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Applicants seek influence as state Health Department awards medical pot licenses

A Lewiston company that is seeking a medical marijuana license from the state donated $45,000 this month to the re-election fund of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose Health Department is expected to announce the winning licensees any day now, state Board of Elections records show.

Lewiston Greenhouse is one of five applicants from the Buffalo Niagara region – among 43 statewide – and all five have hired registered lobbyists to help them navigate the application and decision-making processes here and in Albany.

Good-government groups and organizations that advocate on behalf of medical-marijuana patients say the Health Department has shared little about how it will select the five licensees, and this lack of transparency is driving the applicant companies to seek whatever inside information or influence they can through lobbyists and campaign contributions.

“Secrecy is the oxygen for the lobbying corps,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany.

The Health Department will select five businesses to grow, process and distribute marijuana. Each company will operate four dispensaries, for a total of 20 outlets statewide, and must have its products ready to sell by early January.

The Health Department sought public comment on the draft medical marijuana regulations, but disappointed advocates by making no substantive changes to the rules based on that feedback.

Companies had until June 5 to apply for one of the licenses, and the Health Department soon after released a list with the corporate names of the 43 applicants and no other identifying information.

A number of applicants have revealed more details about their bids, including five from the Buffalo area.

Lewiston Greenhouse made two donations, of $30,000 and $15,000, on July 13, five weeks after applications were due. Lewiston Greenhouse, which applied under the name Herbal Agriculture, would grow marijuana in the H2Gro greenhouse in Lewiston. The company would work with Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises, a Colorado firm, and Dent Neurologic Institute, the local medical practice, if it wins the license.

Gary E. Smith, a Modern Corporation executive who is an owner of H2Gro, did not return messages Wednesday seeking comment on the Lewiston Greenhouse contribution, which was previously reported by the Albany Times-Union. The governor’s Press Office also did not respond to a message seeking comment.

“No, I don’t think campaign contributions should be influencing the decision-making process,” said Julie Netherland, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which strongly backed the medical marijuana law. “I mean, that should be based on objective criteria on who’s best able to produce high-quality, safe medical marijuana and serve patients in New York. Period. The end. But what’s happening around these applications is emblematic of how Albany works.”

Lewiston Greenhouse also retained a lobbying firm to work on its behalf, as did all of the other publicly identified license applicants from the Buffalo area.

Lewiston Greenhouse in November 2014 hired PAPI Consulting, the lobbying firm of former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, at a rate of $25,000 per month, according to documents filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

The contract was supposed to run until the Health Department issues its decision on the licensees, expected by the end of the month, but the company ended the lobbying contract after officials with the state Attorney General’s Office, the State Police and the FBI raided and took evidence from Pigeon’s home in late May as part of a campaign-finance investigation. “We felt it was in our best interest to exercise the termination option that was in the contract,” Smith told the Niagara Gazette in early June.

The other medical marijuana applicants from the area, and their lobbyists, according to commission records, are:

•Alternative Medical Associates, led by Dr. Gregory Daniel, the former CEO of WNY Immediate Care, hired Suzy Ballantyne, a longtime AFL-CIO official who works for the Bolton St. Johns lobbying firm.

Ballantyne opened doors for the applicant in Albany, where Alternative Medical Associates doesn’t have deep political connections, and in Buffalo, where she helped to sell elected officials on the economic benefits of the group’s proposal to open a grow facility in the former Tyson Foods plant in South Buffalo, said Dick Shaner Jr., senior vice president with Martin Davison, the public relations firm hired by AMA.

•Far(me)d New York, formed by Dr. Amarjit S. Atwal and his son, Dr. Ephraim S. Atwal, both Cheektowaga eye surgeons, hired Patricia Lynch Associates, the lobbying firm that employs Paul A. Tokasz, the former Assembly majority leader. The firm worked to help the Atwals win the support of elected officials in the communities where they would set up distribution centers if they win one of the five state licenses.

•Kinex Supportive Pharmaceuticals, a venture of the drug-development company based on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, hired consultant Paul Tenan, of American Pace Exchange, said Flint Besecker, Kinex’s chief operating officer.

“Kinex had to make sure our application was prepared and submitted in a complete manner consistent with the DOH rules and guidance. Paul helped us to accomplish this task,” Besecker said in an email.

•LabCare, which includes Dr. Kathleen M. Casacci, a dentist who practices in Wheatfield, hired Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese & Associates, the firm that employs former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello and former Deputy Erie County Executive Carl Calabrese.

The fact that every local license applicant felt the need to hire a lobbyist shows the persistence of the belief that lobbyists are needed to help laypeople understand the ways of Albany, particularly in a case where the decision-making process is all but cloaked in secrecy, NYPIRG’s Horner said.

“In Albany, the muscle memory is to try to make decisions outside of public view. And when you do that, people who allege to have hot, insider contacts are worth their weight in gold, because most people have no idea how to penetrate a black-box decision-making process,” he said.