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How state marijuana legalization became a boon for corruption

12/27/2020 06:50 AM EST
By MONA ZHANG
Source: Politico

By making local officials the gatekeepers for million-dollar businesses, states created a breeding ground for bribery and favoritism.

Marijuana
Ed Andrieski/AP Photo
Source: Politico
Shidonna Raven Garden and Cook

In states’ rush to limit the numbers of licensed vendors and give local municipalities control of where to locate dispensaries, they created something else: A market for local corruption.

Jasiel Correia’s star was rising.

The son of Cape Verdean immigrants in the working-class Massachusetts port city of Fall River — famed as the home of Lizzie Borden — Correia was a home-grown prodigy. At 23, he was elected mayor, fielding congratulatory calls from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Joe Kennedy.

That was in 2015. Four years later, just a week before his reelection race, federal agents ignominiously led him away from his home in handcuffs and charged him with attempting to extort cannabis companies of $600,000 in exchange for granting them lucrative licenses to sell weed in his impoverished city.

“Mayor Correia has engaged in an outrageous brazen campaign of corruption, which turned his job into a personal ATM,” declared U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling during a press conference announcing the charges.

The downfall of Fall River’s young mayor wasn’t just a tragedy for the thousands of people who invested their hopes in him: It was emblematic of a rash of cannabis-related corruption across the nation, from Massachusetts to California to Arkansas and beyond.

In the past decade, 15 states have legalized a regulated marijuana market for adults over 21, and another 17 have legalized medical marijuana. But in their rush to limit the numbers of licensed vendors and give local municipalities control of where to locate dispensaries, they created something else: A market for local corruption.

Almost all the states that legalized pot either require the approval of local officials — as in Massachusetts — or impose a statewide limit on the number of licenses, chosen by a politically appointed oversight board, or both. These practices effectively put million-dollar decisions in the hands of relatively small-time political figures — the mayors and councilors of small towns and cities, along with the friends and supporters of politicians who appoint them to boards. And these strictures have given rise to the exact type of corruption that got Correia in trouble with federal prosecutors. They have also created a culture in which would-be cannabis entrepreneurs feel obliged to make large campaign contributions or hire politically connected lobbyists.

For some entrepreneurs, the payments can seem worth the ticket to cannabis riches.

For some politicians, the lure of a bribe or favor can be irresistible.

Correia’s indictment alleges that he extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana companies in exchange for granting them the local approval letters that are necessary prerequisites for obtaining Massachusetts licenses. Correia and his co-conspirators — staffers and friends — accepted a variety of bribes including cash, more than a dozen pounds of marijuana and a “Batman” Rolex watch worth up to $12,000, the indictment charges.

CANNABIS

“The state Is given full control in an industry where there is so much competition — where everyone realizes how valuable these licenses are,” said Lorenzo Nourafchan, CEO of Northstar Financial Consulting, which works with cannabis businesses.

Nourafchan cited some friends who submitted “incredible applications” for Missouri medical marijuana licenses only to see the licenses go to large, multistate operators: “It just seemed to me and many others that it was not fair … people were not given objective and unbiased treatment.”

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