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Marijuana's Billionaire Bogeyman - By - June 15, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Marijuana's Billionaire Bogeyman

For almost a year, American visitors to Las Vegas have been able to go to a show, dine at a celebrity chef's restaurant, drink, gamble — and legally buy cannabis.

Nevada was the first state in the nation to offer “reciprocity” to medical marijuana users, meaning a physician's recommendation from, say, California — useless in trying to access medical cannabis in, say, Colorado — is enough to gain entry to the cannabis dispensary nearest your favorite casino.

The first dispensary in Las Vegas “proper” opened last summer, and the first dispensary on Las Vegas Boulevard opened in March. With an adult legalization measure on the fall ballot in Nevada, it looks as if cannabis could soon be added to the list of must-do activities for a weekend in America's Sin City. And with an estimated 27 percent of Las Vegas' 41 million annual visitors coming from cannabis-friendly Southern California, there are millions of potential customers to make cannabis a complement to Vegas's gaming and dining industries. (In fact, with less than 2.8 million people statewide, there really is no cannabis industry in Nevada without toking tourists.)

Or perhaps better said, a “competitor.” That would explain the reaction Sheldon G. Adelson has had to pot's growing profile in Las Vegas. The 18th-richest person on earth, according to Forbes, Adelson is CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which owns the Venetian Resort-Hotel Casino, a 7,117-room city-state that's the second-largest hotel complex in the world, as well as other titanic casinos in Macau and Singapore.

Bored with such toys, Adelson recently purchased Nevada's largest newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal. As Marijuana.com's Tom Angell recently pointed out, within a few months of Adelson becoming the new owner, the Review-Journal — which had repeatedly endorsed cannabis legalization — suddenly flipped, publishing a June 7 editorial blasting legalization as a threat to Nevada. A head-scratching, reactionary throwback, the editorial paraphrased Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No,” claimed cannabis has been linked to cancer, and even repeated the well-exploded “gateway drug” theory.

Editors at The Review-Journal denied their new boss had anything to do with their paper's flip-flop. Sure. Regardless, this is troubling to legalizers in California. Adelson, one of the biggest donors to Republican causes in the country, has money to burn, and has proven willing to burn it on blocking changes in drug laws.

In 2014, Adelson doled out more than $5.5 million to Drug Free Florida, cash that paid for scare ads which helped keep support for a medical marijuana ballot proposition in that state below the necessary 60 percent threshold. This year, another Adelson acolyte is vowing to raise $10 million to do it again in Florida, and it's no secret who he'll ask for a check first.

Adelson could, if he chose, single-handedly change the game in California, where the money race is currently slanted heavily in favor of legalization. Backers of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), which would see California join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska in allowing adults 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of cannabis, are out-raising opponents by $2.5 million to $60,000.

Currently, the state prison guard and police officers' lobbies and state Teamsters are only offering token resistance to the millions available from the likes of tech billionaire Sean Parker, the Pritzker family of Hyatt Hotels fame, and some cannabis industry players.

If Adelson were to jump in the pool, the scales would easily be tipped in favor of prohibition.

So far, Adelson has kept his checkbook in his pocket. According to campaign finance records, he has yet to donate anywhere in California politics this campaign election cycle, and he's given only $1,000 to campaign efforts in Nevada — none of it to the anti-cannabis effort.

That will certainly change in Adelson's home state. With his newspaper opposing legalization, it would be shocking for Adelson to not support the anti-legalization campaign financially. And according to legalization opponents, he could be considering disrupting legalization efforts here in California, too.

“There have been discussions,” says Kevin Sabet, the former Obama Administration drug policy official who is now executive director of anti-legalization Project SAM, on whose board sit former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (yes, one of those Kennedys) and David Frum, the neoconservative senior editor of The Atlantic. “[But] no one really knows. And anyone who says they know is just posturing.”

Project SAM has a political action committee, named SAM Action, that's opening up field offices in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with $300,000 in initial campaign cash. (While finance records reveal a government-funded nonprofit called Californians For Drug-Free Youth disbursed money to SAM, Sabet claims CADFY acted only as a fiduciary, “holding” money from private donors on SAM's behalf.) Real political capital will have to come from somewhere else, and Adelson is the most likely source.

The last time Adelson jumped into California politics was in 2005 when he donated $100,000 to back ballot props to change union's political influence, teacher tenure, and state education spending. All three lost.

Adelson has never publicly explained his problem with weed. This year, he is supposedly close to launching a super PAC in support of Donald Trump, as Politico first reported. That's where the stakes are highest, and where most of his attention and money will be spent. But for a man that rich, adding “weed-killer” to his resume would be as easy as buying a newspaper.