Marijuana companies and promoters spent about $3 million on lobbying in New York over five years, targeting medical cannabis and the recreational pot debate.
Aimed at New York regulators and politicians, the money flowed from powerful West Coast cannabis investors and Midwest medical marijuana empires as well as politically connected East Coast pot players and start-ups.
Yet caught in the lobbying crossfire are parents like Susan Salomone of Mahopac, who lost her son Justin to a heroin overdose, and now speaks at schools about the scourge of addiction.
When students argue marijuana legalization in some states means it isn’t dangerous, Salomone shows them a picture of her sons.
“I tell them ‘Three of these boys experimented with marijuana and one of them died of a heroin overdose,’ ” she said, “It’s not going to be everybody but you don’t know if it’s going to be you.”
Amid the lobbying, advocacy and political pressure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo changed course on legalizing marijuana after years of opposition. He signed New York’s medical marijuana law in 2014 and launched a recreational pot study this year.
At Cuomo’s behest, the state health department pot study recommended New York should pursue recreational marijuana legalization, a stance currently being debated at listening sessions statewide. One is set for Oct. 17 in Westchester County.
Informed of the lobbying tally, marijuana opponents criticized New York leaders for yielding to influence peddlers driving drug laws in 30 states with medical cannabis and nine with recreational pot.
“The pot industry sees political giving as the price of doing business,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “We’re worried they are simply manipulating the process with money.”
Pro-cannabis groups, however, described lobbying as necessary to end marijuana prohibition that keeps medicine from seriously ill patients and recreational use in the shadows.
“States around the country are demonstrating that regulating marijuana works,” said Mason Tvert, a Marijuana Policy Project spokesman. “It allows folks to purchase marijuana safely, legally and from licensed, taxed businesses, rather than on the illegal market.”
To understand the stakes, consider the $8 billion valuation for medical and recreationalmarijuana businesses across the country, and the $2 billion they generated in taxes last year.
Vireo Health and Etain, the medical marijuana companies in Westchester and Ulster counties, ranked among the top lobbying spenders in New York. Citiva Medical also ranked high and has plans to open a Dutchess County dispensary.
In order to spotlight the marijuana dealings of lobbyists, politicians and regulators behind the scenes, The Journal News/lohud reviewed public ethics records, interviewed industry leaders and advocacy groups.
Among the findings:
- About $1 million went to marijuana-related lobbying since 2017, while New York loosened restrictions on medical marijuana and considered recreational legislation.
- That spending outpaced the $2 million between 2013 and 2016, as questions mounted over medical marijuana licenses going to top spenders and patients struggled to access medicine.
- Much of the lobbying cited specific medical marijuana legislation, but $290,000 didn’t list many details and was difficult to evaluate. Another $50,000 listed general marijuana policy reforms and adult-use legislation.
- In addition to lobbying, some California-based marijuana players made campaign donations to Cuomo, including $90,000 as the health department worked on its recreational pot report.
- Some medical marijuana companies have voiced support for New York legalizing pot, but few have openly discussed if they plan to sell recreational drugs here.
Medical and recreational
Much of the marijuana legalization debate sits at the crossroads of medical and recreational drugs.
Everything began when California became the first state to allow medical marijuana in the 1990s, despite the fact it remained illegal under federal law. In 2014, New York became the 21st state to follow the example.
Seemingly riding the medical use green wave, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to allow recreational pot in 2012. Seven more states have since legalized it and many others are currently debating the issue, including New Jersey.
Yet anti-legalization advocate Sabet says New York crossed a critical policy line in pushing recreational pot: It has the first state health department that recommends recreational marijuana.
In a detailed rebuttal, Smart Approaches to Marijuana raised concerns about New York’s health department using questionable data and downplaying public safety risks, such as marijuana use by pregnant women and youths.
Sabet described the stage agency’s report as more a lobbying byproduct than an independent government assessment.
“It’s striking to me that the department of health wrote this report … I thought I was reading the website of a pro-marijuana industry group,” Sabet said.
Health Department officials wouldn’t discuss the issue and described the marijuana report as an unbiased study of the issue.
“This comprehensive report, which includes a wide variety of credible evidence on both sides of the issue, concluded that the positive impact of a regulated marijuana market in New York state outweighs the potential negative aspects,” said Jill Montag, agency spokeswoman.
Salomone, the Mahopac mother who also co-founded Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, described the support of recreational pot as counterproductive to efforts to curb New York’s drug epidemic.
“It’s unbelievable to me because the governor’s spending millions of dollars on this heroin epidemic and now we’re legalizing marijuana, does any of it make any sense?” she said.
Still, health department officials noted a panel of experts from medical, government and law enforcement backgrounds consulted on the recreational pot report.
Yet some health care groups, such as the Medical Society of the State of New York, disagreed with the state agency’s conclusions on legalizing recreational pot, including that it’s all but inevitable because other states already allow it.
“Pundits often joke about public policy, ‘you can lead the train, be on the train, or be under the train,’ ” said Dr. Thomas Madejski, the society’s president. “I’m concerned that further expansion of non-medicinal marijuana usage in New York state may lead to a train wreck.”
Concerns about New Yorkers crossing into other states to smoke legal weed, however, are rooted in the history of teens jumping between New York, Connecticut and New Jersey for alcohol when the legal drinking age differed in the 1970s.
