Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Road to Legalization: Pro-marijuana campaign outspends opponents

By Carol McGraw and Megan Schrader Updated: April 27, 2014 at 2:06 pm 0

Calvina Fay, executive director of Florida-based Drug Free America, says that she could use the help of a few billionaires.

She has been in the trenches in the war against marijuana for decades and said that mostly modest grass-roots donations make up the bulk of anti-pot campaigns and are no match for the cash being raised by pro-marijuana groups. Fay believes that lopsided donations were instrumental in successful campaigns to legalize recreational marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington and may determine outcomes in future battles.

Fay also is director of Save Our Society from Drugs, the political arm of the organization, which has had some help from monied donors. But the pro-weed side has several wealthy people who have given huge amounts of money to campaigns across the country as more states consider legalizing marijuana. (This year, 35 states have bills to legalize or decriminalize it.)

"It's easier for the other side because there is so much money to be made from marijuana," Fay said. "And now campaign money is coming from the marijuana industry, which is making a killing and pumping even more money in.

"I need a George Soros or a Peter Lewis," she added.

Billionaires Soros, who made his money in currency, and the late Lewis, the Progressive Insurance magnate, have given tens of millions of dollars to the pro-legalization forces. Soros has given substantial donations to the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance and its Drug Policy Action political arm, which were active in the 2012 Colorado and Washington ballot fights and are now in an Oregon fray. The national group has received substantial donations from Soros, and he has reportedly given more than $80 million to marijuana fights.

Lewis is said to have spent $40 million in marijuana campaigns, including nearly a million dollars in Colorado. His interest came from taking marijuana medicinally for pain associated with his partially amputated leg, according to his obituary.

Lewis told Forbes: "I don't believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense. Everything that has been done to enforce these laws has had a negative effect, with no results."

Soros has a similar take on the issue. His Open Society Foundation did not respond to a request for an interview, but in a 2010 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he wrote that drug laws are doing more harm than good.

"The criminalization of marijuana did not prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used illegal substance. Regulating and taxing it would save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, and reduce crime, violence and corruption."

Other prominent supporters of legalization who have given to pro-pot organizations, according to news reports, include Google billionaire Paul Buchheit; John Sperling, founder, University of Phoenix; Sean Parker and Dustin Moskovitz, co-founders of Facebook; and Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer.

Anti-marijuana interests have approached monied individuals to help with opposition campaigns nationwide, with modest success so far, Fay said. One major donor is Bette Sembler, board president and founder of the Florida organizations. Her husband, Melvin, a strip mall magnate, was national fundraising chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

A look at the money that went into Colorado's 2012 marijuana battle could hint at how campaigns in other states may turn out, if, indeed, money made the difference.

An analysis of data from the Colorado secretary of state from 2011 to 2013 shows that organized proponents outspent opponents by a wide margin.

The eight campaign committees registered in Colorado in favor of the amendment raised about $3.4 million. Most of the money came from outside the state, with only $381,000 coming from donors with Colorado addresses.

The most money - about $1.4 million - came from donors with Washington, D.C., addresses. Ohio donors came in second with $911,272.

The pro-Amendment 64 committees included: Campaign for a Safer Colorado, $250; Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, $1,857,566; Citizens for Responsible Legalization, $889,630; Coalition to End Marijuana Prohibition, $582,033; Drug Policy Action Colorado Committee, $25,000; Moms and Dads for Marijuana Regulation, $4,500; Students for Sensible Drug Policy Colorado, $3,326; and Vote Hemp Yes on 64, $5,557.

The two active groups opposed to legalization raised $707,283. Of that, $405,639 came from donors with Colorado addresses, while $284,870 came from Florida and $14,598 from Virginia.

Smart Colorado, one of the opposing groups headed by Ken Buck, Weld County district attorney, raised most of the money - about $700,275.

The other active group, Safe and Healthy Mesa County, raised the remainder of the $707,283. A third group, No on 64 Take the Greed Out of Weed, didn't raise money although it registered with the state.

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