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Drugs, Politics, and Money 

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

Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
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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.

"[CCU's] success is that we've been able to peel marijuana out of the drive for legalization, to let people evaluate marijuana on medical merit alone," says Imler.

Imler says the message has already become tainted, citing a March 11 talk show on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. Imler says the hosts asked him to appear on the show to discuss the initiative, but he says he was reluctant because the show is "hempy." Imler turned the request to Peron, who took the mike with hemp activist Conrad.

"So they're on the show and the first thing the guy says is, 'We've got two initiatives for marijuana on the block this year [CCU's and the California Health and Hemp Initiative, Jack Herer's doomed bid to legalize marijuana across the board].' And hemp king Conrad comes out as being pro-hemp and Dennis comes out as the medical-marijuana guy. But then, after talking, Dennis emerges as a hemp supporter. He has simpatico with the drug reformers," says Imler.

Peron confesses guilt to the charge of being pro-pot.
"I think marijuana should have been legalized 25 years ago. But I've got cancer patients who need it now," he says. "Scott [Imler] is a little nervous, but you've got to put that to the side. We asked anyone to come along. Essentially, I'd already failed, and if they [CMR] can come on and succeed, then I am proud to have these guys on the team. There is no animosity between us and them."

Imler has reason to worry about the political dangers in mixing the two messages. According to a David Binder Research poll commissioned by CCU, 66 percent of the 900 Californians sampled said they supported marijuana for medical use; only 23 percent affirmed marijuana legalization for personal use.

Art Kroney, a lobbyist with the Sacramento-based conservative group Committee on Moral Concerns, has already denounced the medical marijuana initiative as a thinly veiled first step to legalization -- a "Trojan horse," he calls it. Currently composing arguments against Vasconcellos' upcoming bill, AB 2933, another legislative attempt at passing medical marijuana through the Assembly, Kroney says, "It really bothers me that the advocates say they are looking for compassion but all they really want to do is get high."

"It's all about love and compassion," answers Peron, repeating his personal mantra.

Peron's first marijuana victory was San Francisco's Prop. P, a 1991 referendum that recommended that the state "restore hemp to the list of medicines in California." That lit a fire under the Board of Supervisors, who passed two resolutions clearing the way for Peron's Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC). The resolutions made the police prosecution of medical marijuana use a low priority. Since then, the buyers club has flourished, providing 8,000 sick members a place to buy pot with doctors' orders. The CBC also serves as headquarters for CCU and provides many of the volunteers. Peron assistant John Entwistle says the "surplus" generated by CBC marijuana sales was used to pay members 25 cents for each petition signature gathered.

Encouraged by Prop. P, Peron and company moved on to Sacramento, steering resolution SJR 8 through the legislature in 1993. SJR 8 advised President Clinton to legalize marijuana for prescription use. As a legislative resolution, SJR 8 didn't need Wilson's signature and packed no real power.

In 1994, Sen. Milton Marks embraced the medical-marijuana cause. His bill, SB 1364, would have reclassified marijuana on the state level to a Schedule II drug, making it legal for doctors to prescribe. The bill passed with bipartisan support but was vetoed by Wilson.

The following year, Vasconcellos introduced ASB 1529, a bill that would allow patients whose doctors had prescribed marijuana for their ailments to grow plants as medicine. Again, the bill passed and was vetoed. Anticipating Wilson's veto (which came in October), Peron and a coalition of AIDS activists, cancer patients, seniors, and medical professionals filed for a medical-marijuana initiative on Sept. 29.

Today, the initiative's ballot chances look good: Peron turned over 126,000 names to Voter Revolt on March 12 and VR's Bill Westermeyer says he thinks the company can meet its contract.

Still, Peron will have to confront naysayers, both inside and outside of CCU. Already, some volunteers say they've become disheartened with the changes wrought by CMR's money. Volunteer Michael Sussman, who staffs the CCU initiative booth at the CBC says the process has rendered him cynical about grass-roots organizing.

"Unfortunately, the initiative process, despite the fact it's billed as a people's process, is just as much determined by financial backing as regular politics," says Sussman.

Peron acknowledges Scott Imler's reservations about the CMR money, but says they have ironed out their differences.

Imler disagrees. "Actually, I've become more steeled in my belief that what is happening is not good. I still think that these people do not know what medical marijuana is all about. The folks who think marijuana is a hobby have not considered the ramifications of their game," says Imler.

"The thing is," he continues, "is that campaigns are so much puff and so much spin, the results of this will only be a small step. On Nov. 6, regardless of the result, we will keep helping these people, and the legalization people will move on.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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