Billionaire Backs Effort to Decriminalize Pot
By: Gerri L. Elder
In Massachusetts, a measure is on the ballot that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure has been put on the ballot courtesy of billionaire liberal activist George Soros.
Soros was reportedly the second-highest paid hedge fund manager last year, earning $2.9 billion. Forbes estimated his wealth in 2007 at $8.8 billion.
Soros did not donate all of the $429,000 that was collected last year by the group fighting to get the marijuana measure on the Massachusetts ballot. However, he did put up $400,000 of it.
Soros has also backed similar efforts in other states. According to the Associated Press, he also spent $24 million in an attempt to prevent George W. Bush’s re-election.
The Associated Press reviewed campaign finance reports that indicated that the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy spent about $315,000 of the money that was collected on obtaining the necessary 100,000+ signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
Soros is a member of the board of directors of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the organization, said that Soros feels that the war on drugs is wasting a great deal of money and resources that could be better spent. Soros has backed many of the state initiatives to ease criminal penalties for marijuana possession because he believes that marijuana should not be a priority of the criminal justice system.
Soros began financially backing state initiatives in 1996 when he pushed for the California ballot question to allow medical marijuana use. Following that initiative, he backed other medical marijuana ballot questions in California and also in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Maine.
Earlier this year, Soros began his focus on criminal justice system reform efforts regarding marijuana laws. In California, he financially backed a proposal that would prevent drug offenders from returning to prison for parole violations unless they commit a new felony, have a serious or violent record, or are considered to be high risk by prison officials.
Soros also has been involved with the 2008 presidential campaign. He has made campaign contributions to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and has also financially supported a group running ads against John McCain’s presidential campaign.
Not everyone is rallying around Soros’ efforts. Critics say that the decriminalization of marijuana sends the wrong message to young people and that pot that is sold now is much more potent than that of years ago.
The health risks, increased risk of car accidents and injuries and the possibility that pot smokers could graduate up to harder drugs are all concerns of those who do not support the decriminalization measure.
DARE-Massachusetts and other drug education groups have voiced their opposition to the measure, as have various law enforcement groups. However, the secretary of state’s office says that these groups have not yet formed a group in order to raise money to fight the question.
And it might not matter, even if they did. Reportedly, 72 percent of Massachusetts voters favor the measure, with only 22 percent opposing it, according to a poll of 400 registered voters.
Currently, under Massachusetts law, a person caught with less than an ounce of pot could be sentenced to up to 6 months in jail and be fined $500. These criminal convictions stay on their records, even if they only receive probation.
The measure calls for parental notification and the completion of a drug education program for anyone under the age of 18 who is caught with an ounce or less of marijuana. It also prohibits the possession of an ounce or less of the drug from being a factor for the denial of financial aid, public housing or other public assistance, drivers’ licenses or the ability to adopt a child or become a foster parent.
If the measure is approved in the November election, Massachusetts will become the 13th state to back off of harsh marijuana laws by lifting or easing criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession. The proposal that will be on the ballot will make having an ounce or less of pot a civil offense with a $100 fine.