Dollars tell only part of story of pot legalization advocacy

Jennifer Morrison
The president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, Jennifer Morrison, calls for postponement of marijuana legalization during the one-day veto session in June. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
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.

Matt Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project, announces the formation in 2015 of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, a collaboration of groups supporting legalization. File photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger
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.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Elizabeth Hewitt

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Dollars tell only part of story of pot legalization advocacy"
  • Neil Johnson

    So tax revenues and monopolies under the guise of “cooperatives” surely have nothing to do with legalization?

    If we took money OUT of the equation we’d find some legislation that makes sense on both sides, but the money is THE most powerful force in shaping the legislation. It’s actually corrupting the whole process on all sides. If nobody could earn money from the process, we’d find good law.

    • Ali Bernard

      It would be interesting to know how much influence the 3 ‘medical’ dispensaries have over keeping pot illegal. The Shumlin administration granted monopolies to these three entities in a back room under an opaque, dishonest process.

    • Dave Silberman

      The bill that passed, and was vetoed by the Governor, *did* take money out of the equation.

      S.22 would only have taken away criminal and civil penalties for possession of 1 oz (about $300 worth on the illegal market) and growing 2 plants (MA already permits 12 plants per household). S.22 did not create a regulated market, it only appointed a commission to study and draft further legislation (something that is kind of unnecessary given that the Senate has already passed 2 regulation bills and a third regulation bill is parked in the House General committee).

      Meanwhile, let’s not pretend that nobody is making money of selling cannabis to Vermonters right now. It’s a $200 million per year market. We’d be better off as a society if those sales were regulated and taxed than if we stuck our heads in the sand and continued pretending that 108,000 Vermonters per year don’t use the stuff.

    • Martha McSherry

      I’m not sure how you’d take money completely out of the equation as long as some people’s livelihood is dependent upon prohibition.

  • Elizabeth Novotny

    While I appreciate the Digger’s fine reporting, I need to clarify the reporter’s characterization of my comments.

    The Vermont Police Association (VPA) relies upon me to identify and respond to any legislation that affects law enforcement. Legalization of marijuana is such an issue and one of great interest and importance to the VPA. The VPA’s message regarding this issue is that Vermont build a strong foundation of public safety and health before it legalizes. Foundational measures include:

    Reversing the upward trend of major crashes involving operators/marijuana; and,
    Reversing the upward trend of DUIs related to marijuana (Vermont Drug Recognition Experts issued a report in 2016 citing that, for the first time, marijuana was the #1 drug in toxicology reports); and,
    Increasing the percentage of Vermont youth who correctly perceive the risk of harm from use of marijuana by those under the age of 25 years; and,
    Increasing the number of substance abuse facilities available to people for drug dependency (according to the Vermont Substance Abuse Treatment Information System more teens seek treatment for marijuana than for all other illicit drugs combined.

    It is accurate to state that I spent less time on the marijuana legalization bill than last year and that marijuana legalization was one of many issues I responded to this year. However, it is not accurate to state that legalization of marijuana was not ” high on my agenda”. Ensuring that Vermont prioritizes and shores up its highway safety and public health foundation before it legalizes marijuana is a priority of the VPA and for me as its representative at the statehouse.

    • Jamie Carter

      How exactly does the VPA suggest we reverse the upward trend of marijuana involved crashes when we are forcing residents to DRIVE to MA or ME to buy / smoke it.

      • Bob Orleck

        Oh sure! Forcing them, huh? That must be a recognition that marijuana is addicting if residents have to go to that extent.

        • Jamie Carter

          I’m not sure you understand what addiction actually is…

    • Christopher Mattogno

      What is the VPA’s stance on lobbying while in uniform?
      Are they “on duty” when they lobby?

  • Julia Purdy

    Something else for Vermont to brag about: “The best government money can buy?” The pro-marijuana lobby smelled red meat, and here we are!
    Too bad the right of Vermonters to anesthetize themselves legally and permanently failed only on a procedural vote. Next time let’s say No for good to the drug culture.

