Despite a constant drum of advocacy on both sides of marijuana legalization in Montpelier this year, lobbying reports show that the sums spent were relatively modest. But the finance disclosures tell just part of the story of advocacy on the issue.
It was the closest a marijuana legalization bill has come to becoming law in Vermont — or anywhere in the country.
Though eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot, all have done so through a voter initiative. Vermont’s Legislature was the first in the country to pass a legalization bill, which would have allowed possession of small amounts. And Gov. Phil Scott was the first governor to veto one.
Ultimately a new version of the legalization bill, drafted to meet Scott’s requirements, failed on a procedural vote during a special one-day legislative session in June.
Lobbyist disclosure reports that track 2017 expenditures show spending by the national pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project outstripping that of a leading national group against legalization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
The most recent filing was due June 15 and covered the month of May. The totals don’t include lobbying during the June veto session.
The reports show the Marijuana Policy Project spent $44,474 on lobbyists in the first half of the biennium.
Disclosures show that SAM Action, the political action committee of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, paid $3,956 for lobbyists in 2017 through the end of May. The group also spent $2,140 on radio ads.
According to the nationwide group’s co-founder Kevin Sabet, SAM Action has not yet paid for all its lobbying efforts but will in the near future. He estimated total spending in Vermont for this year won’t top $20,000, including the June veto session.
The numbers on both sides added up to far less than has been spent on hot button issues in Montpelier in the past. The 2015 push to impose a sales tax on soft drinks drew more than $500,000 in spending by the American Beverage Association alone in the first quarter of the year, for instance.
On the issue of pot, both sides claim grass-roots support drives their agenda.
Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project said the group spent far less in Vermont than in Maine and Massachusetts, where marijuana legalization passed last year as a ballot initiative.
Simon, who spent more time on marijuana policies in the New Hampshire Statehouse this year than in Montpelier, said he believes his group has and spends more money because there is more interest from the public in supporting its mission.
“I think that people are more interested in donating to change than they are to obstruction,” Simon said.
Adam Necrason, a Montpelier-based lobbyist who represents the Marijuana Policy Project, sees legalization as the next step in a series of policy changes concerning pot over the last decade and a half.
“This is a story of a decade of incrementalism,” Necrason said.
Sabet, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that grass-roots supporters and volunteers with the group’s state chapter drove the opposition to legalization. Lobbyists were “incidental” to that, he said.
He charged that supporters of the Marijuana Policy Project are investors in pot businesses. Advocates in favor of legalization have rebuffed suggestions they represent corporate interests.
“No one’s making money because we won,” Sabet said.
Lobbyist Kevin Ellis, who represents SAM Action, said the issue is a philosophical one that drives participation from a lot of citizens who are not being compensated.
“It’s an argument about what kind of Vermont you want to have,” Ellis said.
Compared to issues Ellis has worked on in the past, like same-sex marriage, the dollar figures have been small so far. But Ellis expects higher levels of spending on marijuana advocacy in the future.
“The big money has not been spent yet,” he said.
If the Legislature passes a bill that paves the way for a regulated marijuana market, Ellis said, that would send a signal to private industry. “Then you’re going to have big marijuana spending serious dollars,” he said.
Many familiar with the advocacy efforts concerning legalization in Montpelier say paid lobbying is just one part of a mosaic of initiatives from a variety of players.
It is a challenge to quantify the total amount spent on pot-related advocacy under the Statehouse dome.
For several groups chiming in on the issue, legalization was not their primary focus during the session. Advocates representing civil liberties organizations, police, medical professionals and others frequently lined the committee rooms when discussions about legalization were going on.
Beth Novotny, a lobbyist who represents the Vermont Police Association, said she kept an eye on legalization legislation but it wasn’t high on her agenda. She said the group didn’t hire her to focus on marijuana legalization but that she tracked it because it was of interest to the association. However, she did not keep track of how much time she spent specifically on that issue.
Law enforcement officers have been a visible presence on the issue in Montpelier. During the veto session, more than a dozen appeared in uniform at a news conference urging the halt of the legalization bill.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont advocated for the bill, in addition to following several other legislative initiatives.
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance with the secretary of state’s office, said state law does not require expense reports to reference particular pieces of legislation, so it is not possible to track how much was spent concerning a specific initiative.
Additionally, some lobbyists in Montpelier represent clients who may have an interest in going into the pot business, should it be legalized.
There also are a handful of people who haunt the Statehouse to advocate on the issue but who do not register as lobbyists because they are not paid to be there.
According to the secretary of state’s office, Vermont law requires people to register as lobbyists only if they are compensated more than $500 in a calendar year for their work, or if they spend more than that amount of their own money.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury resident who works for a California-based company, was a regular in the Statehouse cafeteria this year. Silberman said he is not being paid by anyone to be there and that his advocacy is entirely unrelated to his job. He also said he doesn’t have a personal agenda to become a grower or seller — though he does not rule out some professional involvement in the industry down the line, should opportunity arise.
Silberman said he became involved after discussions about legalization picked up in the state Senate in 2015, and he felt he could bring something to the discussion — as someone with a background in representing businesses in legal matters and as someone with an interest in criminal justice reform.
“I’m not doing this for me,” Silberman said. “I’m doing this because this is an issue that I believe very strongly in.”
Another visible figure in favor of legalization, Eli Harrington, co-founded Heady Vermont, a website that provides both updates on marijuana-related policies and guidance on advocating for policy change.
Harrington said his venture is “a gateway for a lot of people to get involved with politics and civic engagement.”
But so far he has not pulled down any paycheck for his work, he said, so he doesn’t register as a lobbyist.
“Philosophically, it’s something that I believe in, so I go there representing myself,” he said.