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The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

Regardless of whether or not Con Con is a feasible avenue to pursue marijuana legalization in New York, state residents should take a closer look at the process and the campaigns involved.

Mona Zhang

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The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

Are you hoping to vote for marijuana legalization in New York? Don’t get too excited. Restrict & Regulate New York (RRNY) is seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in the Empire State, but the campaign has made misleading claims and has a track record of dubious financing.

A Spurious Claim About Marijuana Legalization In New York

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

On August 30, a heartening email arrived in the inboxes of some marijuana legalization supporters.

“August was a sleepy month for most in the cannabis industry but not here in New York,” read the email from Restrict & Regulate New York (RRNY).

The campaign is the effort of Jerome Dewald, an investor-turned-advocate, and it seeks to legalize recreational marijuana in the Empire State through a constitutional convention, colloquially known as “Con Con.”

“The big news is that the New York Board of Elections certified the call for a convention to end marijuana prohibition in New York as Prop 1,” continued the email.

It certainly would be big news if New York voters got a chance to legalize cannabis at the ballot box.

The entire West Coast has legalized adult use through voter-driven referendums. And part of the reason legalization has lagged on the East Coast is due to a lack of direct democracy in the region.

While RRNY’s email suggested that Prop 1’s certification has some bearing on marijuana legalization in New York, the text of the certification makes no mention of cannabis.  

“The purpose of this Ballot Question is to allow the voters of New York State to determine whether a Constitutional Convention will be held in 2019,” reads the certification.

But that hasn’t stopped RRNY from claiming that the state certified “a convention to end marijuana prohibition.” The misleading claim is not the only one that the campaign has made in recent months. Over the summer, the campaign claimed to have raised $600,000. But campaign finance filings tell a much different story.

Constitutional Conventions

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

 

New York’s constitution requires that the state hold a referendum on a constitutional convention once every 20 years. It’s a once-in-decades chance for New York voters to amend the constitution.

Next week, voters can head to the ballot box to vote on whether to hold a convention.

If approved, elected delegates would convene in April 2019 to consider a variety of amendments—not just marijuana legalization in New York. If an amendment is adopted by a majority of delegates, voters will get a chance to vote on it directly. Campaigns addressing everything from tenants’ rights to campaign finance reform have emerged to advocate for a “Yes” vote on Con Con.

However, chances seem slim that a convention will be approved.

The last time voters approved Con Con was in 1936, leading to the adoption of several amendments in 1938. However, some experts believe that the current political climate could give Con Con more of a chance among voters next month.

Misrepresenting The Truth

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

On the surface, it looks like RRNY enjoys great support for its campaign to legalize cannabis through Con Con.

“RRNY opened [its] Endorsements Page on August 11 to the cannabis industry to show its support for NY Prop 1 and was met with overwhelming response,” read an RRNY campaign email.

High Times attempted to reach 30 organizations included on the endorsements page. Of the 18 organizations that responded to our queries, nine said that they do not endorse the RRNY campaign and were unaware that their logos were being used on the campaign’s website.

The New Kings Democrats, one of the organizations listed on the page, reached out to Dewald, informing him that the group has never endorsed the campaign.

“We kindly ask that you remove our club’s logo and any mention of New Kings Democrats from your website,” wrote Cindy Tran, the secretary for the organization.

“Your logo has been replaced with a simple text link and moved to the bottom of the section where visitors are less likely to see it,” responded Dewald.

After we started reporting this story, RRNY redesigned its endorsements page to separate the groups into three categories: media and advocacy, cannabis industry and civic groups. An asterisk next to the civics groups leads to the following disclaimer: “These Organizations Endorse Proposition 1 But May Not Endorse RRNY.”

The problem is, some of these groups don’t endorse Prop 1.

“Our memo from last year with the other groups was outlining the way a state constitutional convention should be conducted if approved, but was not a position on whether we should have a convention or in support of any particular amendments [or] initiatives,” said a spokeswoman for the Brennan Center for Justice, whose logo continues to appear on the endorsements page.

Other groups, including Reinvent Albany and Common Cause also told High Times via email that they have no official position on Con Con.

‘Misleading At Best And Completely False At Worst’

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

In addition to misleading statements about its endorsements, it also seems that RRNY has misled the public about its fundraising efforts.

In June, the campaign announced in a press release that it had raised “more than $600,000 to advance its agenda.”

But according to a July report on campaign finance disclosures, the campaign had less than $160,000 to its name.

A loan from Dewald himself made up $25,000 of that sum. Nearly $134,000 came in the form of in-kind contributions—donations of goods and services rather than cash. All of those donations came from Dewald for his rent and home office ($2,000 a month) and executive services ($30,000 a month).