The lobbying breakdown
It is difficult to determine how much New York lobbying money focused on recreational marijuana because state ethics laws don’t require many details.
While many lobbying filings disclosed medical marijuana as the issue, some reported no specific legislation was involved. Others didn’t describe issues or referred to general health care and budgetary issues.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana argued there is a blurred line between lobbying for medical and recreational marijuana for some companies and advocates.
“We’re finding a lot of these medical groups are just a front for full recreational legalization, and they are buying up smaller maybe more legitimate medical outfits, so they can expand and grow,” Sabet said.
Marijuana legalization advocate Tvert disputed Sabet’s characterization of support for medical cannabis.
“The notion of it being a Trojan Horse is absurd…it is something widely established in the scientific and medical communities that is widely supported by the public and elected officials,” Tvert said, adding recreational use focuses on different issues.
“Once people come to recognize that marijuana is a less harmful substance than alcohol, they tend to agree that it should be treated that way,” he said.
One issue with parsing New York lobbying, however, is that the same state agency, the health department, regulates medical marijuana and issued a report supporting recreational pot legislation.
About $320,000 in marijuana lobbying listed the health department as a target, although a majority noted it planned to focus on medical use.
The California connection
Few of the lobbying spenders in New York have clear connections to recreational marijuana.
One is MedMen Inc., formerly Bloomfield Industries Inc. and an affiliate of its namesake cannabis conglomerate that has medical and recreational sites in California and Nevada.
MedMen spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying medical marijuana in New York, but one of its filings this year disclosed plans to push recreational pot. It noted contract info was unknown at the time of the filing.
Further, MedMen’s investment arm and principal, Andrew Modlin, donated $90,000 to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign fund this year, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The campaign donations came as the state health department worked on its recreational pot report and medical marijuana review. In fact, $15,000 was donated on July 12, the day the agency added opioid-related health conditions as eligible for medical cannabis. The next day, the recreational pot report was released.
Further, another $50,000 campaign donation to Cuomo seemed to be connected to MedMen in December 2017. It listed the donor as Project Compassion NY LLC and had the same address as a MedMen lobbying filing at the time. The money flowed the month before Cuomo launched the recreational pot study.
Cuomo didn’t respond to an interview request about why he changed positions on medical and recreational marijuana.
MedMen wouldn’t discuss lobbying and political donations in New York.
Sabet described the campaign donations as another example of money influencing marijuana policy.
“The process should be fair, not driven by who has the most money,” he said, adding the anti-legislation group recently opened an office in New York City to focus on organizing the mounting opposition to recreational pot legislation.
“We’re being contacted daily by people who don’t want their apartment buildings full of pot smoke, who don’t want more dangerous roads due to impaired driving, and who don’t want to be hoodwinked by a new industry that will act as irresponsibly as Big Pharma or Big Tobacco,” he said.
Salomone, who also serves on a statewide anti-opioid task force handpicked by Cuomo, noted her advocacy group is not opposed to medical marijuana.
“We’re against recreational marijuana, it’s just another gateway drug,” she said, “Why do we have to put another drug out there for kids to get addicted to?”
The Hudson Valley players
Another New York company tied to recreational pot is Citiva Medical, which plans to open a Dutchess County medical marijuana dispensary next year.
It is affiliated with the pot conglomerate, iAnthus Capital, with medical and recreational operations in Colorado and Massachusetts and other states.
Citiva is building a 39,500-square-foot medical marijuana grow operation in Orange County, and is poised to add recreational weed, if its legalized.
“We’ve been investing heavily in our grow facility…so we can be ready for the recreational market,” said Amy Holdener, a Citiva spokeswoman.
Citiva spent about $160,000 lobbying marijuana in New York, citing “health care issues” on some filings without listing specific legislation.
Holdener said she was unaware of any Citiva lobbying focused on recreational pot here, but added legalization seemed like an inevitability at this point.
The company’s biggest concern appeared to be finding a way to beat out illicit drug dealers currently meeting New York’s pot demands.
“The biggest challenge in the recreational market in New York is the competition with the black market,” Holdener said.
New York City’s marijuana use, for instance, topped a ranking of global cities in 2017. It consumed about 77 metric tons, or 170,000 pounds, of pot that year, USA Today reported.
Westchester County-based Etain, which has a Yonkers medical marijuana dispensary, is another company with plans to expand into recreational markets. It recently partnered with companies selling cannabis in California.
Etain spent about $394,500 lobbing in New York, and executives say none of it focused on recreational marijuana issues.
“When the time is right and we are ready as an organization, we will join the conversation about recreational,” said Chief Operating Officer Hillary Peckham. “But as of now, Etain has not formalized an official position/policy on recreational use in New York state.”
Many of the lobbying spenders have investors with varied interests. One is Vireo Health and its recent Canadian public offering that attracted money from offshore locales known for fiscal secrecy.
Vireo spokesman Andrew Mangini said the company agreed with the state health department’s report on recreational pot. He didn’t answer questions about Vireo’s lobbying and business plans related to the issue.
“Legalization will not only help reduce opioid deaths and discrimination against people of color, but also bring substantial tax revenue to the state,” he said. “It’s time to end the war on drugs and create an environment in which New York patients and adult consumers have safe and legal access to marijuana.”