Cannabis & Crony Capitalism: From Matt Gaetz to Trulieve

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The sex scandal investigation of Florida’s far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz interlocks with a controversy concerning favoritism in handing out medical marijuana licenses in the Sunshine State. And one of the key beneficiaries appears to be Trulieve — now the biggest operator in Florida and one of the leading cannabis companies in the United States.

Trulieve is currently winning headlines over its effort to acquire Harvest Health & Recreation, the largest cannabis operator in Arizona and also a major operator in Florida, in a stock deal valued at $2.1 billion. As Forbes reports, the transaction, if approved by regulators, will create one of largest cannabis companies in the US, expanding Trulieve’s footprint to 126 dispensaries and 22 cultivation facilities across 11 states.

But coverage gushing over a cannabis business success story ignores the origins of Trulieve, which trace back to a nexus of prominent Florida Republicans, including names currently making stomach-churning national headlines. Chief among these are the Beshears brothers — one of whom is directly implicated in Gaetz’s alleged sex junket to the Bahamas.

2018: Key Year for Gaetz and Trulieve

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Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers

A key turning point for Trulieve came in 2018 when it merged with a Toronto-based former mining company, Schyan Exploration. With this hefty capital infusion, it unambiguously joined the ranks of Big Bud.

Interestingly, 2018, Trulieve’s breakthrough year, was also the year of the key event in the Matt Gaetz scandal that has now become a national embarrassment for the Republican Party.

The young star of Trump’s brave new GOP has been one of the biggest loudmouths promoting the pernicious fantasy that the 2020 elections were stolen by Biden. But Trump and the party leaders are now dropping Gaetz like the proverbial hot potato as the FBI investigates his suspected sex trafficking — including accusations of paid sex with an underage girl.

And this is but the most salacious element of a wider web of public corruption also said to be under federal investigation. Yet Gaetz continues to trumpet Trumpian rhetoric about “draining the swamp,” taking post-truth irony to truly surreal levels.

Bawdy in the Bahamas

In September 2018, Gaetz took a trip to the Bahamas, which has now emerged as the major episode in the investigation.

With him on the trip was Halsey Beshears, a seven-year Florida state legislator from Jefferson County who stepped down as chief of the state’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation as the Gaetz scandal unfolded. Also along for the fling in the Bahamas was Dr. Jason Pirozzolo, an Orlando hand surgeon and cannabis entrepreneur. Pirozollo is the one who is believed to have paid for the travel expenses, accommodations, and female escorts.

As Politico notes, Gaetz flew commercial, but Beshears was on a private flight. Also part of the entourage were at least five young women, one of whom was under the age of 18 at the time. When they arrived back in Florida on Beshears’ private plane, they were briefly stopped and questioned by US Customs officers for looking suspiciously young.

The Wingman

Another figure under scrutiny by the feds in connection with the Bahamas trip is Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg. Greenberg has been named as the “wingman” who recruited “attractive young women” online for Gaetz and arranged for payments in return for sex. The Tallahassee Democrat reports that some sources also place Greenberg along on the same Bahamas trip, presumably for such unsavory purposes.

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Matt Gaetz

On May 14, Greenberg pleaded guilty to six federal charges, including sex-trafficking of an underage girl, and agreed to cooperate with the Department of Justice investigation.

Greenberg is also the figure whose failure to cover his tracks led to exposure of the whole affair. As the New York Times reported on April 9, what began as a probe into irregularities in the Seminole County Tax Collector’s office has expanded into the current media debacle for the GOP.

Daily Beast cites unnamed sources saying that Greenberg is preparing to name 15 women Gaetz paid for sex with — including “paid escort” and Instagram model Megan Zalonka, with whom Gaetz is said to have snorted coke at a Trump fundraiser where he was the featured speaker in Orlando in October 2019. Greenberg allegedly set Zalonka up with a “taxpayer-funded no-show job.”

Gaetz denied all this in a Washington Examiner op-ed April 5, in which he accused: “The swamp is out to drown me.”

The Bahamas trip is what’s critical — regardless of whether Gaetz personally got his hands dirty with the money or farmed this out to Greenberg. “Traveling across state lines is what creates a federal hook for a prosecution,” Arlo Devlin-Brown, a former federal prosecutor, told CBS News. “It doesn’t matter that [Gaetz] personally paid them as long as he knows someone is doing that.”

Gaetz & Florida’s Cannabis Cartel

The interlocking connections between Gaetz, Beshears, and Pirozzolo extend beyond an apparent mutual penchant for lechery. Gaetz and Halsey Beshears served together in the Florida Legislature, and federal records reveal that Pirozzolo made two donations of $1,000 each to Gaetz’s campaign arm, “Friends of Matt Gaetz.” But as the Associated Press notes, they also had another mutual interest: Florida’s $1.2 billion medical marijuana industry.

In addition to all the other sleaze, investigators are said to be looking at Gaetz’s connections to the cannabis biz — including whether Pirozzolo and others sought to influence state legislation Gaetz sponsored.

It was Gaetz who ushered through the House version of the 2014 legislation that became Florida’s medical marijuana law. That law, the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, initially only permitted low-THC varieties (such as the famous Charlotte’s Web). But it still unleashed a “green rush,” as investors and entrepreneurs raced to grab a share of the fledgling market.

That same law, however, strictly limited who could cash in on the rush. As recalled by an exhaustive story in the Orlando Sentinel (also run by the Tampa Bay Times and other Florida papers): “Less than 24 hours before the Florida Legislature passed the state’s first medical marijuana law in May 2014, Matt Gaetz and other members of the state House of Representatives rewrote the bill to limit who would be able to get in on the ground floor of what has since become a billion-dollar business.”

The revision set rigid vertically integrated standards for businesses, which could apply to become one of five “dispensing organizations.” The chosen few would be responsible for every step of the process from cultivation to processing to distribution to retail sales. Only state-licensed nurseries could apply — and only those that had been in operation for at least 30 years and had at least 400,000 plants.

A Bro Deal

One businessman who made the cut was Thad Beshears – the brother of Gaetz’s then-fellow state Rep. Halsey Beshears, who of course voted for the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, and went along with its last-minute revision. Thad Beshears, a co-owner of Simpson Nurseries, outside Tallahassee, was also a major Republican Party donor, giving $50,000 in one day during the 2016 presidential election to political action committees supporting Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee. During the 2020 campaign, Beshears donated more than $200,000 to pro-Trump and Republican committees.

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Ballard Partners office in DC

Halsey Beshears, a former president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association, had also worked for…

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