“It’s misleading at best and completely false at worst,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, on the discrepancy between the press release and campaign finance disclosures.

When it came to monetary contributions, the campaign only raised $1,253.60 as of mid-July—a far cry from the $600,000 announced in June.

When asked about this discrepancy, Dewald explained that the $600,000 were pledges and not actual contributions. He said the campaign had trouble converting pledges into actual donations due to an article published July 12 on the website Word on the Tree. [Full Disclosure: The author of this article also wrote the aforementioned Word on the Tree piece.]

Meanwhile, the make-up of campaign finances also raised eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t say it was normal,” said Horner on the majority of campaign funds coming from Dewald himself. “I’ve never heard of something like this before… except when billionaires run for office,” he said, citing Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral run as an example of a candidate funding the vast majority of a campaign.

A Whole Lot Of Money

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

That Dewald valued his time at $30,000 a month was also an eye-popping figure. The sum works out to be an annual salary of $360,000.

“That’s way up there for a not-for-profit—even [for] a political consultant,” said Horner. “If the organization is allowing him to do that, that’s their decision to make. That’s a significant amount of money to run an advocacy effort, which he apparently is underwriting.”

Dewald said the value of his services is “highly subjective.”

“I appreciate the observation that [$30,000 is] a big number. I don’t think you’d find anyone who would do it for less than that,” he said. “You would have to find a person who was willing to… devote 18 hours a day, seven days a week to a campaign that was not paying them. And then also throw in their own money.”

The campaign’s 32-day pre-general election report was similar: A total of $6,492 in monetary contributions were made from both individuals and corporations. The donations were buoyed by a $5,000 contribution from Amercanex, a Colorado-based e-trading platform for the cannabis industry. Meanwhile, Dewald’s in-kind contributions totaled $96,000. He loaned the company $5,499 and re-paid himself $1,500.

While there are typically rules on interest rates and loans when it comes to political campaigns, a spokesperson for the New York State Board of Elections said he was unaware of any such rules for ballot issue committees. Dewald said he was not charging interest on his loans and that he doesn’t anticipate getting fully repaid for them.

Questions Surrounding Dewald

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

In 2005, Dewald was convicted of felony fraud and larceny charges in Michigan for his role in two PACs he started during the 2000 presidential campaign. The case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled against him. Dewald eventually filed a habeas petition in federal court. While a district court ruled in his favor, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in a two-to-one decision.

At the time, sources raised the issue of his past conviction impacting his credibility. Some who were involved with the campaign felt blindsided by the information and distanced themselves from the effort after learning about it.

“Dewald simply used the 2000 presidential election to create an air of legitimacy for his illegitimate objective: to funnel money to his for-profit consulting firm under false pretenses,” wrote Judge Ronald Gilman in an opinion for the Sixth Circuit.

Dewald had created two PACs—one that ostensibly was raising money for the Gore campaign and another for the Bush campaign. Three individuals who donated money to his PACs testified at trial that they thought their donations would be going to the Gore and Bush campaigns directly. They said they would not have donated if they knew the money was not going straight to the campaigns, according to court documents.

Dewald disputes this characterization and argues that he was the victim of overzealous prosecutors.

“The state of Michigan victimized my contributors,” he said, describing how the state seized one-third of the money he raised. “I raised money and faithfully spent it… To say that I stole somebody’s money [is] simply untrue.”

In July, Dewald said that RRNY’s treasurer Will Powers had complete control over the finances.

“I have purposely set up this PAC… to be open, transparent and so that financial decisions are approved by two others in management,” he said. “I don’t operate the checkbook.”

Will Powers has since left the organization and did not return requests for comment.

Dewald said he had not officially brought on a new treasurer yet. Chris Snider, formerly the director of fundraising for the campaign, has also left the organization and declined to comment for this article.

Could Marijuana Legalization Through Con Con Succeed?

The Misleading Campaign For Marijuana Legalization In New York

It’s certainly possible that fed-up voters this year who yearn for direct democracy in New York will opt to vote “yes” on a constitutional convention.

A Siena College poll released earlier this month found that a narrow majority of registered voters in the state support Con Con. However, even as more New Yorkers become aware of Con Con, support for calling one has waned in recent months.

Even with a “yes” vote, marijuana legalization in New York is far from guaranteed.

Delegates would be elected based on senatorial district. A majority of delegates would have to approve of a marijuana amendment before voters get a chance to consider it.

Dewald is confident from polling figures that a solid majority would be Democrats, especially given that the 2018 elections would draw progressive voters in a backlash to Trump. And Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to support marijuana legalization.

Regardless of whether or not Con Con is a feasible avenue to pursue marijuana legalization in New York, state residents should take a closer look at the process and the campaigns involved.

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