By Jeff CoenAlly Marotti and Robert McCoppin

Marijuana cultivating companies that persuaded Illinois lawmakers to give them first access to recreational customers pushed for the lucrative advantage with the backing of a steady flow of campaign cash, the Tribune has found.

The firms grow medical cannabis now, but are allowed to produce the first batches of recreational marijuana in preparation for the start of legal sales on Jan 1. And those companies, their executives and lobbyists can be linked to more than $630,000 in political giving just since January 2017, according to the Tribune review.

It’s a figure that includes more than $400,000 in campaign contributions to members of the Illinois General Assembly and their political organizations, including a lesser amount to some incumbent candidates who recently lost or retired. In all, money went to 60 lawmakers with the ability to vote on the historic measure legalizing recreational pot, 45 of whom voted yes. Of those 45, all but six were Chicago-area Democrats.

And more than $120,000 went to campaign and political funds tied to just one of those legislators, state Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park, a main sponsor of the 2018 bill expanding medical marijuana in the state.

The companies also gave more than $100,000 to a political action committee to advance their interests. And a separate nonprofit backing their goals, the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, is linked to a for-profit firm that gave more than $110,000 in its own name to state lawmakers. Also counted in the political giving is $123,000 that went to new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The campaign contributions came as momentum was building here to legalize recreational marijuana, a measure signed into law in June by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose second cousin, Joby Pritzker, is a board member of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. That organization was credited by sponsors of the Illinois legislation as having helped write the bill. And the group was among those to contribute to the campaign fund of state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, a co-sponsor who collected $13,000 in contributions tallied by the Tribune.

The law allows the 17 existing medical marijuana cultivators to be the first to grow recreational pot — a decision backers said was made in part because those companies have already been screened by the state.

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