By Ian Wishart
Are secret foreign groups and commercial cannabis barons interfering in New Zealand’s election this year by funneling massive currently-hidden donations through a taxpayer-funded charity?
That’s the uncomfortable question being asked as the New Zealand Drug Foundation goes silent on where the money has come from to bankroll the hugely expensive TV, radio, newspaper and social media pushing a ‘Yes’ vote for cannabis legalisation.
The campaign, one of the most expensive advertising sprees outside of the Government’s Covid-19 alerts, has burst onto TV screens, full page front page newspaper ads and social media, pushing cannabis legalisation “on our terms”. Set to run from 2 June until the referendum on 19 September, the campaign is estimated to cost millions – far in excess of the organisation’s $2 million budget, mostly provided by the government.
The Drug Foundation at the weekend confirmed to a Facebook question that the massive advertising spend has not been funded by taxpayer money:
“No taxpayer funding is used for this campaign. As a charitable trust, we also receive private grants and donations which are funding the ‘vote yes’ campaign.”
Although the Drug Foundation is audited by the Charities Commission, it is not legally required to disclose its donations for the year to June 30, until 31 December 2020, and if the advertising is on standard commercial terms it won’t be payable until 20 July 2020, meaning the millions of dollars to pay for it wouldn’t have to be received by the Drug Foundation until July, meaning New Zealanders would legally have to wait until 31 December 2021 to find out who bankrolled the pro-Cannabis campaign.
Investigate asked the Drug Foundation to disclose whether any money has come from foreign donors:
“Can you please confirm that 1) you know the identity of all donors to the foundation, as required by law, and 2) how much money has been donated to your organisation since 1 April 2020, and 3) how much of that money since 1 April has come from overseas donors and 4) what are the identities of those overseas donors?”
We also sent texts to Drug Foundation director Ross Bell’s phone. To date, there has been no response.
Bell has previously taken tens of thousands of dollars in funding from overseas foundations directed by billionaire George Soros – a huge advocate for commercially selling marijuana.
Other candidates include NZ-based big businesses that stand to make a financial killing if cannabis is legalised – companies like Helius Therapeutics.
Investigate sent a text to Helius director Joseph Schmidt: “We are just running a story on the cannabis referendum and the important community value placed on transparency these days. How much money if any has Helius donated to the NZ Drug Foundation?”
Again, only silence.
So the question remains: is it acceptable in a 2020 election for shadowy foreign groups to “buy” referendum results in New Zealand?
According to the Green Party, who have been heavily pushing the cannabis legalisation, a news release last December says “No”:
“The Green Party welcome a law change to help protect our democracy from the influence of powerful vested interests by banning foreign donations of more than $50, Justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said today.
“We believe in an open democracy with transparent and equal access for all New Zealanders.
“To help ensure New Zealand has a thriving and healthy Parliament the Green Party have long called for foreign donations to be banned. This measure in part of my Strengthening Democracy Members Bill, so we are very happy to see our Government making progress in this area.
“Limiting foreign donations to $50 will reduce undue influence from powerful vested interests and create a healthier and fairer system,
“We would like to see a raft of further measures to ensure equal access to our democracy. This includes implementing the 2012 MMP Review recommendations, reducing the anonymity threshold for all donations.”
The Green Party has been approached for comment on whether The Drug Foundation should be open and transparent on where its funding for the cannabis campaign is coming from.