘what if?’ and into ‘when?’
What value and benefit does grassroots advocacy bring to the cannabis industry? How can grassroots advocacy help shape the future of cannabis in the United States?
I look at the women’s rights, civil rights, labor, and LBGTQ rights movements—and their successors—and see how notional ‘minority’ groups were able to change mainstream thinking. These movements motivated millions of advocates and supporters to speak, organize, protest, and vote. Cannabis is a bit different in that there is a significant economic factor involved, which goes both ways. There is money pushing toward legalization and money pushing against it, and the money pushing against it has far more influence and resources.
The cannabis industry itself is changing every day. I see firms that are looking to get in, turn a profit, and sell their company as soon as banking restrictions are lifted and massive multinational corporations can buy them out. Then there are firms that have roots in advocacy and believe in cannabis beyond its ability to make money. On top of that, there are tens of thousands of mostly small business owners who are facing very different sets of challenges depending on their zip code and how they interact with cannabis. Fragmented, under-resourced, and up against entrenched business and political interests, what is the industry to do?
Embrace advocates. Regardless of my personal feelings on the issue, we’re not going to sell Congress on the business side of cannabis first—we have to go through the hoops of rescheduling, decriminalizing, and finally, legalization. The best approach is to support a diverse array of organizations and people who are impacted by cannabis prohibition and are willing to engage with elected officials.
Why should new companies in emerging industries, not just nonprofits, consider embracing grassroots advocacy?
Any business would be well-advised to get the support and goodwill of voters—we’re seeing how the tech sector is having to increase its messaging and lobbying efforts due to a lot of real and perceived bad acts. Having real people on your side does not protect any company from criticism, but it definitely provides a certain benefit of the doubt. Companies like Facebook and Twitter now face a real chance of facing additional, costly legal scrutiny about compliance issues. They will do everything they can to avoid that, but it’s a massive gamble if you have no allies beyond paid lobbyists or front groups. If nothing else, investing in grassroots advocacy can be seen as an insurance policy against political ill winds and an outlet to demonstrate corporate social responsibility.
Are there any examples of grassroots advocacy efforts influencing local or state policy on cannabis?
Every state that has adopted a medical or adult-use cannabis program did so because of grassroots advocacy. The cannabis reform movement, as it stands, is still mostly a grassroots effort.
If elected officials in a part of the country are already pro-cannabis, do you think it’s still important to have grassroots engagement? Why?
There are only a couple dozen federal politicians that I would truly call ‘pro-cannabis’ in that they have a public position supporting legalization and decriminalization, out of the 535 total members of Congress. There are far more Senators and Representatives who are somewhere in between complete prohibition or legalization. So, for the over 500 members of Congress who are not firmly in that ‘pro-cannabis’ camp, there’s plenty of work grassroots advocates can do.
What are your predictions for the future of cannabis reform? What are the next major state and federal level legislative actions to keep an eye out for?
I think looking at how federal, state, and municipal governments regulate alcohol is a good predictor for how cannabis legalization will partially shake out. The federal government does some top-level enforcement and tax collection through an executive agency and Congress exercises broad oversight, but states are mostly left to make their own policy. That’s why in some states you can buy liquor in a grocery store, in others a drive-through, and in some states only in government-owned stores. At the county and city levels, you have dry counties where no alcohol is sold at all, or only at certain times, or there’s a moratorium on retail licenses.
The cannabis industry is already a multi-billion dollar sector and will continue to grow, but it offers strong competition to existing products as diverse as textiles, alcohol, tobacco, biofuels, forestry, pharmaceuticals, and food. Those sectors are variously pushing back or buying in, but they all have far more money and influence than the existing industry can bring to bear at the moment which leaves many vulnerable. A lot of the current industry has their profitability tied to the cost of wholesale cannabis. But wholesale prices will only continue to drop as cannabis is grown at scale. In a future where current cultivators and retailers have to compete with Bayer or Walmart, their only refuge is local and state laws that would restrict competition. That’s not even taking into account international competition from places like Israel and Colombia. Legalization is fraught with hazards for the industry, which is why there are some that prefer cannabis stays in the black or gray market where they can dodge taxes and regulations.
Federally, I think legalization might be possible with a unified Democratic government in 2021. In between, however, I see a lot of incremental changes, especially if Congress reschedules whole-plant cannabis which would, in turn, remove a lot of the current barriers to the research and development of medications. I do not think that legalization or de-scheduling should hinge on some future research outcome, but I think it’s likely that many elected officials will hold back on legalization until there’s more research. Inertia works both ways—once cannabis reform is in motion, it will stay in motion unless some other equal force can stop it. A robust, activated coalition of all the communities who are impacted by prohibition and stand to gain from legalization is the best avenue to success.
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