Odd partnerships in the $11 million fight against legal recreational marijuana

Strained bedfellows.

Supporters of legal recreational marijuana rally in Arizona two weeks before voters there decide if they will join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Supporters of legal recreational marijuana rally in Arizona two weeks before voters there decide if they will join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Marijuana legalization could spread to five new states next Tuesday. Another four are weighing access to medical marijuana.

Half the states in the union have already decriminalized marijuana, made it available for medical uses, or established tax-and-regulate systems for recreational sales. The politics of the issue have shifted significantly in the past decade, and legal marijuana is now more popular than either candidate for president, according to a Gallup tracking poll.

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But where there’s mud, there’re sticks. Campaigns to block full recreational legalization in five states have raised almost $11 million to swim against the green tide. Taken together, the opposition backers make for a strange coalition.

While much of the capital is coming from just one man — casino titan Sheldon Adelson — the bleeding edge of drug policy reform has put him in bed with an odd mix of fellow naysayers.

MASSACHUSETTS

The Catholic Church jumped into the fight against Question 4 in Massachusetts this weekend. The Boston Archdiocese contributed $850,000 to the organization working to stop legalization in the Bay State.

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Catholic officials in the state came out against ending prohibition there in early October, arguing that ending one civic blight would somehow distract Massachusetts from combating the deadly opioid abuse epidemic that has plagued the region.

Along with a $150,000 contribution on the same day from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic community is a full one million dollars deep in the push to keep pot illegal. That puts the Catholic chuch shoulder to shoulder with Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who’s used his wealth to twist American politics to his advantage in various ways for years. Adelson chipped in another one million dollars to oppose Question 4.

Steve Wynn, a fellow casino titan with a history of spending big on behalf of conservative political causes, gave the opposition $100,000. Most of the rest of the money comes from a mix of health care industry groups and alcohol retailer associations.

The late cash infusion pushes total on-hand resources for the anti-pot klatch to $2.4 million as the election hits the home stretch, according to Metro. Legalization supporters raised a little over $3.5 million this year according to the Washington Post.

NEVADA

Adelson’s home state is weighing legalization too. Supporters are up against his money there as well. He’s provided $2 million — out of $2.1 million total raised — to the campaign to uphold prohibition. As of late October, the Post’s review found, Adelson’s team had raised slightly more money than the other side.

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Voters don’t have the choice to legalize recreational weed in Florida. But medical cannabis is on the ballot there — and Adelson’s thumb is on the scale again. He’s spent $1 million to oppose the measure this year, after splashing $4 million against a 2014 incarnation of the same measure in the Sunshine State.

It’s tempting to portray Adelson’s donations as cynical — any new vice might theoretically chip away at the revenue streams that feed his gambling empire — but people close to the conservative oligarch insist he opposes marijuana for personal family reasons.

ARIZONA

A tire magnate, a drugmaker, and a gambling baron walk into a bar. Yep, Adelson’s here too — with $500,000 to whip opposition to the state’s Proposition 205 — but he represents a relatively small portion of total anti-marijuana spending in Arizona. The bulk of the nearly $5 million raised by opponents there comes from others.

Insys Therapeutics, the pharmaceuticals company behind a prescription version of the drug fentanyl which has gained notoriety thanks to increased public awareness of the nation’s dependence on legal and illegal forms of heroin, also chipped in half a million bucks. So did the state Chamber of Commerce.

The rest of the money comes primarily from a short list of very wealthy business owners.

There’s a $1 million donation from Bruce Halle, a mover and shaker in Arizona Republican circles who founded a retail chain called Discount Tire. Ernie Garcia, head of the subprime automotive retailer DriveTime, chipped in a quarter-million bucks. The “no” campaign has gotten $100,000 each from T. Denny Sanford, an 81-year-old mogul who now heads a bank holding company, and Randy Kendrick, an outspoken conservative who is married to the owner of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.

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The “yes” camp isn’t without its own tycoon backers, though. The minds behind Dr. Bronner’s extremely weird soap made a large contribution in support of legalization.

MAINE

Legalization opponents in Maine have failed to crack $100,000 in fundraising, while the “yes” vote has about $1.25 million in its war chest. Almost all of the opposition money comes from Alexandria, Virginia-based Alliance for Healthy Marijuana Policy. The group is headed by Kevin Sabet — possibly the most prominent anti-legalization advocate nationwide, and a notable presence in every state currently weighing policies like Maine’s Question 1. Sabet described his organization to Maine Public Radio’s Steve Mistler as a group of like-minded individuals with personal negative experiences with marijuana. The group doesn’t take money from the tobacco, pharmaceutical, or alcohol industries, Sabet said.

CALIFORNIA

The “no” camp in California is headed for the most stereotype-affirming referendum defeat in a while. The “yes” vote on Proposition 64 has a 17-point polling lead. Anticipation of a blowout may have tightened wallets in the anti-legalization community, because while California’s “yes” campaign has raised just shy of $20 million, opponents have gotten barely a tenth as much.

Almost half the total opposition funding comes from a woman named Julie Schauer, a true-believer straight out of a “Reefer Madness” PSA.

Schauer believes marijuana is the common denominator in mass shootings and terrorist attacks, argues that legalization proponents overstate the devastation caused by the drug war, and insists that conservative bugaboo George Soros is behind a whitewash of the plant’s very real harms.

Thanks to Schauer’s outsized role in backing the “no” effort, her goofy alarmism is now the face of the opposition. But it’s worth noting the groups that have partnered with her: three law enforcement organizations and the Teamsters union have ponied up at least $55,000 combined to stymie legalization.