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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 215

6 Wealthy Donors Aid Measure on Marijuana

November 02, 1996|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The human face of Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative on Tuesday's ballot, is benign and sympathetic. It's right there in the backers' TV commercials: A breast cancer survivor who uses marijuana to ease nausea, a doctor who prescribes it to ailing patients, the widow of a cancer patient who used marijuana.

But opponents say those compassionate images mask the real force behind Proposition 215--a handful of wealthy out-of-state supporters unified by a mutual distaste for the U.S. government's dogged war on drugs.

Of the $2 million raised to qualify and campaign for the measure, three-quarters has come from six wealthy businessmen. Only one of them lives in California.

They include an heir to the Rockefeller family fortune, a Hungarian-born financier who donated $350 million last year to promote democracy in Eastern Europe, and a Cambridge-educated professor who struck it rich with his own string of colleges for working adults.

"These people believe our drug policy in this country is a failure," said Tom Gorman, a spokesman for the California Narcotic Officers Assn., which opposes the measure. "They believe drugs should be totally decriminalized. This is their way of supporting the effort."

Such critiques aside, only one of Proposition 215's top half-dozen donors unabashedly backs wholesale legalization of all illicit drugs. The rest say the government needs to spend more money treating drug abuse and less on incarcerating small-time users.

Proposition 215 would allow patients to grow and use marijuana for any medical ailment if recommended by a doctor.

The campaign's biggest donor is George Soros, a billionaire international investor and New York philanthropist who donated $550,000 to Proposition 215. He also contributed $430,000 to a medical marijuana measure that is on the ballot in Arizona.

Born in Budapest, Soros was trained at the London School of Economics and immigrated to the United States in 1956. He became involved in drug politics in 1992, committing $15 million to fund several think tanks exploring alternative drug strategies. Two of the think tanks support full drug legalization, a third opposes it.

"He is somewhat of a contrarian by nature," said Ethan A. Nadelmann, head of a New York policy center funded by Soros. "He lives in a business world where people feel the drug war is crazy."

Soros, however, is blunt about Proposition 215. "Law-abiding citizens seeking relief from pain and suffering should not be made to feel like criminals," he said. The only top contributor who has vocally supported across-the-board drug legalization is Richard Dennis, a Chicago commodities broker and co-chairman of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt's failed 1988 presidential campaign. He donated $100,000.

Peter Lewis, president of an Ohio-based insurance corporation gave $500,000 to the initiative. Laurance Rockefeller, brother of the late Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, donated $50,000 at the behest of New Age guru Ram Dass, Proposition 215 supporters say.

John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix college system, has contributed $200,000. He is also a driving force behind the Arizona initiative.

The only California resident among the top givers is George Zimmer, founder of the Men's Wearhouse clothing chain. Zimmer's dying mother refused to try marijuana a decade ago because it was a crime.

"There are thousands and thousands of people who will benefit from this," said Zimmer, who has contributed $100,000. His brother, James, gave $25,000.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Contributors to Prop. 215

The top individual givers to Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative on Tuesday's ballot:

1. George Soros, New York-based international investor: $550,000

2. Peter Lewis, Ohio insurance company owner: $500,000

3. John Sperling, University of Phoenix founder: $200,000

4. George Zimmer, Men's Wearhouse owner: $100,000

5. Richard Dennis, Chicago commodities broker: $100,000

6. Laurance Rockefeller, an heir to Rockefeller family fortune: $50,000

TOTAL: $1.5 million

Source: Campaign finance reports and Californians for Medical Rights.

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