Crossing Ethical Lines: How Your Tax Dollars Are Funding Cannabis Opponents
This year the pharmaceutical, alcohol, and prison food industries have all weighed in to oppose marijuana legalization initiatives across the country. This comes as little surprise: These industries all have financial interests in keeping marijuana illegal. By funding anti-legalization efforts, they’re simply admitting it.
What does surprise me is that the public is still largely unaware of how government resources—at federal, state, and local levels—are used in the same fashion, in a blatant conflict of interests.
The ways in which the criminal justice lobby uses its power to undermine drug policy reform are well-established, but also complex and sometimes hard to untangle. However, given recent donations by law enforcement unions and associations to campaigns against marijuana legalization in California, where I live, and across the country, I believe it’s important to clarify the unethical way in which taxpayer-funded resources are used in defiance of the proper role of government.
Opponents of marijuana legalization always point to what they term “Big Marijuana’’—and how the new industry uses lobbyists and cash to promote legislation that would be in its own interests. Yet such funding involves accountable, transparent donations with private money.
In contrast, opponents of legalization—including government-funded HIDTA programs, community drug-free organizations, and anti-marijuana nonprofits like SAM—frequently fail to disclose their own funding and incestuous financial connections.
Lobbying by Law Enforcement Organizations
I believe, and was taught during my 20-year police career, that law enforcement, just like the military, should not be allowed to engage in political lobbying. We have always relied on the cliché “We don’t make the law, we enforce it” to define our proper role. The police, like the military, are under the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the US government so that they remain subordinate to their constituents and carry out the will of the civil government.
Yet today, millions of dollars are spent by law enforcement organizations—not only unions but also professional organizations—in order to undermine drug policy reform at the ballot box or in our statehouses.
In California, since the passage of the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) in 1996, legalizing medical marijuana, the law enforcement lobby has undermined many efforts to improve safe access, forcefully opposing any legislation that introduced regulatory models.
During these 20 years, organizations such as the California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) and the California Narcotics Officers’ Association (CNOA) maintained that there was no such thing as medical marijuana and wasted public money—both on lobbying and on arresting patients and providers.
Despite immunity gains made through the passage of Senate Bill 420, the Medical Marijuana Program Act, law enforcement opposition in Sacramento continued until this last legislative session—in which, 20 years after the passage of Prop. 215, and thanks largely to growing pressure from large numbers of stakeholders, Gov. Jerry Brown signed multiple bills to implement the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA).
Forced to reckon with medical marijuana advocates, providers and the nascent industry participating in a political process they once dominated, those same Californian law enforcement organizations are now acting as opposition proponents and donating funds to oppose Proposition 64, which would legalize marijuana for adult use, and on which California voters will decide on Nov. 8.
To find out more, I researched the five top police organizations in terms of spending on lobbyists in the state capital that have also donated to the current “No” campaign.
These five are the California Correctional Supervisors Organization and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which are collective bargaining organizations, along with CPCA, CNOA, and the Los Angeles Peace Officers Association, which are professional and training organizations.
According to current California Secretary of State lobbying activity reports, just these five—of course, there are many other law enforcement organizations registered with the state—spent a combined total of $9,552,032.53 of direct and indirect taxpayer dollars on lobbying since 2001. With two more reporting periods left in this legislative session, I anticipate that this number will soon exceed $10 million paid out to lobbyists.
But state-level law enforcement organizations are not alone in doing this.
How HIDTA Programs Cross Ethical Lines
Organizations that receive federal funding grants from the Office of National Drug Control (ONDCP)—or are under the ONDCP’s span of control, such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) programs—also spend resources to prop up the failed status quo.
HIDTAs are a grant-funded initiative by the ONDCP (which is headed by the US “Drug Czar,” Michael Botticelli, who recently admitted that the federal government intentionally repressed research into the efficacy of medical marijuana). HIDTAs were established in 1990, at the height of the War on Drugs—since then, their budget has grown from an initial $25 million to the current allocation of $194 million.
It’s critical to understand that though each HIDTA is grant-funded, they are collectively governed by an executive board comprising federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecution offices. The board facilitates interagency drug control efforts to eliminate or reduce perceived drug threats and ensures threat-specific strategies and initiatives are developed, employed, supported, and evaluated. But as employees who exercise functions in connection with federally financed activities, they are subject to federal and state laws proscribing political activity.
