Cannabis Cronysim

Cannabis Cronyism

February 2021

Government Accountability Institute 


Executive Summary Cannabis legalization in the United States has come a long way. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use only. This past November, five more states legalized marijuana, and 47 of the 50 states now allow its recreational or medical use. While governments this Spring were imposing lockdowns and closures of most businesses, churches and schools to combat the COVID-19 epidemic, marijuana dispensaries joined pharmacies and liquor stores as “essential businesses” that must remain open in California.

 While he was the first governor to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, Governor Gavin Newsom of California kept marijuana available. Other states would soon follow: Thirty states in total that issued statewide stay-at-home orders would allow dispensaries of some kind, including recreational, to remain open.1

 While some claim that cannabis dispensaries were truly as important as pharmacies, which also remained open during statewide lockdowns, other factors may have contributed to this decision. Whatever its medicinal and recreational benefits, cannabis has evolved into a nearly $21 billion industry that lobbies, pressures, and rewards politicians who look out for it.2

In August 2019, the FBI announced it was investigating public corruption in the cannabis industry through pay-to-play bribery schemes. This announcement came at a time when the debate in the United States over the pros and cons of legalizing pot had mostly concluded. Officials in many states have routinely ignored federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, effectively giving regulatory authority over marijuana to individual states.

There are now far more states where marijuana is fully legal than where it is illegal. Twelve states have decided through referendum, and two states through legislative action, to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Just three states – Nebraska, Kansas, and Idaho – still prohibit any use of marijuana, while the remaining forty-seven states have opted for legalization in some form.

With this new authority, state officials must now create specific regulations. Where states have approved legal marijuana, politicians must make licensing rules for detailing which businesses may distribute such products, and who may purchase them. As with any new market, laws and regulations inevitably will pick the winners and losers in this emerging industry, whose value may be as high as $35 billion by 2025. 3

As with any economic activity regulated by the government, affected businesses seek an advantage by hiring insiders who have access to those close to the regulatory process. They also make campaign contributions to well-positioned politicians.

And while most cannabis-related regulatory and legislative action is happening at the state level, some national level political figures have leveraged their positions to make money from cannabis legalization.

For example, in 2017, Paul Pelosi Jr., the son of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was named Chairman of the Board of Directors of Freedom Leaf, Inc., a consulting firm advising the budding marijuana industry.4 The following year, the company entered the CBD distribution business, while Pelosi purchased more than $100,000 in company stock.5

Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who staunchly opposed legalizing marijuana in Congress, is now bullish on the industry. “This is one of the most exciting opportunities you’ll ever be part of,” he says in a video announcing his new National Institute for Cannabis Investors. “Frankly, we can help you make a potential fortune.”6 Boehner stands to earn an estimated $20 million if his group succeeds in persuading the federal government to legitimize marijuana.7

Still, for now, the states are where most of the action on marijuana distribution is found, and where the greatest threat of political corruption exists. The Government Accountability Institute (GAI), whose mission is to expose cronyism, reviewed the process related to legalizing marijuana in seven states. For each state we reviewed, GAI focused on identifying the relationships between policy decisions that benefited advocates of marijuana legalization and the transfer of money and other benefits from marijuana-related businesses and lobbyists to elected officials.

While each state possessed a unique set of circumstances related to legalizing marijuana, our research found striking similarities in how cronyism in these states occurred. For example, in several states, elected officials and government employees made decisions that ultimately benefited them financially. Also, in several instances, campaign contributions were timed around important shifts in policy.

GAI analyzed original documents that included lobbying records, campaign donations, FBI subpoenas, FBI indictments, meeting minutes and videos, and various administrative rulings issued by state officials. GAI also reviewed press accounts of the legalization process. Our research found the following:

 • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who once scorned marijuana as a “gateway” drug, changed his position and supported the full legalization of marijuana after appointing advisors, including his chief of staff, who had a financial interest in legalizing marijuana, and after receiving significant campaign contributions from marijuana-related businesses.

 • In California, the FBI is investigating Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman over allegations they were conspiring to funnel foreign contributions into political campaigns to influence decisions related to marijuana licensure.

 • In Florida, Ballard Partners, a Florida-based lobbying firm once called “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” is tied to two separate FBI inquiries connected to Florida’s cannabis industry. The firm was subpoenaed by prosecutors from the Southern District of New York who are investigating the illegal foreign money donor scheme.8

 • Shortly after her 2018 election as Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner, Nikki Fried reported a $1 million increase in her net wealth, thanks in part to a gift from the CEO of a marijuana company that was awarded a license under a new Florida law who she was romantically involved with

. • In Illinois, recently elected Governor J.B. Pritzker pushed quickly for legalizing recreational marijuana use, which benefitted his cousin, Joby Pritzker. Joby Pritzker was credited by advocates of the legislation with helping write the bill. He also had a financial interest in PAX Labs, Inc., which sells cannabis vaporizers. In May 2018, before recreational use was legal, PAX 4 Labs sold cannabis vaporizers in approximately fifty locations across Illinois through third-party vendors. As of 2020, based on the company’s website, that number is now over 120.

 • Several Illinois elected officials who supported a change in the law that would yield an additional $100-$400 million in marijuana sales received approximately $1 million in campaign contributions from Stephen and Mary Jo Schuler. The Schulers were investors in PharmaCann, one of Illinois largest marijuana businesses. The change to the law was a windfall for PharmaCann and other businesses, by allowing access to medical marijuana for people who had previously been prescribed opioids.

 • In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan demanded a state delegate resign over financial ties to a cannabis business that was seeking a license. Our research shows that Governor Hogan had his own connections to cannabis companies seeking licenses in Maryland.

 • In Missouri, the FBI arrived in Jefferson City just after a medical marijuana law was passed. Agents remained visible throughout the licensing and implementation of the new law under Governor Mike Parson. The FBI was watching a legislator-turned-lobbyist named Steven Tilley. Tilley, who was so well known as the master of legally converting unspent campaign funds to personal benefit that the practice is called the “Tilley Shuffle,” was a confidant of Governor Parson, who created and implemented the marijuana licensing process.

 • In the state of Washington, a judge awarded a resident $192,000 in restitution after finding the state’s licensing board repeatedly violated open meeting laws related to the implementation of cannabis legislation. • Over the last five years, the FBI was engaged in criminal investigations related to legalizing marijuana in at least four of the seven states we reviewed. These states include California, Missouri, Florida, and New York.

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