WASHINGTON -- The relaxation of restrictions on the sale of cannabis in the United States is stoking opportunities for staggering overnight wealth reminiscent of the rush to grab assets when the collapse of communism abruptly opened up a big chunk of the world for business, legal and otherwise.
Not surprisingly, some capitalists from former Soviet states want a piece of the action.
Enter Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the two Soviet-born businessmen detained on October 9 -- as they were about to board a flight out of the United States with one-way tickets -- and arrested on suspicion of crimes including violating campaign-finance laws.
A federal indictment unsealed the next day alleges that Parnas and Fruman, along with two other men, made illegal political donations funded by a Russian seeking to secure retail marijuana licenses in multiple U.S. states.
U.S. citizens Parnas and Fruman are associates of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now President Donald Trump's personal lawyer and a central figure in the impeachment inquiry that focuses largely on interactions with officials in Ukraine.
In addition to other allegedly illegal political contributions, the indictment charges that the defendants sought to funnel cash from an unnamed Russian businessman identified as "Foreign National-1" into the campaign coffers of American politicians they saw as key to their plan for a U.S.-based recreational marijuana business.
The words "Russian businessman" don't necessarily bring marijuana to mind – more likely oil, gas, aluminum, or steel. But, in fact, industry analysts suggest it may be a natural fit.
"Every decade there is a big opportunity that remakes the world and skyrockets, and cannabis is that industry for this time period," Troy Dayton, the chief executive officer of San Francisco-based cannabis research firm The Arcview Group, said in an interview with RFE/RL.
What separates the cannabis industry's moment from the Dot.com boom and other new market opportunities is that it is not driven by innovation but by political change, he said.
"In that way, it is more similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of trade with China," Dayton said.
Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping undertook economic reforms at the end of the 1970s that would turn an impoverished nation into the world's second-largest economy in just a few decades.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union two years later injected more than 400 million people into the global economy, creating opportunities for making a quick buck – or billions of them – in sectors from banking to consumer goods and real estate.
Since 2012, eleven U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana for millions of people, creating an industry expected to reach $13 billion in sales this year. That is forecast to grow to $35 billion by 2024, according to Arcview.
But the U.S. marijuana industry faces a challenge in distributing cannabis licenses similar to one that was experienced by governments of the former Soviet republics and satellite states as they sold off state assets, including natural resource licenses, in the 1990s: ensuring a transparent and fair process.
In Russia, Ukraine, and several other countries in the region, some of the most coveted state assets went to insiders at lowball prices, creating a small class of tycoons. That has led to extreme wealth gaps and tarnished the transition to capitalism in the eyes of millions who felt disenfranchised.
U.S. states are offering a limited number of licenses to grow, produce, and sell marijuana-infused products, creating fierce competition for each one.
Casino executives, lawyers, lobbyists, former officials and their relatives, were among the first license winners in the state of Nevada.
When the state held another auction for 64 marijuana retail licenses in 2018, it received 462 applications. Nevada ended up awarding 61 licenses to 17 companies, an outcome that sparked lawsuits from excluded companies claiming "widespread corruption" among officials, including acceptance of kickbacks.
Recent transactions have highlighted the huge profits to be reaped from winning Nevada licenses, especially in Las Vegas, the gambling and entertainment hub that is the state's largest city and one of the top tourist destinations in the United States.
Four Nevada cannabis companies that did not exist several years ago were purchased for between $40 million and $290 million in 2018.
According to the indictment, Ukrainian-born Parnas and Belarusian-born Fruman – along with Andrei Kukushkin, a Ukrainian citizen, and U.S. native David Correia – "made plans to form a recreational marijuana business that would be funded by Foreign National-1 and required gaining access to retail marijuana licenses" in states including Nevada.
Along with the unidentified Russian businessman who is "Foreign National-1," the four men met in Las Vegas in early September 2018 to discuss the venture, it says.
Kukushkin and Correia registered a company in Nevada in September 2018 but missed the deadline to apply for some of the 64 licenses on offer.
Kukushkin, a former investment banker at Moscow-based Renaissance Capital -- which helped pioneer Russia's stock market in the 1990s -- had already made investments in a California cannabis firm with Andrei Muravyov, the former president of a Siberian cement company, according to a civil lawsuit filed earlier this year in the state.
Muravyov multiplied the fortune he made in the 2000s in cement by investing in technology. He helped back Silicon Valley-based venture firm Run Capital. Muravyov, a Russian citizen based in Moscow, could not be reached by phone for comment.
Susceptible To Abuse
Russians were among the early investors in cannabis markets such as Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012 and was one of the first two states to do so, Chris Walsh, the founding editor of MJBizDaily, a leading industry publication, told RFE/RL.
So, the unidentified Russian investor's interest in funding license acquisitions was not extraordinary.
Nor, necessarily, was his team's plan -- as alleged in the indictment -- to increase its chances of a successful bid by donating up to $1 million to federal and state political committees.
In August 2019, the FBI expressed concern over corruption in the awarding of U.S. cannabis licenses, particularly in the western states, which include Nevada. Licenses were worth as much as $500,000, the chief U.S. law enforcement agency said.
Bernie Sucher, an American business pioneer in 1990s Russia and now the chief executive officer of Tikun Olam USA, a producer of cannabis strains and products, said that, like many other government-influenced sectors, the marijuana industry is susceptible to abuse.
"In some of these states, you have limited licenses controlled by a small group of bureaucrats or elected politicians and there is a perception that if you get one of those licenses, there is tremendous value. And that is an ideal structure to promote corrupt dealings," said Sucher, who was among the first Americans to start a business in post-Soviet Russia and went on to hold key positions at investment banks there.
The Nevada Independent newspaper has reported that marijuana companies donated nearly $750,000 to the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Democratic candidate Steve Sisolak, who defeated his Republican rival, Adam Laxalt.
One Nevada cannabis business owner donated $60,000 to Sisolak through six companies and another $10,000 in his own name to legally get around the contribution limitations, state records show.
According to the indictment of Parnas and the other three men, the unidentified Russian businessman sent two tranches of $500,000 each to a bank account controlled by Fruman shortly before the November 2018 elections "to attempt to gain influence and the appearance of influence with politicians and candidates."
Furman made a $10,000 donation to Laxalt as well as to Wes Duncan, the Republican candidate for Nevada attorney general, state records show.
Kukushkin said in a text message to his partners that they would need a "green light" from Laxalt in order to be able to participate in the already-closed Nevada cannabis licensing round.
The Sacramento Bee, a newspaper based in California's capital, has reported that Parnas and Fruman also donated to several California politicians, including U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican.
Parnas, Fruman, Correia, and the Russian national continued to meet into the spring of 2019, but the marijuana business never materialized, the indictment says.
Kukushkin continued to pursue cannabis retail licenses including in Los Angeles, according to state filings and consultants. Arcview forecasts that California will account for one-fifth of the U.S. cannabis market by 2024.
Kukushkin is also a business partner of Garib Karapetyan, who is the largest cannabis operator in Sacramento with eight dispensaries, according to the The Sacramento Bee.
The FBI is now investigating whether Sacramento cannabis owners paid bribes to officials, the paper reported.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian affairs analyst with specialized knowledge of organized crime and corruption, said criminal entrepreneurs from the former Soviet Union "thrive where they can leverage clumsy bureaucracies and wide disparities in supply and demand."
That, he said, applies to the legal U.S. marijuana industry.