Marijuana’s Millionaire Club: The People Behind the $56.7 Million Spent on Pot Initiatives

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Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized medicinal and recreational marijuana in their state, with 64 percent voting against it.

Although the final vote was more lopsided than in recent similar initiatives in other states, all of the campaigns have seen loads of cash raised and spent. An InsideGov analysis found that $56.7 million has been spent on marijuana-related ballot initiatives in 15 states during the last 10 years.

Of that total, $1 million is related to the Ohio ballot measure, according to data from FollowTheMoney. News outlets reported recently that $4 million has been spent on television ads alone, meaning the total amount will grow significantly once the dust settles on this most recent ballot battle. But until those final reports come in, Ohio’s tally remains significantly lower than the amount of money that has been raised for other states' initiatives.

Among the 15 states with marijuana-related ballot measures, the most money has been poured into Oregon. More than $15.5 million has been collected for marijuana initiatives in the state, spreading across four elections in 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2014. Oregon has long been friendlier to weed use, decriminalizing cannabis in 1973 and legalizing medical marijuana in 1998.

Measures in 2004 and 2010 dealt with more nuanced questions, like how much pot a patient can possess. But in 2012, voters weighed in on an initiative that would have regulated recreational weed. The measure was defeated, but almost $531,000 was spent in the campaign.

Two years and more than $14 million later, Oregon voters returned to the question of legalizing weed. The measure passed and Oregon became the fifth state or district to legalize recreational use in the U.S.

In 2014, voters in Alaska and Washington, D.C., also legalized recreational use. Data from FollowTheMoney doesn’t include figures from the D.C. measure, but activists on both sides of the issue gave more than $1.2 million for the Alaska initiative.

The three weed wins in 2014 came after voters approved similar measures in Colorado and Washington in 2012. Just shy of $3 million was collected for the Colorado campaign, and people gave a little over $5 million to the fight in Washington.

Medicinal Money

Aside from Oregon, the other top money magnet for weed provisions was Florida. More than $14.4 million was collected for just one election — the state’s 2014 medical marijuana fight. The ballot measure sought to allow access to medical marijuana for patients with “debilitating diseases."

The Drug Free Florida Committee, the group opposing the medical marijuana measure, raised a total of $6,359,132.36. The lion’s share came from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5.5 million. The Las Vegas Sands CEO has given huge sums of money to Republican candidates and groups, including $15 million in 2012 to a super PAC that backed Mitt Romney’s presidential run in 2012.

The pro-medical marijuana side collected $8,069,559.54, mostly from Florida-based donors. Attorney John Morgan — a well-known fixture in Sunshine State politics — and his law firm, Morgan & Morgan, gave a little more than $4 million to the People United for Medical Marijuana group.

Florida’s medical marijuana bill failed last year, but Morgan is mounting another campaign to legalize medicinal and recreational weed in 2016. The Orlando Sentinel reported in June that Morgan already cut a check for $150,000 for next year’s measure. Morgan is also a big-time Democratic donor: He bundled at least $500,000 for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and often hosts Democratic fundraisers at his 12,000-square-foot home in Lake Mary, Fla.

Top Donors

While Adelson’s $5.5 million check puts him as the largest individual contributor, other people and groups also gave six- and seven-figure sums to marijuana-related ballot initiatives. Adelson aside, the top contributors have been pro-marijuana, whether the ballot measure dealt with medical or recreational use.

Peter B. Lewis, the late chairman of Progressive Insurance Company, gave almost $3 million to pro-marijuana initiatives. But marijuana advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, puts Lewis’ total significantly higher, estimating that he kicked in more than $40 million to the cause, according to a Forbes article.

Well-known Democratic donor George Soros gave $1 million to a failed 2010 initiative in California. Barbara Stiefel, a millionaire whose family made their money in the skin care industry, gave $975,000 to pro-medical marijuana side of the 2014 Florida fight. Thomas Cody Swift, a head honcho at a nonprofit that advocates for the reform of end-of-life and drug policies, has given a total of $405,000 to pro-marijuana initiatives.

As for contributions from groups, the top five are all from pro-marijuana organizations. Marijuana Policy Project’s $11.2 million went to measures in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and South Dakota. And the Drug Policy Alliance doled out its $5.6 million to measures in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Oregon and Washington.

Morgan & Morgan, the Florida law firm, gave its total to its state’s measure, while Yes on 91 and New Approach PAC focused their millions on the 2014 legalization efforts in Oregon.

The Ohio measure, which would have marked the first time a state allowed recreational use before approving medicinal use, is shaping up to be the most expensive marijuana initiative yet. Although final figures won’t be available for some time, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the pro-marijuana group ResponsibleOhio has raised almost $12 million, mostly from investment groups.

While an eye-popping sum, Florida’s pending campaign next year may dwarf Ohio’s tallies. The 2016 election is on pace to become the most expensive in history, and a divisive issue in a swing state will only attract more deep-pocketed donors.

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