Cannabis grows as source of N.M. po­lit­i­cal cam­paign funds

The Taos News - - BUSINESS - By Steve Ter­rell ster­rell@sfnewmex­i­can.com

If you’re run­ning for pub­lic of­fice in New Mex­ico and need to raise money, your tra­di­tional sources of cam­paign funds from the busi­ness world might look like this: Oil and gas is the main one, but there are plenty of oth­ers: the real es­tate sec­tor, bank­ing and fi­nance in­ter­ests, the liquor in­dus­try, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies and auto deal­ers.

But look ahead a few years. Though it’s cur­rently nowhere near the level of more es­tab­lished busi­nesses, a ris­ing source of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions is mar­i­juana, the peo­ple and com­pa­nies that grow, pack­age and sell the drug for the state’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram.

With pub­lic at­ti­tudes be­com­ing more fa­vor­able and the num­ber of med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tients ex­plod­ing in this state, con­tri­bu­tions from the in­dus­try are ris­ing. Though dwarfed by the nearly $1.4 mil­lion contributed by oil-re­lated en­ti­ties to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in 2018, those in the mar­i­juana in­dus­try say their cash – and thus, their mus­cle – is grow­ing.

“This year, rev­enue (for med­i­cal mar­i­juana producers) topped $100 mil­lion in New Mex­ico,” said Duke Ro­driguez, a for­mer state health sec­re­tary who now owns Ul­traHealth, a non­profit that op­er­ates dis­pen­saries in Ari­zona and New Mex­ico. “But in the next five years, it’s go­ing to grow even more.”

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics compiled from the state’s Cam­paign Fi­nance In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem and the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Money in Pol­i­tics, the le­gal cannabis in­dus­try has spent more than $49,000 on state can­di­dates and a hand­ful of po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees so far this elec­tion cy­cle. That’s nearly dou­ble the $25,150 the in­dus­try spent on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions in the en­tire 2016 elec­tion cy­cle.

Since 2012, cannabis-re­lated busi­nesses and the peo­ple who run them have contributed more than $110,000 to New Mex­ico politi­cians.

Ro­driguez pre­dicted last week that mar­i­juana in­dus­try con­tri­bu­tions to New Mex­ico politi­cians could be­gin to ri­val those from tra­di­tional cam­paign fund­ing sources. “With le­gal­iza­tion (of recre­ational mar­i­juana) on the hori­zon, you’ll see that num­ber rise to $600 mil­lion,” he said.

Mar­ket rises

The mar­ket for med­i­cal mar­i­juana in re­cent years has mul­ti­plied. When Gov. Su­sana Martinez took of­fice, only about 3,000 pa­tients were in the state’s “com­pas­sion­ate cannabis” pro­gram. Ac­cord­ing to the state De­part­ment of Health, nearly 55,000 pa­tients were en­rolled in the Med­i­cal Cannabis Pro­gram at the end of May, more than 1,485 in Taos County alone.

Ro­driguez headed the state De­part­ment of Health dur­ing Gov. Gary John­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. His com­pa­nies have been the big­gest cannabis donors in New Mex­ico since 2012, giv­ing a com­bined $38,700 since that year, a to­tal that in­cludes a $5,000 con­tri­bu­tion this year to Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham from Cum­bre In­vest­ments, a firm Ro­driguez runs.

Ro­driquez and his com­pa­nies have given New Mex­ico politi­cians $24,200 this year, in­clud­ing a to­tal of $10,000 to Lu­jan Gr­isham; $5,000 to Jeff Apo­daca, who ran against Lu­jan Gr­isham in the Demo­cratic pri­mary; and $2,500 to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Hec­tor Balderas. Ro­driquez also contributed $5,000 to state House Repub­li­can leader Nate Gen­try, who de­cided against seek­ing re-elec­tion early this year.

Lu­jan Gr­isham has taken in more than $29,000 from the mar­i­juana in­dus­try this year, mak­ing her the big­gest re­cip­i­ent of cannabis con­tri­bu­tions. In sec­ond place this year is Apo­daca, who drew at least $11,610.

Lu­jan Gr­isham also re­ceived the most money from a sin­gle mar­i­juana source, PurLife, an Al­bu­querque com­pany headed by Dar­ren White, an­other for­mer John­son Cabi­net sec­re­tary and a one­time anti-drug war­rior.

White, a for­mer Ber­nalillo County sher­iff and state pub­lic safety chief, is a staunch Repub­li­can and long­time high-pro­file sup­porter of Martinez. He only re­cently did a 180-de­gree shift from his pre­vi­ous views against med­i­cal cannabis. His com­pany contributed $11,000 to the Demo­cratic stan­dard-bearer.

“Our com­pany got be­hind Michelle pretty early and we maxed out (its al­low­able con­tri­bu­tions) quickly,” White said.

White noted Lu­jan Gr­isham’s long sup­port for the state’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram, which she im­ple­mented while serv­ing as sec­re­tary of the state De­part­ment of Health.

Though PurLife is “maxed out” in its con­tri­bu­tions to Lu­jan Gr­isham, White said he soon will give her a con­tri­bu­tion from his own pocket.

