WASHINGTON -- Colorado’s delegation in Congress is being criticized by an advocacy group for the thousands of dollars in campaign donations that several of the state's elected officials have received from the marijuana industry.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, one of the Congress members mentioned by the group, responded by noting that cannabis is a "legitimate business in the state of Colorado" that has been legalized by the state's voters "not once but twice."
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit group co-founded by former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy that opposes marijuana legalization, this week released partial data (presented as an online tracking tool) on campaign contributions made to members of Congress in Colorado and other states by what SAM considers cannabis-industry donors in recent years.
"These elected officials have decided to put the addiction-for-profit interests of Big Pot over the interest of public health and safety," said Kevin Sabet, SAM’s president. "We at SAM have been actively following the flow of money from the industry to elected officials and now the public can see if their member of Congress has been bought and paid for by Big Marijuana and its Big Tobacco investors."
The launch of the online tool comes as pro-legalization activists are pressuring Congress to take action to relax laws against marijuana at the federal level now that many states allow its use. In particular, the pot industry is pushing for access to banking and other financial services that are now difficult for them to obtain because the drug remains illegal under federal law.
“The pro-legalization lobbying has shifted from do-good types funded by a few billionaires (who did this because they thought it was good for the world, not because they wanted to make more billions) to industry, which is all about the money,” Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon professor who writes about marijuana legalization, told Roll Call.
Justin Strekal, political director for the pro-pot group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Newsweek that SAM "has shifted dramatically over the years as they struggle to maintain relevance. No matter what rhetoric they use, it's defending a policy that subjects hundreds of thousands of people to being arrested or incarcerated over a substance that is objectively less harmful than legal alcohol or tobacco."
SAM does not allege that there is anything illegal about the contributions, and the tracking tool does not link specific donations to any actions by a lawmaker on behalf of the donors. The database is labeled a "work in progress" because it is not yet complete or up to date.
Colton Grace, spokesman for SAM, said the alliance has posted data it has collected so far showing campaign contributions from marijuana-related businesses going back several years, up to the second quarter of 2018.
"There is no set time frame," he said. "We are working to create a database that will list any and all donations elected officials have taken from the industry."
The alliance, Grace said, defines the "marijuana industry" as "any known industry players, companies who grow/sell marijuana products, and the ancillary companies who service them, ... law firms who focus on the marijuana space, and venture firms who focus on investment in the marijuana industry."
In Colorado, voters legalized recreational pot sales in a 2012 amendment, years after agreeing to allow its sale for medicinal purposes. The state therefore is a big campaign-contributions target for the marijuana industry, according to SAM.
“Colorado has an older, more established industry, and as such, many former regulators have gone to work for the industry and are savvy about how contributions lead to influence over policy,” Grace said.
The SAM tracking tool lists six current or former members of the state's congressional delegation as having received pot-related campaign donations over several years. Each listing in the database links to a Federal Elections Commission filing on the donation.
The tool shows Jared Polis -- for 10 years the Democratic congressman representing the Boulder-based 2nd Congressional District and now Colorado's governor -- having received a total of $26,595 in 24 campaign contributions that SAM considers marijuana-industry related between June 2013 and May 2017.
Among the campaign donations listed for Polis are two totaling $10,600 from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a California company that uses hemp in its products and which advocates for marijuana legalization on its website. Also listed are two donations totaling $5,300 from The Genetic Locker Inc. and three donations adding up to $4,500 from Skinny Pineapple Inc., both of which are Boulder-based marijuana dispensaries.
Colorado Politics has asked Polis for a comment but has not yet responded.
In Congress, Polis in 2017 helped launch the bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus, a forum for House members "to discuss, learn, and work together to establish a better and more rational approach to federal cannabis policy."
A 2018 statement from his congressional office described Polis as "a longtime advocate for updating federal marijuana policy" and noted he had introduced a bill to remove marijuana from the list of "Schedule 1" drugs and regulate it like alcohol.
As for Perlmutter, D-Arvada, the SAM tracking tool shows $16,858 in contributions that SAM deems linked to the marijuana industry to the congressman's campaigns between August 2013 and October 2016.
They include four donations totaling $6,500 from the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), two adding up to $2,500 from the Marijuana Policy Project PAC, and three totaling $1,788 from Vicente Sederberg LLC, a Denver law firm that says it provides "legal and policy services to cannabis and hemp industries."
Perlmutter’s influence in Congress makes him attractive to marijuana industry investors, SAM's Grace said, adding: “Perlmutter's service on the [U.S. House] Financial Services Committee is critical for the marijuana industry to have access to Wall Street investment."
Asked for comment, a Perlmutter spokesman acknowledged the congressman is trying to help marijuana businesses find ways to secure financing.
“Colorado voters spoke resoundingly, not once but twice, in legalizing medical and recreational marijuana,” said spokesman Austin Blumenfeld in a statement. “It is a legitimate business in the state of Colorado. Rep. Perlmutter’s focus in this area is to align federal and state laws to allow these legitimate businesses to have access to the financial industry. Without this access we are putting the safety of the public, employees and law enforcement at risk.”
In all, SAM's "work in progress" database indicates that the six listed Colorado members of Congress or candidates for congressional office accepted a total of $58,203 in recent years from marijuana-related sources.
Among other Colorado Congress members and candidates listed by SAM, it says Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, received $11,250 in campaign contributions from pot-related interests; Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, got $3,000; Democrat Joe Neguse, who was elected to the Boulder-based 2nd Congressional District seat last fall, received $2,000; and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner got $500.
SAM's list does not mention Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet; current Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn or Scott Tipton; former Republican Rep. Mike Coffman; or Jason Crow, the Democrat who defeated Coffman last November, as having received marijuana-related donations. It also excludes any other of last year's Colorado congressional candidates.
Asked why some Colorado representatives are not listed, Grace, the SAM spokesman, said: "If a member is not listed, that means that as of [second quarter] 2018 filings, we have not been able to identify a donation to that member from an entity that we can clearly label as a marijuana industry entity. As we are able to sort through the filings post Q2, if we find donations that match our criteria, we will update the page to reflect the donation."
SAM said the biggest marijuana industry donations to any member of Congress, based on its incomplete data, went to U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon. He received a total $33,176.
"It’s not a surprise that I'm #1 on this list," Blumenauer -- also a founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus -- tweeted in response on Tuesday. "I’ve been working on this issue since 1973 when Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession. It’s also not a surprise that this group" -- an evident reference to SAM -- "opposes reform & keeps their [moneybag symbol] quiet. Legalization is coming. Deal with it."
As Roll Call notes, the contribution figures that SAM cites are minuscule compared to donations from other industries.
"For example, the pharmaceutical and health products industry poured $216 million into House and Senate races in the 2018 cycle alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics," Roll Call says.