The GOP’s Single Biggest Donor Just Dropped Millions To Oppose Marijuana

Republican Billionaire Sheldon Adelson in Macau, where he several billion-dollar casino complexes. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KIN CHEUNG
Republican Billionaire Sheldon Adelson in Macau, where he several billion-dollar casino complexes. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KIN CHEUNG

Gambling mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson has spent $2.5 million to oppose Florida’s medical marijuana ballot initiative, according to filings reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. The major donation signals what may be the most moneyed opposition to a medical marijuana initiative yet. It also comes from a particularly unlikely source.

Adelson spent nearly $150 million to elect Republicans in 2012, but he has veered away from targeting cultural issues. He made his billions on gambling — considered a vice by most — and describes himself as “socially very liberal. Too liberal” — a refrain he has repeated over the years.

Adelson doesn’t appear to have staked a position on marijuana. But his contribution may have more to do with the governor’s race, which pits Gov. Rick Scott (R), a vocal opponent of the initiative, against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D), who announced his support in January. Polling shows support for medical marijuana is soaring among Floridians, and many have projected that the initiative could swing the outcome of the race, in large part by boosting youth turnout.

Adelson is backing a committee known as the Drug Free Florida Committee formed by Mel Sembler. That committee has raised a total of $2.7 million so far, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Sembler, who bankrolled opposition to Colorado’s recreational legalization initiative, once oversaw a chain of drug abuse treatment centers for teens, at which allegations have emerged of beatings, rape and psychological abuse. A separate opposition movement was also announced Tuesday by the Florida Sheriffs Association to defeat Amendment Two, with the slogan “Don’t Let Florida Go To Pot.”

Polls have found that support for the initiative is as high as 82 percent, although two polls released Tuesday measured support at 70 and 66 percent. When the amendment was first proposed, many Republicans were vehemently opposed, launching a failed legal challenge to block the initiative and warning it would lead to the “Coloradoification” of the state. But in a remarkable shift that may have been aimed at diverting support from the ballot initiative, a much narrower medical marijuana bill to allow the strain of marijuana low in the psychoactive component in some limited circumstances passed with near-universal support in May. In committing to sign the bill, Gov. Rick Scott (R) said “I’m a parent and a grandparent. I want to make sure my children, my grandchildren have access to the health care they want.” He remains opposed to the medical marijuana ballot initiative, which would give more patients access to various types of medical marijuana thought to help a broader range of medical conditions, and allow patients to smoke it.

Past medical marijuana ballot initiatives haven’t attracted nearly the direct cash investment of this one. Even spending to oppose the recreational ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado in 2012, and California in 2010, lagged in comparison.