Published On July 12, 2017

Marijuana is still illegal in New York, but that did not stop more than 4,000 people from descending on the Javits Center in Manhattan for a cannabis-industry conference in June. Longtime activists in blazers decorated with weed leaves mingled among Wall Street types in crisp suits. But one man stood out among the well-heeled crowd.

Jerome Dewald, a 66-year-old investor, manned a booth for Restrict & Regulate New York (RRNY)—a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in New York through a state constitutional convention. He was sporting his signature look—a bowtie, glasses and a straw fedora hat. On this day, he also donned a Billy Reid seersucker blazer with a lively pattern of blue chrysanthemums. Dewald worked the room to raise awareness for his efforts to use a little-known avenue for direct democracy to address the issue of cannabis reform.

Legalization has lagged on the East Coast partly due to the lack of direct democracy. The eight adult-use marijuana measures that have passed in the U.S. since 2012 were approved at the ballot box through voter-driven initiatives. No state has legalized recreational cannabis through the legislature yet, though Vermont came close this year.

New York state’s constitution requires a referendum on whether to hold a convention to rewrite it every 20 years. Other states in the region have similar provisions, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The last convention held was called by the state legislature in 1967, but voters rejected its proposals — primarily one to let tax money be used to fund religious schools. Voters can also call for a convention. That last happened in 1938, when they approved amendments enabling the state to set up a social-welfare system and requiring public construction projects to pay a union-level “prevailing wage.” Voters rejected holding a convention in 1997.

New Yorkers will vote this November on whether to hold a convention in April 2019. Delegates would be elected next year, and voters would ratify or defeat proposed amendments in November 2019. Some ethics groups have supported holding a convention, saying it could be used to reform the state’s notoriously corrupt legislature. Labor unions have strongly opposed it, as they fear it would be used to eliminate the guarantee that public employees’ pensions must be paid in full.

Dewald, who hails from Muskegon, Mich., spent decades living as an expat in Moscow before he returned to the U.S. in 2015. He’d started trading cannabis stocks in the over-the-counter markets two years earlier, and decided he wanted to invest exclusively in the marijuana industry. He spent 2015 attending as many cannabis conferences as he could—14 by his count. The next year, he “plowed as much money as [he] was willing to plow” into the industry, about $1 million. When he learned about New York’s constitutional-convention process, he was initially skeptical, but he decided that it would be the best way to achieve legalization in the state.

“We are not going to get satisfactory results from the legislature or the governor in anything less than five years,” he tells Word on the Tree (WOTT). “First, we have to wait for [Governor Andrew] Cuomo to leave office, and then we’re going to have to navigate the legislature.”

If voters approve Con-Con (for constitutional convention), delegates would convene in 2019 to weigh in on a variety of issues.

Dewald’s Criminal Record

With a once-in-20-years avenue open to put the issue of marijuana legalization before New York voters, one might expect national advocacy organizations to support the campaign. But so far, no major group—the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project, Students for a Drug Policy, Marijuana Majority—has taken a position on Dewald’s campaign, despite their support for other legalization measures around the country.

“The silence from our industry is deafening,” Dewald sighs. “Not one policy group in our industry has come out in favor of a New York State constitutional convention as a pathway for legalization in New York.”

There’s a reason for that. In 2005, Dewald was convicted of fraud and larceny charges in Michigan for his role in two political-action committees he’d run in the 2000 presidential election—one raising money for Democrat Albert Gore, one for Republican George W. Bush. After state appeals courts upheld his conviction, he filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, arguing that because his PACs were raising money for a federal election, he could only be charged under federal law, not state law. A federal district court ruled in Dewald’s favor, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled it in 2014, reinstating his conviction in a two-to-one decision.

When Dewald reached out to NORML in March to ascertain its level of support for a campaign like RRNY, Keith Stroup, the organization’s founder and legal counsel, raised the issue of his felony convictions. Stroup forwarded the query to David Holland, Empire State NORML’s executive and legal director, and NORML Legal Committee member Joe Bondy.

“I need to know if you are the individual who was convicted of fraud involving two PACs,” Stroup asked in his email reply to Dewald. “The facts of that case seem suspiciously similar to the current project you have started.”

“I responded to him the same day pointing out that [the case] is clearly disclosed on my LinkedIn profile for anyone to read, plus it comes up at the top of any Google search about me,” Dewald says. In addition, he sent Stroup, Holland and Bondy transcripts of his trial and reports from the Federal Election Commission general counsel about the case.

