State marijuana growers making more campaign donations in hopes of cutting through red tape

MAMMOTH INC. CEO and founder Spencer Blier is one of the top grossing marijuana cultivators in Rhode Island. He’s started making political campaign contributions but admits he has much to learn about the way things get done on Smith Hill. /MAMMOTH INC. PHOTO VIA THE RHODE ISLAND CURRENT

Spencer Blier was expelled from his first college for smoking weed, then spent the next decade as a perpetual University of Rhode Island student, while growing marijuana for state medical patients in his on-campus log cabin. 

Not a promising start, but the 35-year-old Warwick native and cannabis cultivator ended 2023 with the third-highest sales among the state’s 60 licensed growers: $2.2 million according to information from the Rhode Island Office of Cannabis Regulation. 

As his company, Mammoth Inc., blossomed, so did Blier’s political savvy. 

He donated $1,000 apiece to the campaigns of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in the fall of 2023, according to state campaign finance reports. Blier is not expecting major law changes this year, as the nascent industry scored major wins, including expansion to recreational use, with a 115-page bill passed in 2022.  

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“Just letting them know we’re here,” Blier said of his recent campaign contributions. “You never know when there is going to be a year where big decisions are made and you want to be able to talk to these people and express your point of view.” 

But he’s still pretty green when it comes to the political scene. 

Just ask him if he and other Rhode Island cannabis business owners might ever form a Political Action Committee, or PAC, to leverage power in numbers for bigger campaign donations. PACs can donate up to $25,000 to a single candidate per year, versus the $2,000 annual cap [as of 2024] for individual donors under state law. 

“I don’t even know what a PAC is,” Blier said. 

But after growing frustrated with government red tape stymying their businesses, he and other cultivators are starting to realize the necessity of winning friends and influencing people on Smith Hill — attending fundraising dinners, donating to campaigns and hiring lobbyists to represent their interests to lawmakers. 

The Rhode Island Cannabis Act passed in May 2022 laid out a major expansion into recreational sales and use, along with advertising abilities and 24 new pot shop licenses. But almost two years later, cultivators are still waiting to see written law become reality. 

The law created a Cannabis Control Commission to oversee implementation and regulation, but the three-member panel didn’t meet until June 2023. The commission is still in discussion mode, with input from an 11-member Cannabis Advisory Board, and expects to finalize rules and regulations this year, said Matt Touchette, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, which includes the Office of Cannabis Regulation. 

Two dozen pending retail licenses cannot be doled out until rules are finalized. 

“It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s taken a while,” said Jeff Padwa, a lobbyist who represents Sensible Cultivators for Intelligent Reform [SCIR], a group of 10 local cultivators, including Mammoth. 

There are five dozen licensed cannabis growers in the state but only seven retailers, which limits profits as well as the tax revenue flowing into state coffers from cannabis sales, Padwa said. 

“Based on the population of adults who consume, we would assume we would be in the $200 million, but it’s still in the $100 million range,” Padwa said, referring to 2023 cannabis sales, both recreational and medical, reported by state. 

SCIR paid Padwa $15,000 for lobbying activity in 2021, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s lobby tracker. In 2022, Padwa received $5,000 for his lobbying efforts on behalf of cultivators, and in 2023, $60,000. 

Part of the reason for the increased payments — and presence — is simply that cultivators have more cash than they used to, Blier said. Like other cultivators, he struggled to get his Warwick business off the ground. 

“The first five years, it was like, every couple of months, are we going to stay in business?” Blier recalled. 

He started his cultivation business just as the state began issuing licenses to cultivators to grow medical marijuana in 2017. Seven years later, his 5,000-square-foot growing lab is stocked with more than 700 plants and flowers, with a 12-person full-time staff. 

Blier estimated spending $1,300 a month on lobbying through Padwa, though the cost fluctuates depending on how many other cultivators are pitching in for SCIR’s State House presence. 

Padwa said many of the other licensees are not actively growing and selling their products. Touchette in an email confirmed that all licensed cultivators listed online were operational, as required for the regular license renewal process. 

There’s also a separate cultivator group, the Rhode Island Cultivator Industry Association, though it’s unclear how many cultivators are members. Armando Lusi, association president and a member of the Cannabis Advisory Board, did not return multiple calls and emails for comment. 

State lobbying data shows no records of lobbyists to represent the Cultivator Industry Association over the last five years. 

SCIR co-founder Peter Kasabian, who owns LOUD, a Warwick cultivation center, said that even though there’s no formal association for all 60 cultivators, many in the industry share ideas and strategies informally. Kasabian also tries to recruit other growers to join the group, though some don’t seem interested. 

“They don’t want to get involved in politics, which I completely understand and respect,” Kasabian said. 

He’s hardly a politics junkie. His frustration is audible, as he laments the time spent driving to the Statehouse, searching for parking with “no good food” around, only for a moment of rubbing elbows with lawmakers. 

“I shouldn’t need to be there,” he said. “I am a small business owner, not a politician.” 

Yet Kasabian keeps going, and or paying Padwa to go, and forking over money to top elected officials. He donated $1,000 apiece to Ruggerio and Gov. Dan McKee in November, plus a $1,000 contribution to Shekarchi in September. 

“It was out of desperation,” he said of the donations. “We asked for stores and the governor gave us a pile of bureaucrats. It’s laughable.” 

Longer-established compassion centers, which were able to start serving patients in 2013, appear to have more power and deeper pockets. 

