Drugs, Politics, and Money

The medical-marijuana movement is riled by the generosity of a pro-legislation PAC

Dennis Peron and the small army of grass-roots volunteers behind Californians for Compassionate Use (CCU) were sulking in defeat in early February. Their campaign to place an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize marijuana for medical use had stalled at 80,000 signatures, nowhere near the 600,000 they needed to collect by April 24 to qualify for the ballot.

"I'd pretty much given up," says Peron, 49, who heads CCU.
But help was just around the corner. Later that month, a newly formed political action committee by the name of Californians for Medical Rights (CMR) announced that it would contract a Sacramento petition-gatherer -- Voter Revolt -- to collect 500,000 signatures for the measure. Nobody is saying how much money CMR put forward, but given the estimated cost of Voter Revolt's services, the contribution is probably about $500,000 -- a fund-raising gusher compared to the measly $100,000 CCU had raised itself in 1995.

CMR's move all but guaranteed the medical-marijuana argument a place before voters. But instead of elating the medical-marijuana people, the gift has riled dissenters within CCU, who worry that the money and the secretive nature of CMR's East Coast backers and CMR's reported drug legalization bent may threaten the marijuana-as-medicine message CCU has honed over the past five years.

"We'd been trying to get major funding from drug policy reform groups last year," says CCU Treasurer Scott Imler, 38. "They always looked at us and said we weren't ready, that we weren't organized enough. We said, 'Give us the money and we'll get organized.' But the funders didn't think we had enough mainstream support, so we did a three-week session of faxing them every endorsement we had."

Peron credits Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) and his faxes with saving the initiative. The veteran assemblyman had sponsored a winning medical marijuana bill last year that Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed. (CCU modeled its ballot measure after that bill.) Vasconcellos says he supports CCU because he thinks his bill was "simply something that the governor took away. And the people are taking to the streets in order to make the governor irrelevant, which he has earned."

More letters championing CCU came from at least 47 groups, from the American Legion to the Gray Panthers and Democrats like Willie Brown, Nancy Pelosi, and Terence Hallinan, proving to CMR's East Coast moneybags that CCU had won over the California mainstream.

The CMR/CCU alliance was announced at a Feb. 28 meeting at Francesco's restaurant in Oakland, where Peron, Imler (also the director of the Los Angeles CCU), and activists met with the swells who would fund the initiative. There, CMR's backers said they would not give the money to CCU. Instead, they would separately file as a political action committee, CMR, and bankroll Voter Revolt from their war chest.

The funders of the new committee also asked that their identities remain confidential, but the names have leaked out. Activist sources say George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist, backs CMR, along with George Zimmer of the Men's Warehouse (the television commercial mouth declaring, "I guarantee it") and Peter Lewis, the CEO of Cleveland, Ohio's Progressive Corp., a massive car insurance provider.

CMR's treasurer, Kirk Warren, also the director of human resources at the Pleasanton-based Men's Warehouse, says the committee will not officially release the names of its benefactors until they are required to file a disclosure with the Registrar of Voters on April 30.

"The donors felt that they didn't want to detract from the issue and make this a political issue," Warren says. "We don't want to focus on who, but why this is going to a vote."

It's the secrecy that bothers Imler, who says he ran hot and cold at the meeting.

"I said, 'I hope you guys are joining us and we are not joining you.' It's not that I wasn't excited, but this is a delicate issue. I felt like we were pushed aside and ignored," says Imler.

Anna Boyce, the 66-year-old president of the L.A. CCU and a member of the California Senior Assembly, was not at the Oakland meeting; Peron says her absence was "perfunctory" -- he was trying to avoid the cost of another plane ticket. Boyce says she, too, is "a little concerned about the new group." "I have spoken to two [CMR] representatives, Ethan Nadelmann and Chris Conrad, and they assured [me] that it is only for medicinal use. I have to believe a person until they prove otherwise," she says.

Nadelmann, a noted legalization academic and the director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy think tank funded by Soros, could not be reached for comment. According to Imler, Conrad is a major activist in California for the legalization of hemp and was appointed spokesperson of CMR. Warren would not confirm Conrad's position.

Imler says that CMR's backers pose several political problems for CCU. The goal of CCU's initiative is explicit -- to make medical marijuana available to glaucoma patients, people with AIDS, those afflicted with multiple sclerosis, and others who are helped by the drug. He worries that the out-of-state money men, who have little connection to patient-based organizers in California, may be exploiting the initiative as part of their effort to legalize marijuana for recreational users.

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