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Pot businesses are a growing source of campaign cash

Author: Marianne Goodland - June 20, 2018 - Updated: June 28, 2018

An employee of the LivWell store in Denver shows off some of its marijuana products. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

Although Colorado’s marijuana industry is more likely to pump big money into ballot initiatives, its dollars are also showing up on the balance sheets of political campaigns, a sign of the industry’s growing role in public affairs.

Donors range from dispensary owners, especially of large chains, to the law firms that handle their business.

A review of contributions culled from campaign finance reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state’s TRACER system shows that about $223,000 over the last 5½ years has made its way into the campaign coffers of candidates for statewide offices as well as to political party coffers. And the money is growing.

Contributions from the still nascent pot industry are peanuts, however, when compared to those made by long-established players like labor unions or oil and gas.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Colorado Education Association’s public education committee alone donated $190,000 to candidates for the House and Senate and to the state Democratic Party. In that same period, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. — the Texas-based company that’s Colorado’s largest oil and gas producer — contributed $210,000 to House and Senate candidates and the Senate Majority Fund, which works to elect Republicans to the state Senate.

By comparison, in the campaign cycle ending with the 2014 election, the marijuana industry pumped about $38,000 into the bank accounts of political candidates and parties. The 2016 election cycle saw donations of more than $92,000.

With a general election yet to come in 2018, industry donations have totaled about $64,000, but that’s just through mid-May with more than four more months of fundraising to come.

State law limits contributions made by businesses and individuals to $400 per election cycle for state House and Senate candidates and $1,150 for statewide offices such as governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.

So who does the industry prefer for governor in the June primary?

That would be Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. While Polis has capped individual contributions at $100, the total from the industry is at $2,125 from about 30 contributors.

Former state treasurer and Democrat Cary Kennedy got roughly the same — $2,100 total — but from just a handful of industry donors.

Where the General Assembly is concerned, the industry has been bipartisan with its cash.

The Senate Majority Fund, which works to elect Republicans to the state Senate, has taken in $29,500 in the past three years from the cannabis industry and its leaders. The Colorado Democratic Party has done about the same, with more than $28,000 during the past four years.

The man and company making the biggest splash among marijuana campaign contributors is John Lord, owner of Beyond Broadway, also known as LivWell.

Lord and his company have put in more than $205,000 in the past four years, including donations to Democratic and Republican candidates and lawmakers, political parties, and a couple of so-called dark money groups that mostly run attack ads during the general election.

On June 11, Beyond Broadway/LivWell made a $25,000 contribution to Bold Colorado, a political action committee that backs Polis.
But most of Lord’s contributions, $135,000, were put into ballot campaigns.

But most of Lord’s contributions, $135,000, were put into ballot campaigns.

The industry names checked against the secretary of state’s TRACER campaign finance database include the owners of the company formerly known as The Green Solution, as well as dispensaries such as Terrapin Care Station, Julie’s Naturals, Strawberry Fields, Pig N’Whistle and Rocky Mountain Remedies. Contributions from two cannabis law firms and their partners — Vicente Sederberg and Hoban Law (aka the National Cannabis Law Firm) — also are included.

The next biggest campaign donors have been the owners of Good Chemistry, also known as Sweetwater Partners, with about $25,000 contributed over the past five years.

Industry associations — the Cannabis Business Alliance, Marijuana Industry Group and the Colorado Cannabis Chamber — have contributed just under $29,000 to candidates and political parties in the past four years.

One of the industry’s favorite statewide candidates is no longer in the race: Former Rep. Steve Lebsock, who threw his hat into the ring for state treasurer before getting bounced out of the General Assembly last March in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. He lost his chance to run for state treasurer as a Democrat when he decided to change party affiliation an hour before his expulsion vote. But seven industry donors contributed $6,600 to Lebsock, all in 2017 before the allegations became public.

If you look at legislation sponsored in the past five years, the same legislative names come up over and over. And that’s true for industry campaign contributions, too:

  • In the House, the go-to legislators are Democratic Reps. Matt Gray, Leslie Herod, Jovan Melton, Dan Pabon and Jonathan Singer, who is by far the most popular of the bunch, with about $6,780 from industry donors in the past five years.
  • It’s more bipartisan in the Senate: Republican Sens. Chris Holbert and Tim Neville have been the biggest recipients of donations from marijuana leaders, with $2,400 and $3,125, respectively. All of Neville’s donations came last year; Holbert’s in 2016 and 2017.

And Gov. John Hickenlooper, not exactly a big fan of marijuana, also has taken contributions from the industry. During his 2014 re-election bid, he received more than $8,000 from nine industry leaders, including Lord.

At the congressional level, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora has taken in a couple of donations from the industry totaling just over $12,000. Republican State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, who’s running in the Colorado Springs-based 5th Congressional District primary, also got a campaign contribution of $5,400 from Thomas Bowler of Rocky Mountain Remedies.

Shawn Coleman, government affairs director for the dispensary Terrapin Care Station, said the industry contributes to candidates and lawmakers “who support safe and sensible regulations for marijuana consumers and the industry. This is particularly important due to the complex and dynamic regulatory environment” that the industry contends with, he said.

In addition, Coleman pointed out, tax and banking restrictions limit how much owners can contribute, and so they “must carefully select elected officials and candidates who will go the distance for Colorado voters, who continue to overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization.”

State Rep. Pabon told Colorado Politics he accepted contributions from anyone — tech or banking or other sectors that create jobs in Colorado, including the marijuana industry — because it’s an important part of developing relationships and dealing with the complexities of the business.

“The (marijuana) industry is unique in that it is highly regulated, and the Legislature has a lot of influence on its business models,” as well as its success, he said. “Thousands of jobs in our state are impacted by the rules we put in place.”

Holbert told Colorado Politics that he opposed medical and recreational marijuana legalization, but voter have written it into the Constitution. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, then-Senate President Bill Cadman and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel encouraged the caucus to take the perspective that the question about marijuana legalization had been answered.

At the same time, Holbert’s hero, former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, told him to focus on regulating and taxing pot, and in the first two years post-legalization 47 bills were adopted to do just that, Holbert said. “It was like a graduate level program on a business I didn’t know and had to learn.”

People in the industry appreciated that lawmakers took the time to learn how the business worked, he said. For Holbert, it’s not a personal acceptance of the industry but that “we did what we needed to do.”

Few lawmakers have taken the time to really learn about the industry, Rep. Melton said, and as a result, contributions have flowed to those who did the legwork. He backed medical and recreational legalization as a matter of decriminalizing marijuana, which was an issue for his community. “Now that it’s legal, I want to make sure it remains a viable industry” and one that’s well-regulated but won’t go away anytime soon.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.