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Soros is behind marijuana initiative

Believes drug war drains resources

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / August 28, 2008
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An initiative petition that would decriminalize minor marijuana-possession cases is on the ballot in Massachusetts largely because of one man: billionaire financier and liberal activist George Soros.

Of the $429,000 collected last year by the group advancing the measure, $400,000 came from Soros, who has championed similar efforts in several states and spent $24 million to fight President Bush's 2004 reelection bid. The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy needed about $315,000 of that to collect the more than 100,000 signatures that secured a spot on the ballot, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by the Associated Press.

"All of us owe George Soros a great deal of gratitude," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

If the measure is approved in November, Massachusetts would become the 13th state to lift or ease criminal penalties on marijuana possession. The proposal would make having an ounce or less of the drug a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.

A spokesman for Soros referred questions to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. Soros's efforts to ease penalties for drug crimes have come through the alliance, where he is a member of the board of directors.

Nadelmann said Soros believes that the war on drugs is draining money and resources that could be better spent.

"He thinks the [ballot question] is a responsible initiative to reduce the over-reliance on criminal justice sanctions in dealing with marijuana," Nadelmann said. "Marijuana should not be a priority of the criminal justice system."

Soros is credited with putting financial muscle behind many of the state initiatives easing marijuana laws, backing efforts in California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and Maine from 1996 to 2000.

Critics say marijuana decriminalization sends the wrong message to young people, that using drugs carries few consequences. Not only are there health risks associated with marijuana, they say, but users often move on to more dangerous illegal drugs.

Gerard T. Leone Jr., the Middlesex district attorney, said the marijuana being sold on the street these days is more potent than that sold three decades ago.

"Decriminalizing marijuana is a slippery slope and sends the wrong message," he said. "Compounding this is the fact that users of marijuana are 10 times more likely to be injured, or injure others, in automobile crashes."

Leone said marijuana possession is already treated less stringently in the courts than other drugs.

The question has been criticized by others in law enforcement and drug education groups like DARE-Massachusetts, but according to the secretary of state's office, opponents have not established a group to raise money to fight the question.

A whopping 72 percent of Massachusetts voters favor the ballot question and 22 percent oppose it, according to a WHDH-TV/Suffolk University poll of 400 registered voters conducted from July 31-Aug. 3. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

The measure would require parental notification and completion of a drug awareness program for anyone under 18 caught with an ounce or less of the drug. It bars the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from being used to deny financial aid, public housing, or other public assistance, a driver's license, or the ability to be a foster or adoptive parent.

Currently, possession of small amounts of marijuana in the state is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine.

Taylor said offenders often get probation, but in those cases the criminal convictions stay on their records.

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