CuraLeaf’s Cannabis connection to Russia started in New Jersey
For several years rumors circulated that Curaleaf, a cannabis permit holder in numerous states and a major player in New Jersey’s regulated market, had financial connections to Russia.
After the invasion of Ukraine there were sanctions passed and the company began to receive more intense scrutiny.
It turns out that Curaleaf’s Russian roots were hardly a secret. The top management and major shareholders had a long history of working for companies in the former Soviet Union, and direct connections right to the very highest levels of today’s Russian government. Curaleaf could be described as being proud of those relationships prior to – and even after – the invasion.
Beyond mere association there was a direct connection recently revealed between Curaleaf’s early financing and the infamous Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Yes, the guy that owned Chelsea soccer club in the UK.
That particular financing of Curaleaf is being investigated by cannabis regulators in Connecticut and Vermont right now. I asked the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission to undertake a publicly transparent investigation into the issue as well. No word from NJCRC yet.
Curaleaf owns dozens of dispensaries in as many states, but their very first cannabis venture was here in New Jersey.
The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act NJ was signed in January 2011 by Democrat Jon Corzine, just one week before he left office. Newly elected Republican Chris Christie – no fan of weed – was tasked with implementation. Christie delayed the process for several years, then famously boasted of rewriting the medical cannabis law by imposing a series of draconian regulations.
Christie devised a completely new structure for the concept at the time: Just six vertical operating permits for the entire state, a strict registry requirement for physicians to recommend cannabis, a 10% cap on THC content, and a regular sales taxes on products.
Gov. Christie completed his weed coup by appointing a 26-year veteran of the NJ State Police – John O’Brien – as the first director for NJ’s compassionate cannabis program. Magically, three of the first six cannabis permits went directly to Christie’s pals; one to a company called PalliaTech.
By creating the first extremely limited marijuana permit program in NJ – and selling the idea to other states at the time – Christie can be credited with helping create the modern infrastructure for corporate cannabis. It’s no mistake that many mainstream GOP political operatives are players in the space today: John Boehner, Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone are just a few.
By 2016 PalliaTech still hadn’t planted a single cannabis seed in New Jersey. They just parked on the permit and collected investments. When the company suddenly bid for a new permit in New York a familiar name showed up on the application: John O’Brien.
O’Brien’s amazing journey from career cop to NJ’s first medical marijuana program director, and then to Compliance Officer for a cannabis company that he regulated does seem perfectly written on a napkin in a Bergen County diner.
PalliaTech lost out on that first NY permit and finally focused on actually opening in NJ. Just one year later, in 2018, PalliaTech changed its name to Curaleaf.
Curaleaf grew large from that single vertical medical cannabis operating permit, playing the new game of snapping up limited weed permits across multiple states. Borrowing on previous international business experience, Curaleaf also began to trade its main stock on the exchange in Canada. This is a common scheme employed by nearly all the companies making up the relatively small corporate cannabis cartel.
Out-of-state, international corporations eventually opened all of New Jersey’s first-round of adult-use dispensaries.
Last year New Jersey passed a law barring state contracts with companies affiliated or financed through Russia or Belarus. So, now Curaleaf’s openly reported relations should raise some flags. A vertical cannabis permit certainly seems like an exclusive state contract.
We are supposed to be launching into a new era of equity ownership in NJ cannabis. It’s our responsibility to ensure our cannabis program, and more importantly our consumers, aren’t being exploited by predatory corporations or even foreign governments.