25 Investigates: Marijuana lobby floods lawmakers with campaign donations

BOSTON — Pro-pot lobbyists poured thousands of dollars into Massachusetts lawmakers’ campaign coffers last year, 25 Investigates has uncovered.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen found the flurry of donations ramping up as the state prepares to open its first recreational marijuana shops this summer.

“I’m not surprised... This is how government works,” said Horace Small, a community activist and member of the state's Cannabis Advisory Board. “There’s one or two ways you get influence in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Either you’re organizing people and turning them out and coming to the State House and doing that work or you buy them. It’s really that simple.”

A 25 Investigates review found:

  • Gov. Charlie Baker raked in more than $7,000 from marijuana industry lobbyists in 2017 alone, according to campaign finance records
  • Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo took in $4,600 in campaign donations from the marijuana lobby last year
  • Former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg reported receiving $4,200 from pot lobbyists in 2017

State Rep. Mark Cusack collected nearly $5,000 from lobbyists with cannabis industry, campaign records show. The Braintree Democrat was named chairman of the newly formed Joint Committee of Marijuana Policy last year – the only committee he’s on.

In total, Cusack’s campaign collected more than $14,000 from all types of lobbyists during a three-month period last spring. At the same time, his committee was drafting a bill that set up the state’s Cannabis Control Commission – the new state agency tasked with regulating recreational pot licenses and sales.

Opponent takes money from pro-pot lobby

State Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and vice chairman of the Committee on Marijuana Policy, accepted more than $2,800 from marijuana lobbyists in just 2017.

Lewis, a prominent voice against legalization ahead of the 2016 ballot question, defended the donations when 25 Investigates caught up with him this month.

“I’ve received campaign contributions from all different kinds of people,” said Lewis.

25 Investigates found Lewis continued accepting pro-pot donations even after his hometown of Winchester banned recreational marijuana businesses in November.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Lewis: “How can you make a marijuana policy that’s fair to everybody when you take money from special interests?”

Lewis responded, “Well, we have very strict campaign finance limits in Massachusetts, some of the strictest in the country.”

“I don’t believe that any contributions I’ve received from anybody has impacted any decisions that I’ve made,” Lewis told 25 Investigates.

What does all that money buy?

25 Investigates also asked to speak with one of the prominent marijuana lobbyists who donated to lawmakers to find out what he expects for all of those campaign donations but never heard back from him.

Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, said she’s not surprised by the flood of lobbying on marijuana – which is expected to be a billion-dollar industry in Massachusetts.

“The question is, how much influence do they have and do the legislators, ultimately, make the right call for what’s in the best interests of the public rather than what’s in the best interests of the lobbyists?” said Connaughton.

Shanel Lindsay, who helped lead the ballot push to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, said she worries lobbyists will convince lawmakers to eliminate some of the more affordable pot licenses for small business owners, such as delivery services or marijuana cafes.

“There’s nothing wrong with big business, but there is something wrong with excluding small business,” said Lindsay.

Big marijuana spent more than $1.5 million on lobbyist salaries in 2017, according to state records.

Medical marijuana lobby the biggest spender

More than half of last year’s pro-pot spending – around $844,000 – came from companies that listed medical marijuana as their main interest but also lobbied on legislation involving recreational use.

Medical marijuana provider New England Treatment Access, Inc. was the single biggest spender at $184,000, state records show.

Massachusetts voters approved recreational marijuana in 2016, but pot sales aren’t scheduled to begin until July 1 of 2018.

Beverly Barish sells marijuana paraphernalia and other “counter culture” gifts at her Natick store, Wicked Chronic. She told 25 Investigations she hopes to get into the marijuana growing or selling business too.

Barish, a small business owner, says she’s worried about getting priced out of the market by big corporations.

“Everybody’s worried,” said Barish. “We're worried about the lobbyists. We’re worried about all the money. We’re worried about the big dispensaries kind of coming in and getting monopolies.”

25 Investigates Intern Jenna Perlman contributed to this report.