How Massive Donations From Howard G. Buffett Helped Block the Opening of a Pot Dispensary in Illinois

On January 1, Illinois became the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana, raking in nearly $3.2 million in revenue on the first day of sales. The legislation, enacted by the state’s Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, includes “social equity” provisions to give dispensary preference and extra funding to areas that disproportionately bore the impact of the war on drugs — those with higher-than-average rates of marijuana-related arrests, convictions, and prison sentences.

Decatur, the largest city in Macon County, Illinois, has a population that is 20 percent black and is eligible for these reparative measures. But in September, by a vote of 6-1, the Decatur City Council voted to prohibit an adult-use cannabis dispensary from opening in the city. The council also voted 4-3 against allowing cannabis-related businesses, like cultivation and processing centers, to set up shop in Decatur.

At the center of the city council’s position is the indirect influence of Howard G. Buffett, the eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, who has lived in the city since the early 1990s. Howard Buffett is remarkably close to local police (even serving a recent stint as interim sheriff) and has poured tens of millions of dollars into law enforcement programs and drug rehabilitation efforts.

Most elected city officials appeared to be set in their opposition to allowing a recreational dispensary in Decatur even before a scheduled public meeting on September 30 to deliberate the issue, according to internal city council communications obtained by DPL Watchdogs, a grassroots transparency group, and shared with The Intercept.

“The push to opt out is gaining some momentum. Stay tuned!” Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, who was one of the six no votes, wrote in an email to a constituent on August 21.

“I am a firm opt out vote,” wrote Council Member Lisa Gregory in August, according to another one of the emails. A week before the September study session, Gregory emailed a constituent urging them to “Please apply pressure to [Council Member] David Horn as he intends to vote yes.”

The emails, which were obtained through a public records request, also show Wolfe and Council Member Patrick McDaniel planning how to avoid backlash for limiting public comment at the September study session. McDaniel suggested there be one half-hour segment for public comment “or we will never hear the end of it,” and that speakers “should only be allowed one minute to very briefly state their views.” Wolfe responded that she agreed. She pledged to “make sure we’re ok limiting time” and added that she’d “like a big clock on the monitors.”  Reached for comment, Wolfe told The Intercept that speakers at council meetings typically get three minutes, and that she remembers wanting a clock to help track that. She added that some residents spoke multiple times throughout the September meeting.

Buffett’s financial contributions to the city, as well as his foundation’s work on addiction treatment, influenced at least two city council members’ opposition to the opening of a dispensary in Decatur. At the September study session, Council Member Chuck Kuhle stated bluntly that his opposition was tied in part to his desire to respect Buffett.

“I personally can’t think of a more flat-out rejection of our former sheriff and his foundation than to approve the sale of recreational marijuana without a wait-and-see approach,” Kuhle said, referring to wanting to see how marijuana legalization plays out in other parts of the state before allowing a dispensary to open in Decatur.

More recently, Wolfe pointed to a drug rehabilitation center that opened last year thanks to a $60 million donation from the foundation as justification for her opposition to the sale of marijuana. “It’s kind of counterintuitive to say, OK, we have this wonderful facility to deal with drug addiction, on one hand, and on the other say, Oh, here, come buy your marijuana downtown.”

In recent years, Howard Buffett has cultivated a close relationship with local police and taken a particular interest in curbing the domestic and international drug trade. Buffett, his senior executive assistant, and a spokesperson for the Howard G. Buffett Foundation did not return requests for comment.

In 2012, he received his “auxiliary sheriff” certification from the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, a volunteer police position and by 2014, was given the title of “civilian undersheriff” for which he continued to log thousands of hours as a volunteer, patrolling the streets and undergoing training. In 2016, Buffett’s foundation donated $15 million to build a new law enforcement training center in the county, and $2.2 million to support K-9 units across the state. In the spring of 2017, his foundation donated $350,000 so the Macon County Sheriff’s Office could purchase new patrol vehicles. Four months after that, the elected county sheriff, Thomas Schneider, unexpectedly announced that he’d be retiring early from his job. To the surprise of many, Schneider, a Democrat, named Buffett, a Republican, as his interim successor. The Democrat-majority Macon County board approved Buffett’s appointment, and within six months, Schneider was working a top job at the new Buffet-funded law enforcement training center.

Buffett served as sheriff until December 2018, and during that time, he also published a book arguing for stronger border security to weaken the power of drug cartels. Last year, he announced that he would be investing up to $200 million in Colombia over the next seven years to help the country transition from its drug-based economy.

Howard G. Buffett is sworn in as Macon County sheriff by Macon County Circuit Judge A.G. Webber during a ceremony on Sept. 15, 2017, at the Scovill Golf Course Banquet Facility in Decatur, Ill.

Photo: Clay Jackson/Herald & Review via AP

His fixation on the drug trade has also led to more than $20 million in investments in the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, near the U.S.-Mexico border, where he is also part of a private volunteer group that assists in policing. As the Phoenix New Times described it, Buffett has “purchased the loyalty of — and influence over — the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office … through a steady stream of gifts and grants totaling tens of millions of dollars, used to buy guns, vehicles, surveillance equipment, helicopters, and other toys.” The Howard G. Buffett Foundation purchased more than 2,000 acres of ranch land in Cochise County, including a property that is 300 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Buffett has even enlisted the help of his law enforcement allies from Illinois. In 2016, he was photographed with Macon County Sheriff’s Office Deputy T.W. Houk and Decatur Police Department Detective Chad Larner posing with firearms in the dark of the Arizona desert.

