Bizarre Ban on Political Contributions from Pot Companies Struck Down

Photo by Dan Skye

Illinois has a bit of an image problem. Namely, the state that sent both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama to the White House is seen as wholly crooked, a hotbed of graft and corruption, notable most for its remarkable reliability.

This is the reputation you earn when four out of  the seven governors to serve since the 1960s ended up in federal prison.

Lawmakers in Illinois at least have taken the first step—they admitted they have a serious problem. Or, at least, kind of. Moving to dispel “the perceived risk of corruption” “among the public and the media” was the idea when, on the same day Illinois enacted medical marijuana in 2013, the state banned political contributions from medical marijuana providers.

Never mind that medical cannabis in Illinois had barely time to meet with politicians, let alone bribe them in ways above and beyond common campaign cash, or that marijuana had absolutely nothing to do with the likes of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich trying to auction off Obama’s Senate seat (and getting caught, and subsequently eroding the public’s already thin trust in the veracity of our democracy).

The ban on politicians accepting legitimate cash from cannabis operators—and only cannabis operators; casino magnates, horse-racing track owners and waste-disposal companies are all ok—was so patently ridiculous, even a lawmaker involved with its passage admitted it existed merely to “appease ‘conservative’ and ‘hesitant’ colleagues,” as Reason reported last year.

And as the website reported on Friday, a federal judge agreed and declared the ban unconstitutional. Money is speech, after all, and a selective muzzling of political speech is absolutely a violation of the First Amendment.

The challenge was brought by Libertarian Party politicians Claire Ball and Scott Schluter. Marijuana businesses have always kept Libertarians afloat—and the most successful Libertarian candidate in history, Gary Johnson, served as a weed company’s CEO—and both politicians, candidates for office, wanted to solicit donations from marijuana and could not.

As they argued at the time, the ban “does not combat corruption,” which was thriving well before legal marijuana was even an idea. No, the ban “only silences emerging voices and hinders competitive campaigns by unorthodox candidates.”

In his ruling in their favor, Judge John Z. Lee agreed, and ruled that banning campaign cash from cannabis companies clearly violates the First Amendment.

Illinois might have succeeded if, as Lee wrote, it proved the ban would “[prevent] quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.” Or, it might have succeeded if it limited contributions in some way, or demonstrated a nexus between campaign donations and corruption.

But it didn’t. Instead, it presented a solution in search of a problem.

The state did not present any “instances of actual corruption involving any medical cannabis cultivation center or dispensary,” as Lee wrote.

The state couldn’t even muster any “concerns about corruption or the appearance of corruption in the medical cannabis industry.” Instead, it merely argued that because marijuana businesses need state licenses in order to open their doors and thus turn a profit, they are prime targets for corruption.

In striking down the ban, the plaintiffs had unlikely help—from corporate politics.

Quoting the infamous Citizens United decision, the plaintiffs argued that “speech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content.”

Thus, with no proof of a problem, with no explanation for why medical marijuana was singled out and no reason why contribution limits weren’t an acceptable next step, Lee found the ban presented a “significant and unjustifiable burden on the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.” 

So not only are Illinois lawmakers still having to deal with their well-deserved reputation for corruption—they also now have a history of making bad laws. Bravo, Illinois. 

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