Wealthy Benefactors Stoke Campaigns for Medical Marijuana
By David S. Broder
PHOENIX A war against the "war on drugs," fueled by millionaires, not pot-smoking hippies, is taking place in six states and the District of Columbia this month. Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District will find initiatives on their Nov. 3 ballots allowing physicians, under defined conditions, to obtain and dispense marijuana as a palliative to their patients. Here in Arizona, the medical marijuana question is before the voters as part of a broader referendum on decriminalizing a wide category of drugs.
Sponsors say they think they will win in every state and opponents in the law enforcement community, Congress and the Clinton administration fear they may be right.
One reason for the optimism among proponents is the money that has come in from three men: New York financier George Soros, Cleveland insurance executive Peter B. Lewis and Phoenix entrepreneur John Sperling, who are staunch critics of the anti-drug policies pursued by successive Republican and Democratic administrations.
The three are financing most of the $2 million campaign being run by the Los Angeles-based Americans for Medical Rights, which is coordinating the ballot drives everywhere but Arizona. Sperling is the principal backer of the Arizona referendum, which has raised $1.4 million so far.
Dave Fratello, spokesman for the national organization, said, "The goal is to change national policy, but we know we will have to win more battles in 1999 and 2000 before that happens." California voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1996, but state and federal authorities have made a persistent effort to prevent people from selling marijuana to individuals who obtain a doctor's prescription. Nonetheless, some "cannabis clubs" are operating in the state.
Proponents of the initiatives, such as Portland, Ore., physician Richard Bayer, claim there are many cancer and AIDS patients for whom marijuana is the most effective drug in relieving nausea and other debilitating side effects. The Oregon campaign is using a multiple sclerosis patient as a spokeswoman for the initiative. A poll this month showed the proposal with a 64 percent to 30 percent lead, but sponsors said they expect it to narrow.
On the other side, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is distributing talking points to community anti-drug coalitions and urging newspapers in the initiative states to editorialize against these propositions. Its position papers contend that other drugs can meet the medical needs of cancer and AIDS patients and urge that marijuana not be legalized at least until the Food and Drug Administration and the Institute of Medicine complete ongoing studies on its safety and effectiveness.
But Barry R. McCaffrey, director of that office, is doing no campaigning in the initiative states, in part because his allies thought there was a backlash against White House interference when he stumped in Arizona and California in 1996.
Local law enforcement agencies have not mobilized major money or strong grass-roots opposition to the initiatives. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), an opponent of the Arizona decriminalization effort, said, "When it's everybody's responsibility, it's nobody's responsibility."
The Arizona battle may be the most significant because of the breadth of the referendum. In 1996, Sperling, president of the Apollo Group Inc., which owns, among other enterprises, the for-profit University of Phoenix, launched the "Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control" initiative, with financial backing from Soros and Lewis.
In addition to permitting marijuana prescriptions, it provided that instead of jail, the first two possession convictions would result in probation and participation in a drug treatment or education program.
He enlisted bipartisan support from Marvin S. Cohen, a Carter administration chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and John Norton, a deputy secretary in the Reagan administration Agriculture Department. His big catch was former senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who said in a television commercial, "As a former prosecutor and U.S. senator I've spent my life fighting against drugs, and I can tell you that the Drug Medicalization Act will strengthen our drug policy."
The TV spots in the 1996 initiative campaign stressed the provision requiring those convicted of violent crimes while under the influence of drugs to serve their full sentences, without parole. The ads also argued that clearing prisons of people convicted of simple possession would save money and make space for hardened criminals.
The measure passed with little opposition. It was only afterward, said state Rep. Mike Gardner (R), that legislators discovered it had been written to include not just marijuana but 116 other "Schedule I" drugs including LSD, heroin and PCP.
"We want to medicalize all of them and not be namby-pamby," Sperling said in an interview last week. "Even though," campaign coordinator Sam Vagenas interjected, "we believe marijuana is the only one that meets the [medical] standards today."
Gardner, chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, immediately met with his state Senate counterpart, and they drafted and passed two bills. One ordered jail time for anyone convicted of possession who refused treatment and the other suspended medical use of any of the 117 drugs, including marijuana, until it is approved by Congress or the FDA.
No sooner were the bills signed than Sperling and his team, now calling themselves "The People Have Spoken" coalition, rounded up the signatures to force Gardner's bills to referendum.
The conflict quickly escalated. Sperling's side filed a second initiative for the Nov. 3 ballot that would bar the legislature from making anything other than technical changes in voter-approved measures and require a three-fourths majority even for those. The legislature replied with a countermeasure that would sunset initiatives after five years and permit substantive amendments on a two-thirds vote.
Sperling and his allies are running their campaign on a "people vs. politicians" theme. Their first radio ad, which began last week, noted that their 1996 initiative "received approval of 65 percent of Arizonans. . . . But that didn't stop the politicians from gutting it. They had the nerve to say that voters were ignorant." Voting against the legislature's repeal measures "will let the politicians know that we're smarter than they think."
In a way, the battle has become a fight over the initiative process itself. Gardner said in an interview, "The initiative was part of our constitution when we became a state, because it was supposed to offer the people a way of overriding special-interest groups. But it's turned 180 degrees and now the special-interest groups use the initiative process for their own purposes."
Referring to Soros, who is funding an Arizona campaign finance reform initiative as well as helping on the drug referendum, Gardner asked, "Why should a New York millionaire be writing the laws in Arizona?"
Soros replied in a phone interview: "I live in one place, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. I have foundations in 30 countries, and I believe certain universal principles apply everywhere including Arizona."
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