Their joint excursion to the southern border had been several months in the making, according to the Phoenix New Times investigation. In October 2015, Buffett emailed four Illinois law enforcement colleagues about potential smugglers crossing his ranch property in Arizona, according to correspondence the Phoenix New Times obtained from the Decatur Police Department. “You need a rag tag group of macon county sheriff vigilantes to show up and kick some ass,” wrote one Macon County Sheriff Deputy in response. “Bring Chad, need his enthusiasm!” Buffett replied.

Buffett has also taken to criticizing marijuana legalization efforts. His foundation’s 2016 annual report describes legalized pot as “only rais[ing] the stakes” of the U.S.’s drug trade problems and cites that as a reason why Mexican drug cartels have shifted production to drugs like heroin and fentanyl. “Legal sales of marijuana have reduced marijuana seizures crossing the Mexican border; however, Mexican cartels have stepped up their presence and operations in states like Colorado, where marijuana is legal, and have shifted their drug smuggling and production operations to more dangerous and addictive drugs,” the report states.

As Illinois lawmakers were discussing marijuana legalization in 2018, Buffett told a local news outlet that doing so would mean law enforcement agencies would need to replace all their K-9 dogs. “It’s a giant step forward for drug dealers,” he told The Pantagraph, “and a giant step backwards for law enforcement.”

Jacob Jenkins, a community activist who testified in support of allowing a dispensary at the council’s study session described the elected officials as sounding like characters from “Reefer Madness,” a notorious film from the 1930s featuring high schoolers who suffer a range of tragedies after trying marijuana.

“Not only did [the council] turn down a dispensary but also any transporting of marijuana, any processing plants which could have really helped minority businesses in the area,” Jenkins told The Intercept. “Right now, outside of a couple food places, there aren’t many black-owned businesses in town, but with there being state social equity funding and waivers for applications, it would have been possible to actually undo some of the hardships minorities have faced by giving them an opportunity to operate legally with various cannabis businesses.”

Lisa Kendall, co-chair of the Central Illinois Democratic Socialists of America chapter, argued that the council’s vote — and the fact that two voting members cited the Buffett Foundation’s donations to the city — was not sitting well with local residents. “People are waking up to this stuff, and it’s pissing them off,” she said.

David Horn, who was the sole member of the city council to vote for allowing a dispensary in Decatur, told The Intercept that he did so because he heard from more residents who supported it than opposed it. He said he felt the city could use the additional revenue and that whatever negative impacts there are from cannabis, “there is no evidence it will be worse with a regulated dispensary.” He also said he didn’t like the idea that medical marijuana users would have to drive outside the city to get their drugs, even though a recreational dispensary could have administered medical pot and that recreational users in the city would be effectively stigmatized for using a legal product.

“I will say there has been no issue that I have received more contact from citizens over the 2.5 years I’ve been on the council than this one,” Horn said.

Following the September vote, Kendall, Jenkins, and other local activists formed the Decatur Dispensary Project, to campaign against the council’s decision.

“DSA believes in cannabis justice and reform, and so when the issue came to Decatur, our chapter got very vocal about it and showed up to the study session with signs,” Kendall told The Intercept. Justin Weaver, the chapter’s other co-chair, said the group also strongly supports allowing a dispensary from a revenue standpoint, pointing to Decatur’s dwindling population and industries that have relocated out of the city.

“We’re a shrinking city, we’re having budget issues, and over the past seven years, my property tax has gone up by a third, and our utility taxes have gone up,” he said. “This is an undue burden.”

Activists are working to get two nonbinding resolutions on the ballot to demonstrate their displeasure. The first referendum, which has already been approved for the March 17 state primary, will be for all residents of Decatur Township, which covers about 70 percent of Decatur city. The question will read: “Should the city of Decatur allow the sale of recreational cannabis and cannabis-infused products to adults 21 and over?” The second referendum, which activists are still collecting signatures for and poses a similar question, would be for all Decatur residents in November.

But on January 3, Wolfe, the city’s mayor, said even a vote decidedly in support of allowing a dispensary in Decatur would not change her mind, and she’d still prefer to wait and see how legalization plays out in other parts of Illinois. Chicago, the state’s largest city, has opted in, and even two smaller towns in Macon County voted to allow recreational dispensaries.

As Decatur has been mired in debate over marijuana legalization, the city council also voted in December to approve the creation of a new position for a law enforcement officer who would dedicate “100 percent of his time to DUI enforcement,” according to a city council report on the agreement. The position would be primarily paid for by a four-year grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Under the terms of the agreement, which went into effect on January 1, the Buffett Foundation will pay $500,000 to fund this officer’s salary and benefits over four years. The city will be contributing an additional $148,000 to cover the remaining cost and is required to submit annual reports to the Buffett Foundation summarizing what happened with each arrest, as well as what the underlying violation was.

Decatur Police Chief James Getz Jr. and Deputy Chief Shane Brandel did not return requests for comment.

John Phillips Jr., a community activist who has supported cannabis legalization for the last several decades, said while he backs general DUI enforcement, the idea that an officer should spend all his time dedicated to it raises serious questions and concerns, particularly given Decatur’s history of racially disparate policing. A 2018 study by the Illinois Department of Transportation found that although African Americans comprise 21 percent of Decatur’s population, they were subject to 46 percent of all police traffic stops, and 58 percent of all car searches.

“At the end of the day,” said Phillips, “prohibition doesn’t work, Marijuana has proven to be less dangerous than alcohol, and you cannot legislate morality.”

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