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Justin Strekal loves a good political challenge.

Before entering the arena of cannabis policy reform, Strekal’s experience included a decade of working on campaigns and some prior state government and federal advocacy efforts. Then, in 2016, he took a role as a federal cannabis lobbyist for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

As the oldest non-profit organization devoted to advocating for cannabis law reform, NORML has been fighting for change since 1970. During his tenure, Strekal was there to see some watershed moments in this battle, like the U.S. House of Representatives’ historic 2020 vote to approve a bill ending marijuana prohibition (which was later stalled in the Senate).

Despite what feels like many tentacles of progress all tightening their grasp towards federal legalization, Strekal decided to leave his post in January in pursuit of a new path but the same goal. The result is the Better Organizing to Win Legalization (BOWL) PAC: his new political action committee.

With a stated plan “to build a coalition of other organizations to develop a more targeted approach to legalization in Congress,” Strekal hopes to use his PAC to bring groups who already support cannabis reform together under one banner. He also plans to make pot a premium issue on the ballot later this year.

Speaking with AMMA, Strekal detailed what inspired him to form BOWL PAC, his thoughts on a timeline for federal legalization, and what races he’s focused on this November.

New PAC Seeks to Expedite Federal Cannabis Reform

What led you to leave NORML and start BOWL PAC?

JS: I’ve been wanting to do more in the PAC world for quite some time now. It’s an area where I just see a lot of power being left on the table. When I chose to leave NORML, I didn’t want to completely walk away from the cannabis reform space. I’ve been in it for too long now. I’m too ingrained. I want to see the effort through to the end of prohibition and I thought this would be the best way for me to continue to constructively contribute to the policy reform space in a way that isn’t duplicative of existing efforts.

How does BOWL PAC plan to operate in support for cannabis reform?

JS: To help explain, I’ll use the metaphor of a basketball game. If you think about the legislative process in Congress like a basketball game, the first 46 minutes are about positioning yourself to be able to win in the last two minutes. Then, in those last two minutes, the intensity of the game picks up. The speed at which the players are moving picks up and everything is left out on the court. Looking around, I see all these 46-minute players, but I also see newer groups springing up.

Knowing that they have real heft and legitimacy in the legislative process, I thought that using this new PAC to go and recruit more allies aligned with a lot of the same philosophical views pertaining to criminal justice reform, expungement policies, reinvestment in harm to communities — aspects of reform that moneyed interests may say they’re supportive of, yet many don’t have it as a cornerstone of their approach — could be very beneficial. The goal is to bring more groups from the left of the political spectrum together to engage in cannabis policy reform and to be able to step up and push hard in those last minutes of the negotiations.

BOWL PAC is also looking at getting involved in some election races this November, right?

JS: Correct. To ever be able to count to 60 [votes], we need to change the narrative in the Republican caucus in the Senate. Right now, the narrative is, unfortunately, that marijuana didn’t save Cory Gardner.

With all due respect to the number of people who think that, I disagree. If Jesus Christ himself came back down to earth, to Colorado, and endorsed Cory Gardner, I still think he would have been defeated because of how badly the former president was dragging him down in the polls. Regardless, unfortunately, in his waning days, Gardner chose to spend so much time focused on marijuana policy that there is now this entrenched narrative in the Republican caucus. To change that narrative, we need to do something different.

With the PAC, so far, in just three weeks, we’ve recruited over 30,000 people onto our email list. The theory of the case for this PAC is to raise a bunch of money, and then, with surgical precision, pick a few Senate races and target voters with a very simple message. These are races where there’s a clear contrast: so-and-so supports criminalization and so-and-so supports reform.

How many races are you looking at, roughly?

JS: I’ve got 10 states with pins in them on my map right now. This summer, I plan to do a fundraising tour and raise a lot of money. By then, I’ll have a better sense of what the political winds are looking like, and then we’ll narrow things down, depending on resources.

We’ll pick several Senate races to engage and with the hope that, after the election, we’ll be successful in changing the narrative from ‘marijuana didn’t save Cory’ to ‘marijuana defeated so-and-so.’ The goal is to really force Republican Senators to consider whether remaining entrenched and supportive of prohibition is worth their political future. I believe that at least a sizable chunk of that caucus would be willing to answer ‘no’ to that question.

