Who’s Bankrolling Efforts to Stop the Legalization of Marijuana?

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Photo by Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

This month, citizens in five states (Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona, California and Nevada) are set to vote on the recreational use of marijuana — but anti-pot advocates across the country are digging deep into their pockets to keep legalization from happening.

According to Vice, donors such as a billionaire casino tycoon, cops, prison guards and the pharmaceutical company behind the highly addictive painkiller fentanyl, among others, are shelling out millions to help anti-weed political groups fund the fight against legalization.

In many states, pro-weed proponents are outdoing their wealthy opposition when it comes to raising money for their cause. Campaign finance data compiled by Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website, showed that supporters in the five aforementioned states had already raised roughly $30 million as of Oct. 20. Their opponents, however, raised $6.6 million.

Much of this disparity comes from California, where pro-legalization supporters out-raised their rivals $18.1 million to $2 million, Vice reports. But Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana — the largest anti-legalization group in the U.S. — said he isn’t surprised by the gap at all. In fact, he said it’s “always what we expected.”

Sabet asserted that pro-legalization funding in California has come from business owners seeking to profit from what’s projected to be a $6.5 billion dollar cannabis industry by 2020.

“These guys don’t care about ending the war on drugs,” Sabet said. “They care about making money.”

But as much as pro-legalization supporters are pumping money into their love for Mary Jane, the fear of lost profits is feeding opposition’s push to keep the drug illegal.

So far, Insys Therapeutics, a big pharma corporation known for selling the painkiller fentanyl in the form of an under-the-tongue spray, is tied for making the single largest donation of $500,000 to the Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. Per Vice, the ARDP is the campaign against Arizona’s recreational marijuana proposition.

Insys said it doesn’t support pot legalization because government regulators have yet to clear marijuana for medicinal use and because Arizona’s proposed bill “fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens, and particularly its children.”

Julie Schauer, a rich art enthusiast from the Washington, D.C. area feels the same — so much so that she donated over $1.3 million to Sabet’s efforts to defeat California’s recreational marijuana bill; contributed roughly $30,000 to the campaign against Nevada’s proposed legal marijuana law; and gave another $25,000 to fight the pro-pot effort in Massachusetts, Vice reports.

Schauer reportedly believes in reefer madness, going so far as to attribute mass shootings and terrorist attacks on perpetrators’ use of pot.

The art enthusiast’s hefty contributions to the anti-marijuana movement are nothing compared to those of Sheldon Adelson, founder and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. The company is a gambling empire that runs 10 successful casinos in America and Asia.

Adelson, who Forbes recognized as one of the world’s richest men, gave a combined $5 million this election cycle to efforts to halt pot legalization in Nevada, Massachusetts, Arizona and Florida, the news site reports. He had previously donated $5.5 million to defeat Florida’s medical marijuana proposal back in 2014.

Another one of Florida’s largest anti-legalization donors is Mel Sembler, chairman emeritus of real estate firm The Sembler Company. According to Vice, both Sembler and his wife, Betty, are co-founders of the Drug Free America Foundation, an organization that supports the drug testing of students. They’ve donated $1 million to the anti-pot cause.

Other big money donors include Ernie Garcia, chairman of used-car dealer DriveTime, who contributed $250,000 to the cause in Arizona; U-Haul, who donated another $25,000; and Carol Jenkins Barnett, the daughter of the man who founded the Publix supermarket chain. Barnett gave $800,000 to fight Florida’s medical marijuana bill.

Wine and spirits wholesalers, as well as law enforcement groups have also been shelling out cash to the anti-marijuana movement. Vice reports that Peace Officers Research Association of California gave $25,000 to defeat California’s marijuana proposition, while prison guards from the California Correctional Supervisors Organization donated $5,000.

“These people are trying to basically allow the continued criminalization of thousands and thousands of adults in order to continue making money,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that is coordinating and financing legalization campaigns across the nation. “That’s kinda shady.”

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