Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato leaves Manhattan federal court in New York Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after calling ex-New York Senate leader Dean Skelos his friend even though prosecutors called him as a government witness at the corruption trial of Skelos and his son Adam. Prosecutors say Skelos arranged for his son to get $300,000 from businesses that needed his help with legislation. D’Amato testified that he warned the elder Skelos that his son wasn’t showing up for work at a medical malpractice insurance company that had hired him. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

A Washington, D.C.-based marijuana legalization advocacy group on Wednesday announced that it has hired as a senior adviser former U.S. senator from New York Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican once known for his conservative “law and order” views.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to end the marijuana prohibition, announced the launch of a New York affiliate of its organization as an effort to make changes to the state’s fledging medical marijuana program.

“I was very, very skeptical that this was just gonna be another way for people to get high,” D’Amato, who was an outspoken U.S. senator from 1981 to 1999, said in an interview with the New York Law Journal Wednesday afternoon. “Turns out that’s not the case.”

In an earlier statement, D’Amato said, “while New York’s medical marijuana program was initially extremely limited, Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, the Senate and the Assembly should be commended for their work not only in creating the program but also for their openness to improving it. Now, we all need to do the work necessary so that New York’s program isn’t only the best it can be but also is the best in the country,” D’Amato said in a statement.

His shift on marijuana came after talking to doctors and patients who have found medical marijuana to be beneficial, D’Amato said.

According to a lobbying disclosure filed with the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the Marijuana Policy Project entered into a lobbying agreement with D’Amato’s lobbying firm, Park Strategies, in July at a rate of $10,000 per month. D’Amato won’t receive a salary as the organization’s adviser, a spokesman said.

D’Amato, who for years was a staunch opponent of marijuana, also lobbies on behalf of one of the medical marijuana companies that was awarded a license to grow and sell the drug by the state in 2015. Park Strategies signed a $15,000 per month lobbying agreement in early 2015 with two firms operated by Richard Yost, a businessman involved in several marijuana ventures around the country. Later that year, Yost’s company, Bloomfield Industries, was awarded a license to grow and sell medical marijuana. In February, Los Angeles-based MedMen, a marijuana management and investment firm, acquired Bloomfield, which had been faltering amid financial constraints. Despite the change in ownership, Park Strategies continues to lobby for Bloomfield and was paid $16,667 in May and June, according to lobbying disclosures.

In addition to lobbying for Bloomfield, two Park Strategies principals have “small, noncontrolling investments” in a California marijuana cultivation and distribution business, according to the lobbying contract with the Marijuana Policy Project.
While the Marijuana Policy Project’s New York affiliate may be new, it has had a presence in the state Capitol for several years, lobbying records show.

In June 2014, as the governor and Legislature were negotiating the so-called Compassionate Care Act—which allows medical use of marijuana in the state—the organization registered as a lobbyist and listed lobbying on medical marijuana and the Compassionate Care Act.

The MPP Foundation, the nonprofit “educational” arm of the organization, retained the lobbying firm Dickinson & Avella this past legislative session, as well as the lobbying firm Public Strategies. According to a lobbying disclosure, Dickinson & Avella won’t be receiving a fee for its services, in which it is expected to lobby on marijuana policy.
Meanwhile, Public Strategies, which is earning $4,000 a month from its contract with the MPP Foundation, will be lobbying to include post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, as well as “various future efforts,” a lobbying disclosure said.

The Marijuana Policy Project is urging Cuomo to sign a bill that would add PTSD to the list of conditions for which a patient is eligible for medical marijuana, according to an announcement from the group. It is also advocating for changes to the medical marijuana program that would “reduce some of the onerous security requirements for registered organizations, shorten the length of the medical marijuana course certifying practitioners must take from four hours to two, and allow additional types of medical marijuana products to be sold.”

In August, just weeks after the state announced plans to effectively double the size of the program (NYLJ Aug. 1), the state announced that it would soon be able to offer patients marijuana-infused patches, chewable and non-smokable forms of ground plant material (NYLJ Aug. 11).

The Marijuana Policy Project also announced that Landon Dais, a former associate of Long Island-based Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana, would join the organization as a political director. Dais was previously a member of the firm’s employment, labor, construction and commercial litigation practice groups.
Despite D’Amato’s efforts to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, he’s still cautious about legalizing the drug outright.

“It’s naive to say we’re going to keep it the way it is,” D’Amato said of the state’s marijuana policies, comparing it to prohibition. “Let’s just get some facts.”

Contact the reporter Josefa Velasquez at jvelasquez@alm.com; Twitter: @j__velasquez.