There are now over 737 HIDTA-initiated programs nationwide, supporting everything from abstinence-only, DARE-style drug education to intelligence reports, marijuana eradication and multi-agency narcotics task forces. But since the passage of adult consumption legalization across Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, one of their new responsibilities appears to be writing intelligence reports geared towards reflecting the downsides of legalization, while ignoring any benefits.
Reason’s Jacob Sullum has detailed how these reports were started by the Rocky Mountain HIDTA (RMHIDTA), after Colorado legalized in 2012. Last month, following the release of RMHIDTA’s most recent report, Sullum wrote:
Since suppressing the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs is RMHIDTA’s mission, its reports on legalization are indictments masquerading as objective assessments. The same organization that last year falsely claimed public support for legalization had declined in Colorado this year portrays a governor who sounds cautiously optimistic about legalization as unambiguously against it.
In the lead-up to the vote on Prop. 64, the media either willfully or negligently ignore how the federal government suppresses positive information about the liberalization of marijuana laws and, in doing so, protects its own interests. For law enforcement and for HIDTA, it’s clear that maintaining economic resources and power has become an end in itself.
Let me give you one example of the crossover between political lobbying and the misappropriation of government funding resources.
In 2011, I received an email from the Los Angeles HIDTA office that was political in nature. It was asking members of law enforcement to sign a pro-drug war petition—and in doing so, it violated a federal government edict against using government resources for political purposes.
This was reported by David Downs in the East Bay Express. He noted the waste of fiscal resources not just by the federal government but by state and local law enforcement officers.
The LA HIDTA quickly retracted that email, noting that it was a violation of policy—but my experiences and contacts in law enforcement suggest that such violations are the norm, not the exception. And most Americans would be unaware of this.
Connections Between Anti-Marijuana Nonprofits and Government Funding
A similar blurring of roles and funding applies to certain nonprofit organizations, such as community drug-free coalitions or anti-marijuana groups.
Just last week, for example, I read an article in the Napa Valley Register covering a presentation by John Redman, the executive director of Californians for Drug Free Youth (CADFY), a San Diego-based nonprofit funded through the ONDCP Drug Free Communities Program. Redman’s talk, titled “Weeding out the Facts,” was, by his own admission, one-sided—presenting his version of negative information about marijuana in order to counter information provided through by the Yes on 64 campaign.
But what I’m certain Redman didn’t share is that he is not only the executive director of a government-sponsored drug-free organization; he also represents the federal government as the demand-reduction coordinator for the California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (CAHIDTA) and is helping coordinate opposition to the legalization campaign. CADFY, a 501(c)(3) organization, has been a community drug-free coalition grantee and has received designated HIDTA funding for the California Border Region.
I can only infer that the use of a fiscal sponsorship is a way for SAM to sidestep the rules that limit tax deductible contributions.
Meanwhile, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), founded in 2013 as a nonprofit charity, according to its website, has emerged as one of the most prominent anti-legalization organizations. It’s led by Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor to the drug czar and the White House and vehement legalization opponent.
I first became interested in the links between SAM and the federally funded HIDTA groups back in 2014.
As an experiment, I donated one dollar to CADFY. My PayPal receipt indicated that donations to CADFY were now going directly to SAM. But the email address to process the donation was a government-issued HIDTA address. It’s this overlap that is problematic.
SAM has yet to file a Federal 990 tax return since it started operating in January 2013 as a charitable nonprofit. There is no record of an IRS ruling granting them their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in either Guidestar or according to the IRS.
In April 2015 SAM ACTION filed for 501(c)(4) status, which was just granted in July of 2016 (EIN 47-368846). It’s no surprise that they also formed a political action committee and, specifically in California, they also formed a ballot measure committee named “A Committee Against Proposition 64 with Help from Citizens” (FPPC ID 1387789) that has been making active donations to the opposition campaign.
The fact that SAM Action is a 501(c)(4) means that its funders cannot take a charitable tax deduction—and though CADFY is permitted to donate to SAM, that donation must be restricted to a charitable purpose only.
Having started several nonprofits myself, I understand the complexities of tax filings of this kind. I can only infer that the use of a fiscal sponsorship is a way for SAM to sidestep the rules that limit tax deductible contributions for 501(c)(4)s, and limits political activity and lobbying under 501(c)(3)s.
According to Federal 990 Tax records, CADFY has been making direct donations to SAM since 2013.