After reviewing the transcripts, Holland sent Dewald a letter saying that he and Bondy had reviewed the information and decided an educational and fundraising alliance with Empire State NORML would not be possible.

“We took no position with regard to the validity of the charges or conviction.” Holland wrote. “They played no part in our determination on behalf of NORML. What did impact our review was the appearance of impropriety and conflicts of interest… with which NORML cannot be affiliated.”

Dewald defends himself, saying: “The whole thing seems very weird to me at this point. Why would Stroup use this 20-year-old conviction as a distraction from the real issue, which is the Con-Con and whether it is a viable process for us? I may be flawed, but no one else is standing up. The clock is marching forward as our troops sleep.”

Limited Support for Dewald and RRNY

Dewald assembled what he called a “group of 18 influentials” who wanted to pursue legalization through a constitutional convention as an option in New York. After NORML raised the issue of his past conviction, he sent an email to the group.

“I go into crisis management mode so that we could at least get something out that tells my side of the story,” says Dewald, who livestreamed an interview about his conviction to address questions surrounding it. The video is on his Facebook page and on YouTube:

When WOTT attempted to contact Dewald’s “influentials,” several people confirmed their involvement and support for the effort. But others in the group were surprised to hear of their supposed support for RRNY. In a follow-up conversation, Dewald clarified that the group of 18 weren’t necessarily supporters, but had different levels of involvement.

“I’m aware of the RRNY campaign, but was not aware I am listed as a supporter,” Kassandra Frederique, the DPA’s New York state director, replied in an email to WOTT. “I play more of an observer role.”

Jeffrey Friedland, CEO of the INTIVA cannabinoid-products company and one of the campaign’s financial backers, says Dewald was “absolutely” up front with him about his past conviction. “I’m used to dealing with people with a checkered past,” he explains.

“I think the cause is very worthy,” says Steve Gormley, founder and managing partner of Seventh Point, a private-equity firm specializing in cannabis-industry investments, but adds that he would reconsider his future involvement due to Dewald’s criminal history.

One of the 18, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has nothing to do with the campaign. Four others, some of who asked not to be named, said they only had informal roles or that they really weren’t involved beyond a few conversations. Others did not return requests for comment.

RRNY’s former treasurer Matt Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors, resigned immediately after learning of Dewald’s conviction. “I like to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he states. But Karnes felt blindsided by the disclosure. “I think [RRNY] is a worthwhile endeavor, but he should’ve told me this before he asked me to be the treasurer.”

According to Dewald, Leslie Bocskor, president of Electrum Partners, a cannabis-industry consulting firm, has contributed funding to the campaign. Pamela Johnston, senior vice president of strategy and special projects at Electrum, is also backing the RRNY campaign, and has been involved in its messaging strategy and communications. Dewald is “on the right side of history in regards to cannabis policy and regulation,” she told WOTT in an email.

Dewald Continues to Lead RRNY Despite Questions

On June 15, RRNY announced that it had raised $600,000 for its 9B ballot issue political action committee.

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

Dewald says RRNY’s new treasurer, Will Powers, has complete control over the finances. Powers did not return multiple requests for comment.

Still, many are questioning if Dewald is the right man to lead the campaign. “We don’t want the credibility of the movement collapsing under the weight of his background,” notes Gormley.

“If somebody else wants to stand up and do this because I’m a bad character, I’d be delighted to turn this thing over to someone else,” Dewald says in response to his critics. “We have just four and a half months. If someone else wants the baton, I will be happy to pass it to them racing toward the finish line. But [I’m] not standing on the sidelines.”

Allen St. Pierre, board member at NORML and vice president of advocacy and communications at Freedom Leaf, offers a modicum of support for Dewald. “An imperfect effort led by an imperfect person is better than no effort at all,” he comments.

If a constitutional convention were to be convened and a sensible marijuana legalization measure put forth, Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, says: “We’ll certainly support that and do everything we can to pass it. That said, it seems to me that taking the huge amount of resources required for such an effort and instead putting them into convincing New York legislators to join the growing number of other states that are legalizing marijuana would have a greater likelihood of succeeding, as obviously challenging as it would be.”

Other advocates echoed the sentiment.

“Empire State NORML raises funds for a variety of advocacy measures, not a single issue like [RRNY] does, so our missions are different,” said Holland. “While I support Con-Con, at this time NORML will not take a position that supports Jerome Dewald and his organization.”

This post has been updated to include additional quotes from Tom Angell and David Holland, and a copy-edit.