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THIS WEEK IN WEED

Healey warns medical marijuana nonprofit over failure to disclose finances

Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance repeatedly failed to file annual paperwork

Michael Latulippe, the development director of the embattled Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, is seen in a 2018 portrait.
Michael Latulippe, the development director of the embattled Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, is seen in a 2018 portrait.Barry Chin

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The Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance (MPAA) has long held a special place among cannabis groups in the state.

For one thing, it’s the successor to the coalition that sponsored the successful voter ballot initiative on legalizing medical cannabis here in 2012. It’s also the only non-government group besides the ACLU guaranteed a seat — actually, two seats — on the official Massachusetts Cannabis Advisory Board, which advises the state’s Cannabis Control Commission on policy. Essentially, the MPAA is enshrined in state law as the emissary of medical marijuana patients.

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But is the group worthy of that elevated status?

I became curious about MPAA’s workings after numerous advocates (and even several state officials) questioned the group’s motives during a recent policy debate, in which it sounded a skeptical note about a proposal to expand the state’s caregiver system.

Instead of allowing state-registered caregivers to cultivate marijuana or pick up dispensary orders on behalf of up to five patients instead of just one, MPAA suggested that the state Cannabis Control Commission should have to approve additional patients on a case by case basis. Regardless of either policy’s merits (truly, I take no position), why would an organization that represented patients favor stricter limits on a program that would significantly expand access to medical marijuana for poor and disabled patients?

My curiosity led me over to IRS.gov, where a quick check revealed that the federal government last year revoked the tax-exempt status of two closely related MPAA nonprofit entities: a 501c3 charity dubbed the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance Foundation and 501c4 “social welfare” group called the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, Inc. (501c4 groups, named after a chapter of the federal tax code, are permitted to do more political lobbying than traditional charities, and typically have to disclose fewer details about their finances and donors.)

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The revocations came after MPAA, founded in 2013, repeatedly failed to file required paperwork with federal tax authorities. In the case of its 501c3, MPAA only once filed its required annual Form 990, in 2015; in the case of its 501c4, MPAA has never filed an annual disclosure.

Small nonprofits often don’t have to give many details about their finances or donors, though that depends on how much revenue they take in. At a minimum, however, each arm of MPAA is legally required to fill out a short form every year certifying that it takes in too little cash to trigger more detailed disclosures. Nonprofits are also required to make their 990s available for public inspection upon request; MPAA said it didn’t have any when I asked.

If MPAA’s 501c3 received more than $50,000, it would probably be required to list certain donations it accepted, though it would be permitted to exclude the identities of the donors. (The one form it did file in 2015 simply certified that the group took in a smaller amount.)

The group is similarly delinquent on related state paperwork for nonprofit groups. Its seven-year-old 501c3 never registered with the Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division of Attorney General Maura Healey’s office as required by law, according to officials there. That means it never received the “Certificate of Solicitation” nonprofits must obtain before they are legally allowed to solicit donations in Massachusetts.

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If it had registered with Massachusetts, MPAA would have been required to annually disclose the sum of donations and other revenue it received, plus how much of that money went toward its mission and how much went to management, salaries, and other expenses. Because it didn’t, and because its leaders wouldn’t answer most of my questions, MPAA’s finances remain a black box.

According to a copy of the letter provided by officials, Healey’s office on August 27 sent MPAA an official notice of noncompliance, warning the group that it has been illegally operating as an unregistered charity. The letter demands that MPAA register with the state, give proof of its federal 501c3 status (which, as explained above, has been revoked), and provide its articles of organization, bylaws, and a list of officers.

If MPAA fails to file its missing reports to the state within 30 days, the group could begin incurring fines of as much as $50 a day, up to a maximum of $10,000. If Healey officials then determine that MPAA’s designated officer “has the authority to cause the public charity to comply... but has neglected or refused to do so after notice and demand,” its leaders could be held personally liable for the fines.

MPAA president Nichole Snow, who leads the group along with Michael Latulippe, told me in a short statement that MPAA is expecting a retroactive reinstatement of its tax exempt status from the IRS. According to the tax agency’s website, that process involves filing one’s delinquent 990s (which MPAA said it didn’t have) and establishing that the group had “reasonable cause” for not filing them on time.

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“We are a small non-profit dedicated to advocating for safe access to medical marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions,” Snow said. She added that the group’s “positions derive from the needs of patients balanced with public health and safety,” not from the dispensaries it lists as sponsors on its website.

Now, there’s certainly no hard evidence here of corruption or malfeasance on the part of MPAA. And it’s not uncommon for small nonprofits to goof up the technicalities of incorporation and annual filings.

Then again, most small nonprofits are not named in state law as the official advocacy group representing a certain population. And if there’s nothing amiss here, why wouldn’t MPAA make public (as required by law) the 990s it supposedly already prepared to apply for reinstatement in order to help allay widespread doubts about its credibility?

These disclosures are required for a reason, and it’s not because the government loves burying do-gooders in paperwork. The forms — which, by the way, take at worst an afternoon to fill out if you’re a small nonprofit — protect donors by allowing them to see that their money is being spent on a group’s mission, and not on extravagant salaries for its executives or other unnecessary overhead expenses.

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They also protect the public, ensuring that we only exempt from taxes groups that are actually serving the common good.

And in the particular case of MPAA, more fulsome disclosures would reassure cannabis stakeholders that its leaders are really working on behalf of patients, not using their favored status to accrue inappropriate personal benefits. That’s especially relevant in the case of Latulippe, who is a member of two companies applying for state marijuana licenses and, in marketing himself as a for-profit consultant to other cannabis applicants, heavily stresses his position on the state Cannabis Advisory Board. (Ed. note: Latulippe’s website was scrubbed immediately after the initial publication of this story.) He’s also the founder of numerous other entities in the state’s corporation database that have consistently submitted annual filings, making it more difficult to interpret MPAA’s lack of disclosures as the result of mere ignorance or oversight.

So sure, there’s no smoking gun. But as a medical marijuana patient myself, MPAA’s lack of transparency and its leaders' other business activities make me seriously question whether my best interests are truly being represented when Latulippe and Snow testify at an advisory board meeting, or send the commission feedback on its proposed regulatory changes. And honestly, why should patients have to wonder? Don’t we deserve a transparent and competently-run advocacy group that’s beyond reproach in its relationship with the industry?

I’m sure the Legislature will get right on that.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.