Marijuana: Did anti-pot-tax group break campaign law with joint giveways?

Update: Rob Corry has responded to our interview request about the Colorado Ethics Watch complaint against the No on Proposition AA campaign. His comments follow our original post.

Over the past month or so, the organization opposed to the marijuana taxation measure Proposition AA has staged rallies in Denver and Boulder at which attendees were given free joints. But did the way No on Prop AA reported about its expenditures break Colorado campaign-finance law?

The watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch thinks it did and has filed a complaint with the state on the topic. Details below.

The main concerns cited by CEW in its complaint, submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, which oversees electoral matters in these parts, involve the way the opposition group has dealt with money matters. A September 16 disclosure form is said to have noted a cash contribution of $0.01 -- that's one cent -- from attorney Rob Corry, who helped organize the September 9 rally at Denver's Civic Center Park and a September 23 sequel on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall.

According to CEW, this penny was earmarked for "Marijuana," with another one supposedly designated for "office space" -- presumably a West Colfax address the campaign has reportedly occupied since July.

We've reached out to Corry for comment, and -- update -- new comments can be found on page three of this post. But in a Q&A published the morning of the Boulder free-joint rally, we asked Corry who supplied the cannabis for the event. "Numerous sources who wish to remain anonymous," he replied, adding, "The fair market value of the cannabis is zero since it cannot be legally sold for 'remuneration' without a valid license to do so and no such license presently exists, and will not until January 1, 2014 under Amendment 64."

This explanation doesn't quite fly with Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, who describes the No on Prop AA's one-penny filings as red flags.

"As voters, we're entitled to know who the contributors to a campaign are," Toro notes, "and you can't say, 'The donor would prefer to remain anonymous.' That's been decided: The Colorado constitution and election statutes say if you're going to contribute to a campaign, you should expect that your name is going to be disclosed.

"There is a procedure to redact names of donors," he continues, pointing out that possible reasons for anonymity include a person's status as a victim of domestic violence -- "but that's not what was done here. There isn't a form on the Secretary of State's website that has the name redacted. It just says, 'Rob Corry, one cent,' which cannot be correct."

Of course, one possible reason for the sources to prefer being on the down-low involves the question of whether they broke the law by providing the pot for the rallies.

Continue for more about the campaign complaint involving the No on Prop AA group, including Rob Corry's response. In Toro's view, the joint giveaways themselves are legal, since the amount of cannabis in question is well under the one-ounce limit cited in Amendment 64. But the total amount was clearly much more than that, since hundreds of joints were dispensed at both events.

If the donors want to remain anonymous because they fear self-incrimination, "they could file a report saying they're not disclosing because of the Fifth Amendment," Toro maintains. "But the report doesn't say that, either. It says 'one cent.' And it's not a license to make something up -- to report something to the government as what's happening is not incriminating.

"We're not the police," Toro emphasizes, "and we're not looking to get anyone indicted. If herb is going out the back door of a dispensary, that speaks to the situation of regulation in Colorado, but what we're interested in is that the people who made the donations be disclosed. And this isn't just my opinion. It's Colorado law."

As for possible punishment for the No on Prop AA campaign, Toro says, "there could be fines" -- perhaps of $50 per day until disclosure is made. "But what really matters is not the fine. It's the information that voters have at the poling booth. Voters deserve to know who's supporting a campaign either by donations or in-kind contributions."

Literally in-kind contributions in this case.

"I know there are possible criminal implications," Toro acknowledges, "but that's not our goal. We're not the drug police. We're focused on campaign finance and transparency in government. And that's what this is about."

Continue for Rob Corry's response to the Colorado Ethics Watch complaint. Update: When asked about the Colorado Ethics Watch complaint, Rob Corry says the No on Prop AA campaign's disclosures "have been overly transparent. We have disclosed things we're not even required to disclose. Colorado law only requires contributions and expenditures worth over $20 to be reported, and we've disclosed some things under $20 -- and marijuana falls under that category.

"Under current law, marijuana cannot be sold," he stresses. "No recreational marijuana can be sold until January 1, and after that, only recreational marijuana grown in a licensed facility can be sold. And none of that exists now."

As such, he argues that the marijuana given away at the two rallies, as well as at a Yes on Proposition AA fundraiser protest built around dab buses, "has zero value. The reason it even shows up in our disclosures is because we want to be extra-transparent -- and the reason its cost is set at one penny is because everything's done online, and the program the Secretary of State uses won't accept a zero."

Corry adds that he had a phone conversation earlier this morning with CEW's Toro and an attorney from his office, "and he indicated to me that he would consider withdrawing the complaint if we filed an amended disclosure form, which we're considering.

"I've donated the office space, so it's tough to put a value on it -- and the office space is really only a mail drop. We don't use the space for regular meetings or to store anything. But it sounds like if we assign a value of something like $100 to it, which the 'Yes' campaign has, that would probably satisfy the issue."

A fix may not be as simple when it comes to the cannabis given away in Denver and Boulder, however. Toro "believes we should put the street value on that," Corry says, "and I just respectfully disagree with him. We should put its actual value, which is zero, because it cannot be sold and I will not sell it, because it would be blatantly breaking the law. You can't even legally throw it away, because somebody might find it, and it can't be openly burned in the City and County of Denver. The only legal way to dispose of this marijuana is to hand it out for free to willing adults 21 and over who will take it, and that's what we've done."

According to Corry, possible legal culpability for the sources of the cannabis has nothing to do with their desire to remain anonymous. But he does maintain that "the marijuana doesn't come from a licensed dispensary, and our volunteers easily account for the ounces that we had.

"We're running a campaign that has very little money, unlike the 'Yes on Proposition AA' campaign, which has tens of thousands of dollars now," he allows. "So our goal is to get people talking about taxes -- and even this campaign-finance complaint has got people talking about whether it's a wise course of action for Colorado to tax itself at a higher rate than it ever has in the history of the state. So to that extent, we're happy about the complaint, because it keeps the conversation going. And if the conversation keeps going, we win. If the conversation stops, we're in trouble."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: Free joint giveaway on Pearl Street Mall a mellow event."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts