Vulnerable Dem Senator Changed Tune On Legalizing Weed After Raking In Donations From Cannabis Execs, Lobbyists

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Mary Lou Masters Contributor
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Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio endorsed a ballot proposition to legalize recreational marijuana after receiving thousands in donations for his 2024 reelection bid from executives of and lobbyists for cannabis companies, according to campaign finance records.

After being undecided on the issue just two months ahead of the November election, Brown publicly announced his support for legalizing marijuana via the Ohio ballot measure. Between January and August of 2023, Brown received thousands in donations from executives at Cresco Labs, one of the country’s largest cannabis companies, as well as numerous other campaign contributions from industry lobbyists, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show.

Cresco Labs’ CEO Charles Bachtell and Executive Vice President John Sullivan contributed a combined $9,100 to Brown’s reelection campaign between April and August, according to FEC filings. The cannabis company has a grow facility in Silver Springs, Ohio, and operates five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.

Several lobbyists for Cresco Labs have also donated to Brown’s efforts. (RELATED: Weed Advocates Are Ramping Up Lobbying Efforts And Notching Wins)

Norman Brownstein of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, who lobbied for Cresco Labs in 2023, donated $3,300 to the senator’s campaign in May, followed by another $3,300 contribution in August, FEC filings show. Brownstein also lobbied for another cannabis giant, Curaleaf, last year.

Brownstein previously donated to Brown’s campaign and leadership PAC, America Works, between 2017 and 2020, but he was not lobbying for the cannabis companies at the time, according to the records.

Crowell & Moring LLP’s James Flood and Timothy Shadyac, who both lobbied for Cresco Labs in 2023, have also donated to Brown’s campaign, according to FEC filings. Flood has contributed a total of $3,800 between April and August to the senator’s reelection bid, while Shadyac gave a $500 donation in April.

Both Flood and Shadyac lobbied for Cresco Labs prior to 2023, but didn’t donate to Brown’s efforts until this cycle, the records show.

The lobbyists who donated to Brown’s campaign largely focused on issues relating to cannabis banking, as well as “medicinal and recreational marijuana laws and regulations,” according to the disclosures.

For instance, Brownstein, Flood and Shadyac lobbied for issues related to the SAFE Banking Act, legislation that would protect financial institutions that provide services to “a legitimate cannabis-related business” from being penalized. Brown ended up advancing a newer version of the bill in late September.

The senator had been skeptical of legalizing marijuana for years, which put him at odds with several Democratic presidential candidates in 2019 as he considered making a run himself, Forbes reported at the time.

Brown was undecided on the issue as recent as September, just months before his constituents took to the polls to vote for a ballot measure that legalized the drug’s use in Ohio, according to local station WOSU 89.7 NPR News. The senator then came out in support of the initiative days ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

“My wife and I spent a lot of time talking about it. We talked about exposure to for young people. We’ve talked about a whole lot of things in the end,” Brown told Spectrum News 1 in Ohio. “We voted to legalize because we thought overall regulation—legalization and regulation of marijuana use—the public would be safer doing it that way.”

The senator praised the ballot measure’s passage, and advocated for legalizing marijuana “across the country” in a mid-December social media post on X, formerly Twitter.

The race has already become quite expensive, with several prominent Republicans trying to compete with Brown’s massive fundraising advantage, including businessman Bernie Moreno, state Sen. Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Brown raised $14.4 million in 2023, and has $11.2 million cash on hand, according to the most recent FEC data available. Dolan and Moreno have brought in $8.8 million and $6.4 million, respectively, while LaRose, who got into the race most recently, has raised just over $1 million.

Polling largely suggests Brown is more vulnerable against some Republicans than others, with the most recent survey conducted by Emerson College indicating he would win against Moreno by 11 points, LaRose by 5 points and Dolan by 3 points.

The Cook Political Report characterizes Brown’s seat as in the “Toss Up” category along with other contentious Senate races in Montana and Arizona. Brown could share the ballot with both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in the red state that went for Republican by 8 points in 2020.

Brown’s campaign, Sullivan, Bachtell, Brownstein and Flood did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment. Shadyac declined to comment.

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