Of the more than $3 million put up to support California's Proposition 19 ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, half the money came from one man, Richard Lee, the Oakland entrepreneur behind a medical marijuana dispensary, nursery and other pot-related businesses.
"It was a very bold move on his part and it was a bold move that -- win or lose -- will turn out to be the right move," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the nation's leading advocates for reforming drug laws. "Win or lose, Prop. 19 is already an incredible win. It has transformed the public dialogue around marijuana policy not just in California but around the country, and even internationally."
For supporters, legalization would end what they term a hypocritical ban on a drug less harmful than alcohol. They claim it would cut law enforcement costs, raise tax revenue, and make it harder for children to get marijuana. Supporters include the California branch of the NAACP; the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union; the California Young Democrats; the Republican Liberty Caucus; the California Council of Churches; and several big labor unions.
For opponents, Prop. 19 represents a threat to public safety, violates federal law and drug-free workplace rules, and wouldn't generate much tax revenue at all. Critics include Mothers Against Drunk Driving; most law enforcement groups; all major-party candidates for governor, state attorney general and U.S. Senate; the California League of Cities; the California State Association of Counties; and business groups.
While residents of Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota will consider medical marijuana measures today, California's vote on legalizing pot outright has drawn the most attention.
With a last-minute $1 million contribution last week from billionaire financier George Soros, proponents managed to raise about $3.4 million to bankroll the controversial measure.
Still, Lee himself put up about $1.4 million for the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot. A young man who flew ultralight planes and loved motorcycles, Lee made the legalization of marijuana his life cause after a 1990 fall left him paralyzed from the waist down. Medicinal pot, illegal at the time, served to dampen the back spasms as he sat in his wheelchair, he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
By contrast, the campaign against the measure raised about $315,000 this year, with an additional $250,000 coming from the California Chamber of Commerce last week for radio ads.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the campaign against Prop. 19, said the opposition's last-minute influx of cash appeared to be a sign of desperation as the measure sagged in recent statewide polls.
"I think they're in a little bit of a panic," Salazar said. "The more they spend, the more the public becomes aware of the flaws of Prop. 19."
Still, some Prop. 19 supporters were claiming victory before a single vote had been counted.
"Prop. 19 has elevated and legitimized the discourse around marijuana policy like nothing ever before," Nadelmann said. "This is the first time major elected officials and labor unions and civil rights organizations have endorsed a marijuana legalization measure. The debate is less about whether to legalize marijuana and increasingly about how to legalize marijuana."