Marijuana lobbying reaches new high on Beacon Hill

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When lawmakers proposed tough new regulations and higher taxes on recreational marijuana sales last year as part of a rewrite of the voter-approved pot law, the response from potential growers and sellers was swift.

A small army of lobbyists descended on Beacon Hill, many of them paid by out-of-state marijuana industry groups.

Those efforts appear to have paid off as the state House of Representatives backed off a higher tax levy and left many regulatory proposals out of the final bill.

"We would have had a lot more local restrictions, and certainly higher taxes, on recreational marijuana if the House version had survived," said Jim Borghesani of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that spent more than $74,000 on lobbying state officials last year.

"That would have made it very difficult to get the industry off the ground," he said.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, it’s not surprising that the marijuana lobby is growing like weeds.

More than $1.1 million was spent lobbying on marijuana in 2017, according to public disclosures filed with Secretary of State William Galvin's office. That’s more than three times the $250,000 spent by mostly medical marijuana-related lobbyists two years earlier.

Opponents of legal weed say they aren't surprised by the increased spending by the pot lobby.

"We expected this because we've seen it in other states," said Jody Hensley, a policy adviser for the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, which opposed legalization. "The marijuana industry essentially wrote the law, and now they are heavily influencing policy to expand the supply and use of it."

She argues that the rule-making process is also being driven by the pot industry, both at the state level and in communities.

"Every time political operatives of the cannabis industry try to influence negotiations on policies, they win," she said. "Because they are sophisticated, experienced and highly paid."

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he too isn't surprised by the influx of outside money by firms with a stake in the industry.

"This is a nascent industry and there's a lot of money involved," he said. "So it's no shock that they are trying to put their thumb on the scale."

Still, he suggests that the local approval process for allowing marijuana sales or cultivation facilities is largely insulated from the influence of Beacon Hill lobbyists.

"They're not going to spend a lot of money trying to influence town meeting members," he said. "I don't think that would be very effective."

Weedmaps, a California-based company that runs an online marijuana dispensary rating service, has hired several lobbying firms to help break into the Massachusetts market.

Last year, the company spent a combined $120,000 on lobbyists, according to state disclosures. Among them: Smith, Costello & Crawford, a Beacon Hill-based firm whose principals include former state Rep. Michael Costello, a Newburyport Democrat.

Chris Beals, Weedmaps' president and general counsel, says the company has focused on providing research, data and information to policymakers "on what models of legalization and policies have worked in other jurisdictions."

"Our central tenant is to encourage effective legalization of marijuana that minimizes the illegal market while providing a safe legal market that mitigates any public health concerns," he said.

A ballot question legalizing pot passed with more than 53 percent of the vote in November 2016, allowing adults 21 and older to carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public and grow up to a dozen plants on their property.

The law also permits retail sales and commercial growing, which are expected to get underway in July. The state's five-member Cannabis Control Commission is finalizing draft regulations for the industry that will govern sales and cultivation.

Massachusetts also has a medical marijuana program that was approved by voters in 2012. There are 22 dispensaries statewide, serving about 46,000 patients, according to the Department of Public Health.

Among those lobbying on marijuana-related issues is Dan Delaney of Delaney Policy Group, who was paid nearly $140,000 in 2017 by Commonwealth Alternative Care Inc. and two other groups that represent medical marijuana dispensaries.

He said much of what he does involved "bridging the cultures" between state officials and the growing medicinal pot industry.

"A lot of what I do is translating," he said in an interview. "Because it's such a new industry, you don't have business operators who have enough experience to speak in the terms that state or local elected officials understand."

Delaney, a former state health official who opposed the Question 4 initiative that legalized pot, doesn't represent recreational pot interests.

"I'm not opposed to representing recreational use but I would have to be comfortable with the ethics of whatever group wants to hire me," he said.

He suggests that what's being reported to Galvin's office is only the tip of the iceberg because many lawyers employed by the industry are not filing disclosures.

"There's a lot more money involved," he said. "I would bet that what's being reported is only about one-third of what is actually being spent."

Several other lobbyists didn't return phone calls seeking comment. 

Trying to figure out how much the pot lobby spends is a challenge. Most disclosures for marijuana lobbying in Galvin's searchable lobbyist database are filed under health care, education or pharmaceutical sections. There are categories for the alcoholic beverage and tobacco industry but not marijuana.

The pot lobby in Massachusetts still takes a back seat to the much older, better-financed alcohol industry, which spent more than $1.2 million lobbying state officials and lawmakers last year, according to disclosures.

And the pot spending still pales in comparison to the health care, energy and education industries, which pour millions of dollars a year into lobbying.

The pot industry has also started plowing money into shaping federal policy as states increasingly legalize marijuana use.

In 2017, the marijuana industry spent more than $1.3 million on Washington lobbyists, double the amount it did in the previous year, according to a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

While companies in other sectors spent far more, the growth of marijuana lobbying was the most of any industry, the group said.

Borghesani said lobbying on Beacon Hill is essential for giving the new industry a voice when there is still much opposition to legal weed.

"It's always helpful to have people on the ground who have contacts and understand how the system works," he said. "Just like any other industry, lobbyists are going to continue to represent the marijuana industry so that our voices are heard."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

TOP POT LOBBYING FIRMS

Lobbyists are required by law to file periodic disclosures with the Secretary of State's Office showing the issues they are focused on and how much they spent. These expenses were compiled from those reports.

Beacon Strategies Group LLC — $350,000

The Novus Group — $200,000

Smith Costello & Crawford — $145,500

Delaney Policy Group — $139,490

Preti Strategies — $88,000

Torrisi Strategic Advisors LLC — $66,000

Nelson Mullins  — $40,500