It was also in 2013 that the first RMHIDTA report was released, following the November 2012 legalization of marijuana in Colorado. This report (like every RMHIDTA report since) was widely touted by Kevin Sabet and SAM to highlight the supposed negative effects of legalization.
In August 2015, I read with interest how CADFY had sponsored a poll that indicated that Coloradans were experiencing buyer’s remorse. I wondered why a California organization was interested in Colorado.
Again, Kevin Sabet used this poll to push a message of a marijuana industry run amok—neglecting to reveal that CADFY is a fiduciary agent or fiscal sponsor of SAM, and in 2014 raised over $234,398 for his organization.
It’s evident that Sabet and his allies have found a legal but unethical away to drive their political agenda at the taxpayer’s expense.
Used correctly, a fiscal sponsor is a way to help build support for an organization and is supposed to provide fiscal oversight and financial management for new nonprofits. But given the anti-drug mission of HIDTA, it can reasonably be inferred that this non-disclosure was an effort to avoid the transparency and accountability that are critical to the governance of nonprofits.
Because of the fiscal sponsorship arrangement, we are unable to see how donations are being spent by SAM and if they are being co-mingled with SAM’s political action committee, SAM Action Inc. There is also currently an investigation by the state campaign watchdog agency into allegations that SAM Action violated campaign laws by failing to properly register and report its contributions to the anti-Proposition 64 campaign. This alleged failure to make a correct and timely disclosure of the receipt of contributions would be a serious violation of the California Political Reform Act.
In 2015, I again donated a dollar to CADFY. This time I received a PayPal receipt displaying a SAM email address.
Why the change? I can theorize that both SAM and CADFY realized that the relationship between a government-run HIDTA program and a nonprofit with clear political purposes was inappropriate.
Since 2013, John Redman—the HIDTA demand reduction director for HIDTA and CADFY executive director—has helped to coordinate national marijuana summits. CADFY’s 2013 and 2014 tax records reflect expenditures of over $127,000 dollars to host those events.
The mission of the summits, according to a flyer from a Florida event, is to assemble a national action plan to address the impact of marijuana. The events are invitation-only and Kevin Sabet has played a prominent role. The presentation by Redman, called “Developing Collaborative Solutions” was anything but objective—it’s clear to anyone viewing the slides that its focus was how to build a political opposition campaign, not how to educate attendees on the public health implications of legalization.
In addition to funding anti-marijuana summits, Redman has been disseminating HIDTA reports, including one just released about California that cherry-picks data in an attempt to generate some modern-day reefer madness.
This California HIDTA report employs data, for example, from a 2011-13 California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), reflecting increases in past-30-days marijuana use. But the report neglects to mention that there is a new biennial survey out: A simple Google search took me to the 2013-2015 Biennial Statewide Student Survey—which indicates that past-30-days marijuana use has decreased to 2008-2010 levels. CAHIDTA’s report also omits the CHKS finding that 11th graders showed a four-point decrease in current marijuana use, while lifetime marijuana use decreased by seven points.
Such misinformation is egregious but standard. Even more alarming, to me, are the close links between government funding and lobbying that SAM and HIDTA demonstrate.
And their collaboration goes further: The two organizations have coordinated numerous conferences, with SAM bringing in HIDTA representatives to represent “fact-based” information on marijuana legalization during the campaign. Each of these conferences have been promoted by law enforcement, prosecutors, and other government agencies.
It’s evident that Sabet and his allies have found a legal but unethical away to drive their political agenda at the taxpayer’s expense. The clear link between Sabet and Redman creates a perception of irregularity and a potential breach of the public trust. This activity can be fairly characterized as advocacy, and its funding thereby violates core democratic principles.
Kevin Sabet and I have plenty of history, and I’m tired of pointing out his hypocrisy. But in its own way, his failure to publicly disclose his connection to CADFY and HIDTA is as dangerous as law enforcement’s unethical use of power, money, and influence.
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it,” Upton Sinclair once wrote. Based on the manipulation of the nonprofit system by HIDTA and SAM and the economic resources of the criminal justice lobby, I would add that the pursuit of power and status is also damaging our political process today.
Meanwhile, at least until Nov. 8, the No on 64 Campaign and the police lobby continue to pretend that they are the victims in a David-and-Goliath battle for our children.
I believe that we should critically analyze how such practices threaten proper governance. Rather than the specter of Big Marijuana, we should worry about how unscrupulous, self-interested operators in state, local, and federal government are undermining our democratic process.