By Rob Hotakainen
Published: Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010 – 9:28 am

WASHINGTON – The cannabis industry has flexed its muscles in 15 states, including California, where it’s legal to smoke marijuana for medical purposes.

Now the industry is ready to go to work in Washington.

A new trade group, called the National Cannabis Industry Association, aims to bring together sellers, growers and manufacturers and to promote pot on Capitol Hill.

“Our intent is to be the go-to organization in Washington for this industry,” said Aaron Smith, the group’s executive director.

For the past five years, Smith worked as California director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

“Coming out of California and expanding into this national field is pretty exciting,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that the medical marijuana industry is becoming recognized more and more by the mainstream as a fully legitimate part of the economy.”

California voters last month rejected a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for all adults, but Smith said it’s just a matter of time before the drug is fully legalized.

“It didn’t happen in 2010, but it’s likely to happen in 2012,” he said.”

But Smith will have a hard time finding many pro-marijuana advocates in Congress.

On Wednesday, the House voted 400-4 for a resolution sponsored by Republican Rep. Wally Herger of Chico that calls on authorities to get tougher with those cultivating marijuana on federal lands.

In a speech on the House floor, Herger said the presence of Mexican marijuana cartel operations in national forests in Northern California “poses a serious threat to our public safety and use of our public lands.”

And Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen of Wisconsin called medical marijuana “a misnomer.”

Smith said the marijuana association officially formed this month. Its 23-member board includes leaders in the cannabis industry, representing dispensaries, operators, publications, insurance providers and others.

The association’s first target will be a federal law that prohibits marijuana use even if states have legalized it. It has caused confusion amid overlapping jurisdictions, with state authorities enforcing state laws and federal officials enforcing federal laws.

But the Obama administration has been easing up. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to back away from cases against medical marijuana patients and to focus on higher-level traffickers or money launderers.

“I’d like to see that codified by Congress, to become the law of the land, not just an executive order,” Smith said. “This industry’s biggest challenges are the obstacles presented by federal law.”

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