Anti-drug war­rior turned ad­vo­cate

White sur­prised the New Mex­ico po­lit­i­cal world two years ago when he ap­plied for a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­ducer’s li­cense. He re­signed from his job as sec­re­tary of the state De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety in 1999 after John­son came out in fa­vor of le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana. Not long after he’d quit, White worked as a lob­by­ist in the Leg­is­la­ture work­ing against John­son’s drug-re­form bills, in­clud­ing bills to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana as a treat­ment for cer­tain med­i­cal con­di­tions.

He said it doesn’t sur­prise him that med­i­cal mar­i­juana is a grow­ing fac­tor in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, and he ex­pects even more cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from the in­dus­try in the fu­ture.

“It’s no dif­fer­ent than the liquor in­dus­try or oil and gas,” he said. “When you’ve got a

$100 mil­lion in­dus­try, you’re go­ing to see a lot of po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions.”

Be­sides Ul­traHealth and PurLife, an­other med­i­cal mar­i­juana com­pany mak­ing ma­jor do­na­tions to cam­paigns is Nat­u­ral Rx and its pres­i­dent, Trevor Reed. To­gether, they have contributed $21,100 since

2012. In 2016, Plac­itas res­i­dent Reed was New Mex­ico’s big­gest donor to John­son’s run for pres­i­dent as the Lib­er­tar­ian Party nom­i­nee.

How­ever, only about half the state’s 35 li­censed producers have contributed to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Ro­driguez said he’s talked with other mar­i­juana producers to con­vince them to get po­lit­i­cally ac­tive.

If a tem­plate ex­ists for what the fu­ture might bring, it’s in Colorado, where vot­ers in 2012 passed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana use for adults 21 or older, the first of nine states to al­low recre­ational use. That state also has seen an uptick in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from the cannabis in­dus­try.

“It’s a ma­tur­ing, evolv­ing in­dus­try that’s in­ter­ested in re­spon­si­ble reg­u­la­tion,” said Peter Mar­cus, a spokesman for Ter­rapin Care Sta­tion, a Boul­der, Colorado-based mar­i­juana pro­ducer, which has been grow­ing and sell­ing mar­i­juana for med­i­cal pa­tients for nearly a decade.

The pub­li­ca­tion Colorado

Pol­i­tics re­ported in June that the mar­i­juana in­dus­try has contributed $223,000 to can­di­dates for statewide of­fices as well as to po­lit­i­cal par­ties. That fig­ure does not in­clude money contributed to mar­i­juana bal­lot ini­tia­tives.

While po­lit­i­cal money from le­gal mar­i­juana is grow­ing in Colorado, the raw num­bers aren’t sig­nif­i­cantly more than New Mex­ico’s cannabis con­tri­bu­tions. Mar­i­anne Good­land, who wrote the ar­ti­cle in

Colorado Pol­i­tics, pointed out in an in­ter­view last week that Colorado has lower cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion lim­its -- about 10 per­cent of New Mex­ico’s limit.

Also, Good­land said, one of the big­gest sup­port­ers of le­gal mar­i­juana in Colorado – U.S. Rep. Jared Po­lis, a Demo­crat run­ning for gover­nor – has a self-im­posed $100 limit on con­tri­bu­tions.

“What we’re see­ing here is more money be­ing spent on lob­by­ists than cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions,” Good­land said. “They spent be­tween $600,000 to $700,000 on lob­by­ists in this year’s ses­sion.”

New Mex­ico has yet to see much in the way of lob­by­ing by mar­i­juana producers. Ul­traHealth had four reg­is­tered lob­by­ists here in 2017 and two at this year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Com­pa­nies in this state are not re­quired to re­port how much they pay lob­by­ists.

An­other dif­fer­ence be­tween New Mex­ico and Colorado: While nearly 75 per­cent of the cannabis cash goes to Democrats here, producers in Colorado give a sig­nif­i­cant amount to Repub­li­cans, Mar­cus said.

Good­land said both cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and lob­by­ing by mar­i­juana producers in­ten­si­fied after her state, which has had a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram for 18 years, le­gal­ized recre­ational use of the drug. She said she’d ex­pect the same thing to hap­pen in New Mex­ico if the state le­gal­ized mar­i­juana for other than med­i­cal use.

Ro­driquez agrees. And he said he be­lieves mar­i­juana will be­come le­gal in the state.

“It’s not a ques­tion of if,” he said. “It’s a ques­tion of when.”

He said he was heart­ened by a re­cent meet­ing of the leg­isla­tive Rev­enue Sta­bi­liza­tion and Tax Pol­icy Com­mit­tee at which le­gal­iza­tion was dis­cussed.

“That was the first meet­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture I’ve been to in which the con­ver­sa­tion didn’t de­gen­er­ate into talk about ‘gate­way drugs’ and so­cial ills,” he said. “That’s a tremen­dous step for­ward.”

‘This year, rev­enue (for med­i­cal mar­i­juana producers) topped $100 mil­lion in New Mex­ico. But in the next five years, it’s go­ing to grow even more.’ — Duke Ro­driguez, a for­mer state health sec­re­tary who now owns Ul­traHealth

This story first pub­lished in the Santa Fe New Mex­i­can, a si­b­ling pub­li­ca­tion of The Taos News.

Gabriela Cam­pos/The New Mex­i­can

Dar­ren White’s Al­bu­querque cannabis com­pany, PurLife, contributed $11,000 to Demo­crat Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham’s gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign. White, a staunch Repub­li­can, sur­prised the New Mex­ico po­lit­i­cal world two years ago when he ap­plied for a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­ducer’s li­cense.

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