Big Marijuana, Big Money, Big Politics: Part One — Illinois

By September 6, 2019Uncategorized

In the past year, the legalization of recreational and medical marijuana has dominated conversations on drug policy across the nation. At the local level, states pushing for marijuana are encouraging a federal reckoning with the legality of the drug. Pro-pot legislators have protested the lackadaisical attitude of the federal government, asserting that the states are leading on the issue of marijuana. “We are a government of the people, and the people have changed their views,” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner asserted at a recent Senate hearing regarding marijuana and credit access, “so our laws must change.”

The invocation of the fantastical “will of the people” is driving arguments for the legalization of marijuana in states where the drug remains illegal, as it is at the federal level. But are the states leading as marijuana proponents contend? Recent investigations into local politics and marijuana policy suggest a darker hand at play.

In politics, big money plays an increasingly large role in crafting law to serve special interests, prompting a wave of politicians to recommend changes to the system. Tom Udall, a U.S. Senator from New Mexico recently wrote in an op-ed, “Big money in politics has overwhelmed the political process, granting wealthy special interests more power now than at any time in recent American history.” The case is no different with marijuana.

Big Marijuana, not the states nor the people, is leading on the issue of marijuana legalization. Big Marijuana is leading with big money and concentrated efforts to influence political processes. Examples exist across the country and without the efforts of local media, might have remained unknown. Today, we will examine the recent legalization of marijuana in Illinois.


In June of 2019, Illinois passed a sweeping recreational marijuana law, one endorsed and then signed by Illinois Governor, J. B. Pritzker. The law passed in the eleventh hour and was highly contentious. It was by no means a no-brainer, and it was by no means the will of the people.

The Chicago Tribune reported in July, after an investigation into campaign filings, that marijuana companies had donated more than $630,000 to politicians in the state’s government since January of 2017. The marijuana companies in question already operated in the state’s medical system and had a vested financial interest in the passage of the bill. As the Tribune reports the recreational bill would give the advantage to marijuana companies already licensed to sell medical marijuana. Those companies and those companies alone, “are allowed to produce the first batches of recreational marijuana in preparation for the start of legal sales on Jan. 1.” The companies wanted a slice of the monopoly.

60 lawmakers received payments; 45 of these lawmakers still in office voted yes on legalizing recreational marijuana. The vote split 67-44. The Tribune investigation highlights several important contributions.

State Senator Don Harmon, the Tribune reports, received more than $120,000 in contributions from the industry. He was a main sponsor of a 2018 bill to expand medical marijuana and likely perceived as a valuable ally. Though Harmon has denied that he is influenced by the money donated to him from such groups, the Tribune’s investigation raises questions on the degree to which he is free of their influence. PharmaCann, the top contributor to Harmon, hired lobbyists who “logged thousands of dollars in expenditure reports for meals where Harmon and other lawmakers were present.” Included in these reports, writes the Tribune, was a “$366 meal at Preux & Proper in Los Angeles for Harmon and four other legislators in July 2018, weeks after the bill expanding medical marijuana in the state was sent to then-Gov. Bruce Rauner.”

A representative for PharmaCann told the Tribune, “Advocacy efforts at the Statehouse are necessary so elected leaders and policy makers are aware of what we do and how we do it.” In Harmon’s view, the meal was unrelated.

Another key to the passage of the bill was state Representative Kelly Cassidy, who received $13,000 in contributions from the industry. Co-sponsor of the bill, state representative Heather Steans, also received contributions from the industry. Both played an important role in crafting the language of the bill such that it “gave the existing growers the advantage.”

As the Chicago Sun-Times also notes, Cassidy’s wife was recently tapped as vice-president of an Illinois-based marijuana company. The two say that there was no conflict of interest.

The details of the provision giving the advantage to existing marijuana grow operations demonstrate the influence that these growers had on the legislation. According to the Tribune, “The law allows no new full-size cultivation centers like the existing growers, unless a study of market demand finds it necessary. Even then, those possible new cultivating licenses can’t be awarded until July 1, 2021.” The Tribune continues, “The state will award up to 40 new licenses for smaller ‘craft growers’ a year sooner, on July 1, 2020, followed by up to 60 more by Dec. 21, 2021. They will be limited to 5,000 square feet, however, in contrast to existing cultivation firms which run far larger production facilities.”

The advantage is obvious. Any new cultivator is limited in its ability to grow an operation that could come close to competing with the established license holders. Additionally, the Tribune reports, any new dispensaries that might open following legalization will be required to obtain their supply from the established cultivators.

The introduction of a different marijuana bill further highlights the extent to which the existing marijuana companies benefited from language specifically providing for a monopoly. The Tribune writes, “…a competing legalization bill introduced this year by Democratic state Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana would have allowed an unlimited number of new indoor and outdoor growers and would have required that a majority of licenses for growers and retailers go to minorities.” They continue, “It would also prohibit any cannabis company or political action committee to make a campaign contribution to promote a candidate or public official…. She withheld her vote on the winning legalization bill.”

What made representative Ammons’ bill less compelling if the goal of marijuana legalization is to correct the various social ills that have disproportionately impacted communities of color? It would have ensured that small businesses owned by minorities had a chance to profit. Why wasn’t it, at least in part, incorporated into the final marijuana bill? What is being prioritized?

In addition to these legislators, the hotly contested mayoral race experienced a flush of marijuana cash. The Tribune investigation found that newly elected Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot received $123,000 in donations from the industry. When it comes to the details of marijuana legalization, local governments play a significant role in determining where marijuana may be sold among other considerations. The Tribune notes that when the state first approved medical marijuana, the city government of Chicago was so involved “that many dispensaries there were among the last to open in the state.” The marijuana companies certainly hope to avoid such a delay with the legalization of recreational marijuana and Lightfoot will no doubt play an important role in the formation of marijuana policy in Illinois’ most heavily populated city.

The Illinois governor factors in as well. Governor J.B. Pritzker’s cousin, Joby Pritzker, sits on the board of D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. The group, the Tribune writes, is credited with crafting the language of the recent marijuana legislation. And the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has hardly shied away from boasting about its involvement. “The Washington, D.C.-based group played a crucial role in drafting and advocating for passage of the CRTA,” the group wrote about itself in an article for the Daily Chronicle, “MPP worked closely with bill sponsors, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, to lay the groundwork needed to pass legalization. In addition to lobbying efforts, the campaign has included town halls throughout the state and a series of interim committee hearings.”

“This victory is the result of a collective effort, and there are so many to thank for their support: MPP staffer Chris Lindsey; MPP donors who made our years-long advocacy effort possible; legislative champions Rep. Kelly Cassidy, Sen. Heather Steans, Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and Rep. Jehan Gordon; Gov. Pritzker; our dedicated lobbyists Pete Baroni and Kareem Kenyatta; Sen. Steans’ cannabis policy staffer Rose Ashby; Clergy for a New Drug Policy; and all the individuals and organizations who worked to move the legislation forward.”

Colton Grace

Author Colton Grace

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