PA: State Not Tracking Lobbying By Marijuana Companies


In the first quarter of 2016, Vireo Health spent $30,000 lobbying state officials on the issue of medical marijuana.

It was a critical time when state lawmakers were drafting legislation and negotiating the details of what would eventually become Act 16 of 2016, the Medical Marijuana Act.

The company is a player in the medical marijuana industry, operating production facilities and dispensaries in New York and Minnesota and recently won a grower/processor license in Maryland. Its CEO has said the company is interested in getting into the business in Pennsylvania and has looked at sites in the Lehigh Valley.

But unless you know that, there’s no way to know that’s what Vireo was doing.

The company’s $30,000 expenditure was lumped in with $4.4 million in direct lobbying communication reported that quarter under the broad topic of “health care” in the state’s lobbying disclosure database, which is designed to shed light on the amounts being spent to influence state policy.

It didn’t show up when the Department of State, which oversees the state’s lobbying disclosure system, ran a search of a reporting database for medical marijuana-related activity over the last four quarters at The Morning Call’s request.

That search turned up one lobbying company and three principals that reported lobbying lawmakers on the issue of medical marijuana over the last 12 months. The Morning Call’s own look at lobbying by companies connected to the marijuana industry turned up eight additional entities in the first quarter of 2016 alone.

How much has been spent trying to tilt the playing field for a potentially lucrative but also controversial medical marijuana industry that is in its infancy in Pennsylvania? It’s impossible to know.

“There really is no way at this point to know who is spending money and how much they are spending,” said Wanda Murren, a Department of State spokeswoman.

That’s because there is no category for lobbyists or the principals they represent to report marijuana lobbying, and state officials have no immediate plans to add one. The lobbying detected in the state’s search was reported under the “other” category, where filers wrote in medical marijuana.

“No one here is aware of any discussion about adding that category,” Murren said. “I suppose it’s possible that your question will spur such a discussion, but at this point, it’s not in the works.”


The state has more than 90 lobbying disclosure reporting categories, and compiles quarterly reports on the amounts spent on gifts, direct and indirect communication within each.

Principals spent $1.1 million communicating directly with state officials for lobbying on alcohol issues in the first quarter, for example, $949,665 on tobacco issues and $99,336 on AIDS issues. Marijuana or medical marijuana isn’t one of the categories.

Adding more specific categories, including one for medical marijuana, would be an easy way to improve accountability and help citizens see who’s trying to influence state policy, said Emily Shaw, senior analyst with the Sunshine Foundation, a government transparency group.

“Health care is such a huge area,” she said. “Certainly it is in the public interest to know if they are talking about medical marijuana, medical devices, health insurance or hospital reimbursements.”

Pennsylvania is not alone when it comes to falling short on lobbying accountability. Many states’ lobbying disclosure laws are weak and fail to track lobbying by subject at all, according to the Center For Public Integrity, which awarded Pennsylvania a D- for lobbying disclosure in its state integrity report card, but still ranked the state 25th overall.

“On a comparative basis, we are not that bad,” said Barry Kauffman, special adviser to Common Cause Pennsylvania, a group advocating for good government. “On the basis of providing actual information that gives the public a useful understanding of what is actually going on, we have a lot of room for improvement.”

There are states, such as Massachusetts, where entities are expected to report lobbying expenditures by the bill number on the legislation they were attempting to influence. Searching the state’s database for bills including the term “marijuana” turns up several dozen lobbying entries.

Colorado, which recently legalized recreational marijuana use, provides online lobbyist searching by bill number. Marijuana-related bills can be identified using a separate legislation search page, but the lobbying search page shows only who a lobbyist represented in discussing a bill, not the amount spent.

That allows voters to see who stands to benefit from specific legislation, Shaw said. States that offer less detail, such as Pennsylvania, are less transparent.

Big business

The only way to ferret out marijuana industry and interest group lobbying expenditures in Pennsylvania is to review every company that reported lobbying expenditures in related categories, such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, health care or business, and see if they have a link to the cannabis business.

That’s how you could discover that Beacon Information Designs, for example, spent $8,775 lobbying health care issues in the first quarter.

The company, which sounds like a web design company, is actually a consulting firm that advises government agencies and financial institutions on regulatory and compliance issues related to the marijuana business.

It hired a lobbying firm in the first quarter to try to get it a spot testifying or meeting with staff on the legislation or development of regulations, company spokeswoman Tamara Dietrich said.

“Our lobbying firm, Greenlee Partners, assisted us with seeking these opportunities to share our expertise both in hearings and meetings with members or staff,” she said. “Beacon and our lobbying team are actively monitoring the rule-making process and if a procurement opportunity that meets our service offerings is posted we’ll likely respond.”

Legalization opponent Rep. Matt Baker, R-Bradford, said the pro-legalization lobbying effort early this year was massive, including a deluge of phone calls and emails from supporters and calls from lobbyists and even former elected officials.

“I’ve never seen so much advocacy for an issue,” he said.

The public deserves to know who is funding all that activity, Baker said.

“There has been a lot of talk about marijuana is the next big tobacco,” Baker said. “Tons and tons of money is being spent on this because it involves a huge book of business, potentially.”

That’s likely an exaggeration, said Andrew Blasco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Industry Group, which reported $8,000 in lobbying under “health care” in the first quarter of this year.

Medical marijuana interests certainly spent far less on lobbying than major industries such as natural gas drilling, pharmaceuticals and gambling, he said. He predicts the cannabis industry will increase its lobbying later this year as regulations are released and in 2017 when the industry starts gearing up.

He’d be OK with adding a specific reporting category.

“I report all my stuff,” he said. “I’ll just be checking that box on the form.”

Vireo Health did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: State Not Tracking Lobbying By Marijuana Companies
Author: Scott Kraus
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