Even by the usual standards of politics, this election's campaign against marijuana legalization has made strange bedfellows. The largest donors to the various anti-weed political groups around the country include a billionaire casino tycoon, a woman who believes in reefer madness, a drug-crusading former U.S. ambassador, cops, prison guards, booze merchants, and a pharma company that sells the powerful painkiller fentanyl.
A majority of Americans favor legal pot and pro-legalization campaigns have overwhelmingly outraised the opposition. Supporters in the five states set to vote on recreational marijuana had a war chest of $30 million as of Oct. 20, compared to just $6.6 million for their rivals, according to campaign finance data collected by the nonpartisan site Ballotpedia. The disparity comes largely from California, where proponents of legalization measure Proposition 64 have outraised their foes $18.1 million to $2 million.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the largest anti-legalization group in the country, said the cash gap is "not surprising" and "always what we expected." He noted that much of the pro-legalization money in California has come from entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on what is projected to be a $6.5 billion market for marijuana by 2020.
"These guys don't care about ending the war on drugs," said Sabet. "They care about making money."
But looking across the country, it's clear that self-interest — and the fear of lost profits — also fuels the effort to keep weed outlawed. Tied for the largest single donation to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the campaign against the state's recreational marijuana proposal, was $500,000 from Insys Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company known for selling the painkiller fentanyl in the form of a sublingual spray. The company and some former employees have faced lawsuits and criminal charges over the way the drug was marketed.
Insys has said it opposes legalization because federal regulators have not approved marijuana for medical use and because the proposed law "fails to protect the safety of Arizona's citizens, and particularly its children." But the company is also developing products that use pharmaceutical cannabinoids, a synthetic version of marijuana.
Sabet, whose organization coordinates anti-legalization campaigns nationwide, tried to distance the broader movement from Insys, saying his organization's funding comes from a range of sources. "I'm not actively going to pharmaceutical companies and saying 'Give money to this; otherwise it's going to compete against your product.' Maybe I should, but I'm not going to do that," he said.
"We get all of our money for these campaigns from individual donors, many people who lost family members to drug abuse, including from marijuana," Sabet said. "We don't get a penny from corporations or a penny from opiate manufacturers."
The nonprofit group will not disclose its finances until its 2016 tax filings, but it has also formed state-level PACs to fight the various legalization campaigns, and information about those PACs' donors is already publicly available.
One of Sabet's most generous individual donors is Julie Schauer, a wealthy art enthusiast who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Through her family's trust, she has contributed more than $1.3 million to the organization's efforts to defeat California's recreational marijuana proposal, given at least $30,000 to the campaign against Nevada's proposed legal weed law, and donated another $25,000 to defeat the pro-pot effort in Massachusetts, according to an analysis of state campaign finance filings by VICE News.
Schauer did not respond to an email requesting comment and Sabet said she "doesn't want to speak to the media." But she has made her views on marijuana public on several occasions. Tom Angell, founder of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority and a reporter for Marijuana.com, uncovered 2-year-old comments Schauer posted on the website OpenSecrets in which she blamed mass shootings and terrorist attacks, including the Boston Marathon bombing, on the perpetrators' marijuana use.
Schauer's largesse for the anti-marijuana movement has been eclipsed only by Sheldon Adelson, founder and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, a gambling empire that includes 10 casinos in the U.S. and Asia. Ranked as one of the world's richest men by Forbes, Adelson has contributed a combined $5 million this election cycle to efforts to stop legal weed in Nevada, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Florida. Adelson previously contributed $5.5 million to defeat Florida's medical marijuana measure in 2014.
Representatives at the Sands Corporation and Adelson's charitable foundation did not respond to requests for comment about the donations. Sabet suggested that Adelson isn't motivated by business interests, noting that he "lost a child to drug abuse," something Adelson's wife has spoken about publicly.
Aside from Adelson, Florida's largest anti-weed donor — contributing $1 million — is Mel Sembler, chairman emeritus of the Sembler Company, a commercial real estate firm. A major Republican fundraiser, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Italy and to Australia. Sembler and his wife, Betty, are cofounders of the Drug Free America Foundation, a group that supports drug-testing students, opposes taking a harm-reduction approach to drug addiction, and claims that "crude" marijuana is not medicine.
A spokesperson for the Sembler Company directed a request for comment about Sembler's stance on marijuana to Sembler's personal assistant, who did not respond. Sembler wasn't the only prominent anti-pot donor who seemingly didn't want to discuss the topic — multiple requests for comment for this story went unanswered.
"Most [donors] would like to remain anonymous," said Sabet. "They don't want the limelight. They care about the issue; they let me take the bullet. They're not people anybody knows."
Any fear of blowback hasn't stopped businesses and executives with a national profile from bankrolling anti-weed campaigns. Ernie Garcia, chairman of used-car vendor DriveTime, donated $250,000 to the cause in Arizona, and the moving and storage company U-Haul added another $25,000. Carol Jenkins Barnett, whose father founded the Publix supermarket chain, has contributed $800,000 to defeating Florida's medical pot initiative.
In Massachusetts, one industry in particular has joined forces against the state's recreational marijuana proposal. A wine and spirits wholesalers association kicked in $50,000 to the opposition campaign, and a beer distributors group added another $25,000. Local pubs, including McGreevy's, a prominent Boston establishment that bills itself as "America's first sports bar," have contributed lesser amounts. McGreevy's and the Lower Mills Tavern in the city's Dorchester neighborhood both donated $1,000 to the cause — a move that hasn't gone over well with some customers who have vowed to boycott.
In some cases, opponents of pot ballot initiatives claim to support drug policy reform — just not full-blown legalization. Lauren Michaels, legislative affairs manager for the California Police Chiefs Association, which donated $20,000 to the campaign against Prop 64, noted that her organization supports medical marijuana in the state but opposes the proposed recreational system because "there's much less oversight and accountability for complying with state regulations."
A number of other law enforcement groups have contributed to the anti-Prop 64 campaign, including $25,000 from the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a coalition of more than 66,000 law enforcement members, and $5,000 from the prison guards at the California Correctional Supervisors Organization. Michaels said the police chiefs believe Prop 64 will do little to curb the black market and say it would put more stoned drivers on the road. Like Sabet, she pointed to money pouring into the race from the weed industry.
"The people who are supporting the initiative, it's a business investment for them — of course they're going to invest money," Michaels said. "The people opposing it are essentially people connected to their communities. They're not going to have large amounts of money. We weren't surprised or daunted in any way. That's just the reality."
Cops and prosecutors will have jobs whether weed is legal or not, but Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that is coordinating and financing legalization campaigns across the U.S., noted that millions of dollars worth of anti-narcotics funding are potentially at stake. And whether the campaign contributions are coming from a pharmaceutical company or a prison guard union, he said, keeping marijuana illegal often boosts donors' bottom lines — and ensures that nonviolent users and suppliers will keep ending up behind bars.
"These people are trying to basically allow the continued criminalization of thousands and thousands of adults in order to continue making money," Tvert said. "That's kinda shady."