Right now, they don’t have to ask themselves that question. Right now, they’ve never even thought about that question because they haven’t been forced to think about it. It’s a goal of BOWL PAC to force members of the Senate to have to reckon with that question.

I know it’s basically impossible to handicap the timeline on federal legalization, but given you must be asked for such insight constantly, what’s your current answer?

I’m not a pundit — I’m an advocate. I don’t have a crystal ball. But given the entrenched dynamics right now, I don’t see an ability to count to 60 and who knows what the political landscape is going to be come November. That said, I don’t see the calculus changing ahead of the election, so depending on a myriad of factors — including inflation, Ukraine, Biden’s approval, COVID, and who knows what else — the goal here is to inject marijuana into that list of considerations.

Looking at the Senate map, right now, it is entirely possible that come January 3, we could see anything ranging from a 52-48 Republican-controlled Senate to a 52-48 Democratic-controlled Senate.

I’m looking at Pennsylvania, with the retirement of Senator Toomey; I’m looking at other retirements happening in North Carolina and Ohio; those are all democratic pickup opportunities. It’s also possible we’ll see dedicated prohibitionists like Chuck Grassley in Iowa or Ron Johnson in Wisconsin defeated. Louisiana is a big question mark. I’m very curious to see how Gary Chambers is going to play there. If we see an explosion in Black turnout, I think he very well may be a leader to inspire people to turn out in the midterms.

It’s tough trying to metagame out what the next session of Congress is going to look like. It’s very difficult to do, at this point. Certainly, hypothetically, if we do see continued Democratic control, and possibly the defeat of a [Ron Johnson] or someone, which can then be attributed, at least in part, to cannabis reform efforts, that would help to change the narrative. I suspect that would also embolden the five Republican senators who I believe would consider voting for descheduling, right now, to come out publicly about that, and to convince some of their colleagues to join them.

What can readers who wish to help do here?

You can contribute at If you get on our email list, we will be doing some letter writing campaigns to support our legislative efforts. We’ll make it easy for you to contact your elected officials as well. Sharing our endeavors on social media helps a lot too. By sharing our information, that broadens our audience.

I’m not taking a salary from the PAC. I plan to be an incredibly thoughtful steward. 100% of the fundraiser is going to go directly into this plan to defeat marijuana prohibition in Congress.

Bigger picture, if you’ll indulge another sports metaphor here, it feels like we’re running down the football field and we keep on thinking that we’re picking up speed, but then it turns out that the field is just riddled with big holes that have been covered up with sticks and leaves. As a result, we keep falling down and then we have to climb back up and try to get our steam going again.

When we’re talking about comprehensive reform, marijuana policy and prohibition touches nearly every aspect of public policy, from product regulation to workers’ protections and rights to the FDA and how we appropriately reckon with the fact that the cannabis reform movement has simultaneously billed this substance as a therapeutic medicine and as a recreational substance. That is an incredibly difficult road to navigate and almost everybody is going to be unhappy with the compromise.

Take an issue like interstate trade. Right now, there’s this civil war happening within the industry. A lot of marijuana companies would rather not see federal reform [arrive] if it means including interstate trade because their entire business plan is predicated on states with hyper restrictive licensing having closed markets. They don’t want more affordable cannabis coming in from Oregon or Oklahoma and hitting dispensary shelves and that is deeply troubling to me.

We are now seeing these canna-capitalists prioritizing their bottom line over the fundamental rights and freedom of their would-be consumers. Last year, in some state legislatures, cannabis companies started lobbying against legalization bills because they would expand licensing. We saw this in Virginia with the effort to establish, essentially, a three-company monopoly in their soon-to-be licensed adult use market.

These are very challenging questions and I think many, many people in the movement believe that we are closer to reform than we are. In the grand scheme of things, given this has been going on for coming up on 85 years, yes, we are very close to the finish line, if that’s your timeline.

But there are a lot of people who just got hip to the idea of legalization in the last few years and they’re like, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ If you knew your history a bit, you would have a deeper appreciation for how hard it was to get to where we are now, for you to even be able to not be laughed at when you say, ‘Why is this taking so long?’