One example: their fight to win advertising rights. The 2022 law left advertising rules up to the Cannabis Control Commission, which prevented retailers and growers from marketing their wares even as Massachusetts competitors dotted state highways with their own billboards. 

One dispensary, Pawtucket’s Mother Earth Wellness, defied the rules, unfurling ads for its retail store along I-95 in the spring of 2023. By June 2023, lawmakers agreed to let the state Department of Business Regulation come up with some interim rules to let pot shops advertise. Cultivators, however, are still waiting for the formal regulations from the Cannabis Control Commission. 

Rep. Scott Slater, a Providence Democrat who sponsored the 2023 legislation to let dispensaries advertise, said he was unaware when drafting the bill that cultivators would be excluded. 

He introduced new legislation earlier this month to fix that. If approved, it would let cannabis cultivators advertise during the transitional period before final regulations are adopted. 

Slater acknowledged the competing interests between cultivators and dispensaries.  

According to Padwa, their different priorities are the reason, in part, where there’s no single trade group or association. 

“I would suspect if you ask the compassion centers and hybrid retailers, they might say they would prefer not to have additional stores because it’s less competition,” Padwa  said.  

“For Rhode Island, it would not surprise me if we ever have a cannabis association with participants from all aspects of the industry. And it wouldn’t surprise me if we never have a PAC.” 

Rhode Island Current contacted business leaders and lobbyists for all seven compassion centers in Rhode Island, asking about their spending at the State House and influence with lawmakers. Most did not return multiple calls and emails for comment.  

Chris Bradford, a lobbyist paid by Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, offered an emailed response. 

“We have remained active in the legislative and policy debate on many issues over the years and continue to monitor all legislative and regulatory proposals that could impact our business, our customers, and our patients,” Bradford said. “Every year we see proposals on everything from patient access, regulatory mandates, taxation, and fees. It is essential that we stay engaged on all matters related to this industry, especially since we operate in a highly competitive regional cannabis marketplace.” 

Slater has spent more than $340,000 on lobbyists, including Bradford, from 2020 to 2023, according to the state lobby tracker. The company reported $25.3 million in sales in 2023, the second-highest among retailers, according to the Office of Cannabis Regulation. 

Another one of the original compassion centers, Greenleaf Medical Compassion Center in Portsmouth, paid former state senator and lobbyist Stephen Alves more than $270,000 from 2019 to 2022 for lobbying on its behalf. Greenleaf has not paid Alves for lobbying since January 2023. 

According to Alves, the company decided it no longer needed a lobbying presence at the State House. Greenleaf did not return calls for comment. 

A unified organization would also share lobbying costs. That’s a practical reason why many other industries in Rhode Island from hospitals to small businesses have formed trade groups, said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island. 

“It doesn’t make sense for each hospital in Rhode Island to have its own lobbyist, but a hospital association makes sense,” he said. 

Cannabis business owners and employees donated more than $20,000 to McKee, Ruggerio, and Shekarchi’s campaigns combined in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to campaign finance reports. 

Among them was Stuart Procter. The co-founder and lab director for cannabis testing facility PureVita Labs donated $500 to McKee in the fourth quarter of 2023. Procter, who also serves on the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board, said he donated the money through a fundraising event for McKee at Spain Restaurant in Cranston in December. Procter attended with PureVita co-founder and CEO Dr. Jason Iannuccilli, a radiologist 

“No one expects that $500 or $1,000 is going to move the needle, but it was a good opportunity to go as a group and present a conversation with somebody who has the influence to effect change,” Iannuccili said. 

Iannuccilli has made campaign contributions in prior years, including to McKee, but not in 2023, according to campaign finance reports. He acknowledges the interwoven relationship between politics and pot, but doesn’t think lobbying or campaign donations should determine Rhode Island’s cannabis fate. 

“These decisions should not be influenced by lobbying, they should be based on data,” he said. 

Data like how many people are using marijuana for recreational or medical purposes, health and safety concerns around cannabis products, and what other states out in front of the marijuana plume have done — both right and wrong. 

“There’s no example state you can point to and say, ‘they are doing it perfectly,’” Iannuccilli said. “But by looking at the mistakes of the ones that have gone before us, we can try to learn and do things differently.” 

Cannabis businesses in other states have similarly struggled to unite under a single organization, said Aaron Smith, cofounder and CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association. 

“It could be divergent viewpoints in policy, or sometimes it’s just personality and ego,” Smith said. 

In Smith’s eyes, it would behoove business owners to set those egos aside and find common ground. Indeed, the united front — and pooled pockets — of the association’s  500 member businesses have been critical to making the industry’s voice heard on Capitol Hill. 

“It’s important more than ever that small business operators have a voice,” Smith said. “There are a ton of issues facing lawmakers. If there isn’t a concerted effort to advance our agenda, it will never happen.” 

The association spent $150,000 on lobbying in D.C. in the last year, down significantly from the $500,000 annual spend in years prior, which Smith said was due to economic constraints facing the industry and its member businesses.   

Mike Trainor, a spokesperson for McKee’s campaign, declined to comment on McKee’s campaign contributions or relationships to cannabis business owners. In a nod to the industry, McKee’s fiscal 2025 budget proposal decouples state tax code from federal policy so that cannabis businesses can deduct expenses from their state income tax filings, mirroring practices in 10 other states including Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

In a joint emailed statement, Shekarchi and Ruggerio said, “The cannabis industry is a new and growing sector of our economy, and it is heavily regulated. They are treated no differently than any other advocacy group. We comply with all aspects of the campaign finance laws.”   

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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