    • Jamie Carter

      “Next time let’s say No for good to the drug culture.”

      You mean on say no to individual liberties. Ultimately if someone sits at home and smokes a joint, why does it concern you? It doesn’t, but in Vermont we can’t make decisions on our own, we need the government to tell us how to live our lives apparently.

      • Bob Orleck

        Got any children in your home? The individual liberty you claim could well injury that child’s brain for life. Check out the effect of marijuana on the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus of the brain up until every 30 years of age. I call it individual irresponsibility. Government is not keeping you from using pot as irresponsible as it is. Government is trying to put us all at risk of believing that since they made it legal, it is safe and children will have a reduced sense of risk of harm. With that will come more use and more brain injury for those children. Do your research and then answer whether you would want your child using.

        • Jamie Carter

          I call it being a parent, something else the state would like to take control over. Yes, children being exposed to second hand smoke is bad, over medicating children is bad, neglecting children is bad. There are bad parents. There are also parents with some semblance of common sense.

          Please stop with the fearmongering. If a parent isn’t responsible enough to avoid smoking marijuana next to their child they aren’t responsible enough to care whether its legal or not. You can’t have it both ways. You are either a responsible parent or an irresponsible parent and that is not based in anyway on whether marijuana is legal or not.

        • Jamie Carter

          Your opposition doesn’t stem from the idea that marijuana would eliminate the need for half the medications your profession depends on does it? Odd, that you are worried parents may not use marijuana around children appropriately but for years have sent home people with more opiates then they need and trust them to use those drugs responsibly around their children.

          “Do your research and then answer whether you would want your child using.”

          Oh and Bob, no one is advocating that we legalize marijuana for children.

      • Homer sulham

        I have heard it said that alcoholism is a sickness, is getting high a sickness also?

  • Ali Bernard

    There has never been any honest rationale to criminalize cannabis. The only reason it was outlawed was because it was a good way to put minorities and activists in jail. Now law enforcement and prison unions want to keep it illegal because they make money off of it. The idea that highway accidents are on the rise is ridiculous and has been disproved by all the statistics. It’s currently an embarrassment to be a Vermonter.

    • Peter Everett

      I can think of many other ways to be embarrassed as a Vermonters other than the Marijuana issue. This is minor compared to other issues.

  • Clancy DeSmet

    SAM is an embarrassment to logic, reason and civil rights.

  • David Ellenbogen

    How many hours of police time were devoted to this issue that was in front of the legislature? Should the tax money spent on wages for those officers be included as part of the calculations?

  • Neil Johnson

    It’s a powerful drug, used for many terminal illnesses to relieve pain and discomfort. To say there are no side effects is disingenuous at the very least. It’s not magic smoke.

    Drugs are a serious problem in Vermont and our nation. Are the recent higher numbers of special education due to drug use? What drugs? What drug use has increased over the last 20 years in Vermont?

    We do need to find a different and better way in dealing with drugs, the current ideas on the table really don’t address the problem in a way that benefits anyone but the “cooperative” monopolies (state and private) trying to get their hands on millions of dollars.

    “The force is strong with this one (the almighty dollar).”, Yoda

    • Jim Mall

      4 out of 5 opiate addicted Vermonters started with prescription pain killers. That is what has increased.

  • Jason Brisson

    “Why would this structure be a problem?”:
    100% agree with you, But yes, that structure is “the problem”. Politicians just see $$, it will never pass unless the state gets their cut.

  • Jason Brisson

    Gov. Scott and Rep. Turner’s actions were clear, “no urgency this session” in spite of passing the legislature and neighboring states legalizing, They are fine with continuation of the black market in VT.

    • Clancy DeSmet

      And, clear support from the constituency, but the police and Nancy Reagan lobby carry more weight.