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Why Are Charities Too Good for Marijuana Money?

Investment in the Cannabis Industry Grows
Photo by Getty Images

Politicians in Colorado, California, Oregon and other states where the robust marijuana industry’s billions flow have been happy to capitalize on the bounty—the bounty of money, and the bounty of people with money, eager to convert their cash into political influence.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, the cannabis industry has a clear favorite (and chief beneficiary of their generosity) in the race to become California’s next governor in Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor and the most prestigious support of last year’s successful legalization effort. In Nevada, the marijuana industry is making its preference for the Democratic Party clear—hardly surprising, given Republican sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson’s (failed) effort to put it out of business.

This is fine—marijuana is a business and deserves to hire lobbyists, lawyers and attempt to influence lawmakers like any other. There’s Big Oil and Big Tech, and soon there will be Big Weed. This is part of what legalization is all about.

But when a business is successful, along with political spending comes philanthropy: endowing chairs at universities, paying to put your name on hospitals or, in modest, small-town Chamber of Commerce ways, improving your community.

And as Forbes notes, charities have proven far less willing to take weed money than would-be elected officials.

One of Colorado’s bigger marijuana companies is Organa Brands. Denver-based Organa is the parent company of O.pen Vape, the same O.pen Vape that bid, unsuccessfully, for the naming rights on the Denver Broncos’ home stadium. And according to company president Chris Driessen, Organa offered donations to Wounded Warriors, the American Cancer Society and the Children’s Hospital Foundation but was rebuffed.

Rebuffed, but not entirely.

The charities were willing to take the cash, as long as everyone could keep quiet about the charities taking weed money, Driessen said. Organa had to make the donations anonymously and keep quiet about being a good citizen, something Driessen wasn’t willing to do.

“The optics were more important than helping the people,” he told Forbes, which didn’t collect the charities’ side of the story. So Driessen filled that bit in thusly: “Because the message was essentially, ‘You’re a drug dealer.’”

This sudden discovery of scruples is interesting, as in the big-money world, the source of big money has long since stopped mattering. It was only a few years ago that major banks including HSBC were busted for knowingly taking money from drug cartels and terrorist organizations—you know, actual drug dealers.

Not every charity is so puritanical.

The San Francisco AIDS Walk has long accepted major contributions from Bay Area-based marijuana businesses. And in Denver, the local Rescue Mission, a local homeless-services organization, ended up with the money from Organa that the children’s hospital and other outfits turned down. (This helps to demonstrate, as if it needed proving, that the canard that cannabis is somehow causing a spike in homelessness in Denver is indeed that, a dirty nonsense story.)

A local veterans’ organization also accepted Organa’s money—which was used to purchase cannabis products not covered by vets’ healthcare plans.

In some cases, organizations would rather go without than take money from marijuana.

In Calaveras County in California’s rural heartland, where the economy is slow and budgets are lean, an outfit called the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance attempted to give money to a local school and to a local senior-services organization. The school would have paid for an on-campus police officer at the local high school. It was rejected out of hand by the local city council.

What’s behind this reluctance to accept no-strings-attached hand-outs? Who can afford such an attitude? Established charities, for one, or outfits with steady income streams from some of the aforementioned sources: tech, oil, whatever.

This won’t last forever, as everyone—banks, the government and charities—discover that marijuana money is just like everyone else’s: dirty and covered in drugs. Whether cannabis companies will have short memories and act magnanimously, giving where they before couldn’t give, will be the real show of character. 

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