Big Donations and a Big Debate

Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, both running to be governor of New York, went head-to-head tonight at Hofstra University on Long Island in their first and only debate of the primary election. The two Democrats hold significantly different positions on economic and social policy, including cannabis.

On cannabis, the debate moderator asked both candidates what they would say to a parent who is trying to teach their children to stay away from drugs.

“I think it is very important that we legalize marijuana here in New York State,” Nixon said. “There are a lot of reasons to do it, but first and foremost, because it’s a racial justice issue.”

Cuomo responded by saying says racial injustice doesn’t start with cannabis, and pointed to lack of housing and job opportunity. “That’s where the racial injustice starts,” he said.

Stopping short of endorsing legalization, Cuomo said, “I do believe the benefits outweigh the risks,” adding that he “experimented with marijuana in college.”

Nixon fired back that Cuomo called cannabis a “gateway drug” as recently as last year, to which Cuomo replied, “Fiction, facts.”

Nixon has been outspoken in her support for legalizing cannabis for recreational use. Governor Cuomo, running for a third term, appears to be softening his position and recently appointed a workgroup that will draft legislation for a recreational program.

“Cuomo’s shift has occurred entirely due to pressure by Cynthia,” Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Nixon, told Cannabis Wire, before the debate. “Cannabis could certainly be a topic raised by moderators given how large an issue it’s featured in this race.”

However, Cuomo may have other reasons, including donations. Last month, Cannabis Wire reported that the governor had received $65,000 from MedMen Opportunity Fund II LLC, the private investment arm of one of the largest cannabis companies in the country, MedMen Enterprises. A July campaign finance disclosure shows an additional $25,000 donation from Andrew Modlin, MedMen’s president and co-founder.

And in fact, it turns out, Cuomo is receiving more money from the industry than his financial disclosures show. Cannabis Wire has discovered that a $50,000 donation linked to a non-profit Christian mission actually came from MedMen. This brings MedMen’s total Cuomo donations to $140,000. Cuomo also accepted $25,000 from Nicholas Vita, the CEO of Columbia Care, in January 2017. Both companies hold one of ten coveted licenses to cultivate and dispense cannabis in New York.

The form states that the donation was received by wire transfer from Project Compassion NY LLC on December 13, 2017, though the address listed was an unaffiliated nonprofit in San Diego, California, called Project Compassion. But, “we have never received or donated money to any political campaign,” Roxana Kennedy, the president of that nonprofit told Cannabis Wire, adding that the mission is a small, all-volunteer organization. Cannabis Wire has meanwhile confirmed that Project Compassion NY, LLC is a subsidiary of MedMen Enterprises, and was incorporated in Delaware on July 15th, 2016.

According to Daniel Yi, the company’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Investor Relations, the donation was listed incorrectly due to a clerical error. “We have confirmed with the Governor’s office that the address for the Project Compassion NY was a clerical error,” said Yi. “They didn’t have the address so someone Googled the name and made the assumption because they saw a California address. They will be fixing the error by Tuesday.” The Cuomo campaign has not responded to requests for comment.

Prior to this election cycle, Cuomo has made mixed statements on cannabis. In January 2018, he commissioned a study to assess the impact of legalization, the results of which were released in July. During the debate, Cuomo referenced the legalization report that he commissioned, which concluded: “The positive effects of regulating an adult (21 and over) marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts,” and “no insurmountable obstacles to regulation of marijuana were raised.”

Nixon has not received any donations from the industry, and has pledged to refuse donations from all PACs and LLCs. On April 11th, Nixon added an option on her ActBlue donation site that allowed people to donate a recurring $4.20 per month in support of her position on cannabis. Since that announcement, Nixon has received 1,631 donations in this amount.

In an interview with Cannabis Wire about tonight’s debate, David C. Holland, executive director and legal director of the cannabis advocacy organization Empire State NORML, said that while the group had not endorsed either candidate, they support their “continued and renewed commitment to investigating responsible use of cannabis in New York State.” Holland hoped that the candidates would address the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act during the debate, a bill that aims to legalize and tax cannabis in the state. The Act was introduced in January 2017 and is still in committee. Holland also hoped the candidates would discuss issues related to banking as well as ensuring “communities that have been affected by the drug war have an opportunity to be in at the ground floor.”

This story has been updated with quotes from the debate.

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