Laws related to the cannabis industry are evolving quickly across the country, and savvy cannabis businesses aren’t just standing by and watching. They’ve actively been getting involved in the legislation process in recent years by speaking out, working with lobbying groups, and even making donations to their preferred political candidates and committees.
These donations could range from $100 to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, and they could very well make a difference between who takes office in the coming years. Large cannabis company donors in 2019 include Curaleaf, Parallel Brands (formerly Surterra Wellness), Tweed Inc. (part of Canopy Growth Corporation), Canndescent, and Trulieve. Even ancillary cannabis companies like Dama Financial, WeedMaps, and Acreage Holdings are donating large sums of money according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
In total, the cannabis industry gave more than $300,000 to members of Congress during the first half of 2019, which is up from $248,504 donated throughout all 12 months of 2018. The top recipients of cannabis industry donations in 2018 were Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Rep. Dina Titus (E-Nev.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).
It’s important to put that $248,504 figure into perspective. In comparison, pharmaceutical companies donated approximately $42 million to political campaigns across the United States in 2018. The biggest recipient of those contributions was Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey who received $533,339. The biggest recipient of the $248,504 in contributions from cannabis companies in 2018 was Representative Earl Blumenauer who received $33,000.
The Preferred Candidate for California Governor
One of the biggest political donation stories happened in California when cannabis businesses donated aggressively to former Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s campaign to become the state’s governor in the 2018 election. According to the Los Angeles Times, he secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from cannabis cultivators, processors, and retailers.
Some of Newsom’s contributors included medical cannabis dispensary CannaCruz, cannabis business investor Valentia Piccinini, and employees of cannabis cultivation company TerraTech.
There were many more marijuana businesses on the list of Newsom’s donors, and some of them even hosted or attended expensive fundraising events for him. For example, Indus Holding Company, which makes cannabis confections, hosted a fundraiser in Salinas, CA that brought in at least $50,000 in donations. These donations didn’t stop after the 2018 election ended. A reception held at the February 2018 California Democratic Party Convention was sponsored by cannabis delivery company Eaze. The company also donated to the state’s Democratic Party for the first time that year.
By May 2018, Newsom had raised nearly $500,000 from cannabis companies, but he wasn’t the only politician in California to receive money from cannabis interests. At the time, the state’s Treasurer, John Chiang, and Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, also secured donations from the cannabis industry
And of course, these donation numbers don’t even include the many donations from political action committees (PACs) that businesses and individuals working in the cannabis industry donate to. Many of these funds go directly to specific candidate’s fundraising efforts. For example, the Coastal Pacific Political Action Committee held a fundraiser in June 2017, and six days later, the PAC donated $50,000 to Newsom’s campaign.
Shaping the Florida Cannabis Market
In October 2018, Surterra made the largest single donation by a cannabis company to a Florida political candidate – Rick DeSantis in his bid to become the state’s governor. Overall, the Miami Herald reported that DeSantis received $70,000 from cannabis companies while Nikki Fried received at least $58,000 in her bid to become the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
According to the Miami Herald, Surterra donated $1.1 million to Florida political candidates and committees between the summer of 2016 and March 2018. Trulieve donated $564,000 during the same period, and Curaleaf donated $469,000.
However, those numbers pale in comparison to 2018 election cycle donations from companies in other Florida industries. For example, Florida Crystals (a sugar company) donated $4.1 million, and utility company Florida Power & Light gave nearly $8.5 million during the 2018 election cycle.
Political Donations from Cannabis Interests Are Not New
The cannabis industry has matured to a point where many businesses are generating profits. As a result, they can donate to support political candidates who are friendly to the industry. These types of donations aren’t a new thing (Florida Senator Rob Bradley received his first donation from a cannabis company in 2015 when Costa Farms donated $10,000 to his political committee). They’re just becoming more commonplace.
In March 2017, a federal judge ruled that an Illinois provision which did not allow marijuana companies to make campaign contributions in the state was unconstitutional. According to the Chicago Tribune, the provision prevented contributions to political committees that were established for the purpose of promoting candidates for public office. Since that decision was made, cannabis companies like PharmaCann and Cresco Labs have donated more than $630,000 to the state’s political candidates and committees.
Business and individual donations to marijuana-friendly political candidates have also become standard in Nevada and Colorado. During the 2016 elections, dozens of marijuana cultivators, processors, and dispensaries donated $75,000 to Nevada legislators according to the Nevada Independent.
Similarly, cannabis businesses have actively contributed to Colorado political campaigns for years, and many of those businesses have been holding political fundraisers to support their preferred candidates. PBS reported back in 2014 that Colorado’s congressional delegation had received $20,000 during the first nine months of 2014 from marijuana businesses. Also in 2014, a fundraiser to support political candidates that was held by Tripp Keber of Denver, Colorado’s Dixie Elixirs & Edibles generated $40,000 in donations.
It’s important to note that cannabis companies aren’t just donating to election campaigns. In Maine, three dispensaries donated 19% of the funding for Janet Mill’s gubernatorial inauguration in December 2018. The state’s largest medical marijuana dispensary, Wellness Connection of Maine, donated $25,000, while Main Organic Therapy and Remedy Compassion Center each gave $10,000.
What’s Next for Political Campaign Donations from Cannabis Businesses?
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and more states legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis, laws will continue to evolve. Cannabis businesses and ancillary businesses should absolutely be concerned about which politicians are making those laws.
With that said, it’s safe to assume that political donations from the cannabis industry will get larger and more frequent in the coming years. Savvy businesses are paying attention and getting involved in an attempt to influence the regulations that could make or break their companies.
Originally published 8/24/17. Updated 11/8/19.
Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.