The Oregonian, Tuesday, October 21, 1997

Pot referendum gets its money from out of state

  • Three men with deep pockets contribute most of the cash for a measure to overturn Oregon's marijuana recriminalization law

    By Ashbel S. Green
    of The Oregonian staff

    One is a Reed College graduate and heads the nation's largest private university.

    One is an Ohio insurance executive who was a Princeton University classmate of consumer activist Ralph Nader.

    One graced the cover of Time magazine in September and is the nation's biggest philanthropist.

    All three are responsible for putting a referendum on Oregon's 1998 general-election ballot that will ask voters whether they want to repeal a new state law that would make it a crime to possess a marijuana joint for the first time since 1973.

    According to documents filed Monday with the state Elections Division, the $152,000 referendum drive was financed primarily by three men: John Sperling, founder of the Arizona-based University of Phoenix, who gave $50,000; Peter Lewis, president of the Cleveland-based Progressive Corp., who gave $50,000; and George Soros, a billionaire financier, who gave $40,000.

    The rest came from a California political consulting firm and a Harrisburg pro-marijuana group.

    The contributions by Sperling, Lewis and Soros are a drop in the bucket compared with the millions the trio has contributed to a national debate on the War on Drugs.

    In 1996, Sperling, Lewis and Soros contributed heavily to successful initiatives in Arizona and California that legalized medical marijuana and changed those states' drug laws.

    The three men have put up almost all the $1.4 million for a medical marijuana initiative that Washington voters will decide Nov. 4. And they are expected to contribute to medical marijuana initiatives that could go before voters in Colorado, Maine, Oregon and other states in 1998.

    Bill Zimmerman, manager of California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, said the effort is not about legalizing drugs but dealing with drug abuse as a health problem.

    "What changed in California and also in Arizona in 1996 was that some mainstream people in campaign management and business groups began to look at the drug policies in this country as not being effective or in the best interests of their citizens," Zimmerman said. "We are spending inordinate amounts of money on a war we are not winning."

    Supporters of House Bill 3643, which would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and a maximum of 30 days in jail, say the out-of-state-financed referendum -- which suspends the law until the election -- is a threat.

    "It's a call for Oregon citizens to say we don't want this here, take your agenda elsewhere," said Darin Campbell, spokesman for the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police.

    Other drug opponents see a darker motivation.

    "The measure that we're facing is just blatant legalizations of all drugs," said Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. "I think anybody should be concerned when outside billionaires try to come in and purchase public policy."

    But Sen. Kate Brown, D-Portland, who opposed HB3643 as a waste of money, was happy to accept outside help to get Oregon's measure on the ballot.

    "Because these folks are involved on the national level, we'll get a clear picture of how Oregonians feel on this issue," Brown said.

    Although Sperling, Lewis and Soros seem to be increasingly coordinating their contributions, the three arrived at the war on drugs independently.

    The generous financier

    Soros, a Hungarian-born financier, made it rich running a $18 billion financial empire led by the celebrated Quantum Fund. During one week in 1992, the Quantum Fund made $1 billion betting against the Bank of England's attempt to halt a sterling silver slide.

    Since 1979, Soros has given away an enormous amount of money through the Soros Foundations; most of it has gone to countries in Eastern Europe. By 1996, the Soros Foundations' annual contributions had reached $362 million, making Soros more than twice as generous as any American philanthropist that year, according to Fortune magazine.

    Since 1993, Soros has committed about $15 million to changing the nation's drug policies.

    He also has made personal political contributions to marijuana-related initiative campaigns, including $550,000 to California's Proposition 215, $530,000 to Arizona's Proposition 200, $335,000 to Washington's Initiative 685, and $40,000 to the Oregon referendum that will appear as Measure 57 on the November 1998 ballot.

    Soros was out of the country and unavailable for comment the past week.

    But in a 1997 Washington Post Forum piece, he said:

    "I am not for legalizing hard drugs. I am for a saner drug policy. I am just as concerned about keeping drugs away from my children as any responsible parent. But I firmly believe that the war on drugs is doing more harm to our society than drug abuse itself."

    The private school founder

    Although Soros is the best known of the three, Sperling has the closest Oregon ties, graduating from Reed College in 1948.

    Sperling, the son of a Missouri sharecropper, later gained his doctorate from Cambridge University and taught for 20 years at several public universities.

    At an age when many are thinking about retirement, Sperling founded the University of Phoenix, a private, for-profit school designed to make graduate degrees more accessible to working adults.

    Earlier this month, the school opened a campus in Tigard. With more than 40,000 students, the University of Phoenix is the largest private university in the nation.

    Sperling, who is in his mid-70s, was one of the sponsors of Arizona's Proposition 200, contributing $330,000. He gave $200,000 to California's Proposition 215, $612,000 to Washington's Initiative 685 and $50,000 to Oregon's Measure 57.

    Sperling did not return telephone calls to his Phoenix office during the past week.

    But in an article in the Arizona Republic, he sounded a theme similar to Soros'.

    "The argument that we can interdict supply is just so much garbage," said Sperling, whose doctoral degree is in economics. "There's never going to be any lack of supply. The drug war is bad economically, it's bad politically, it's bad ethically and morally."

    The insurance executive

    Lewis, who is in his early 60s, heads the Progressive Corp., an auto insurance company.

    He contributed $260,000 to the Democratic Party last year but has said his giving "has to be fun."

    In 1995, he gave $10 million to the Guggenheim Museum and New York City. In 1996, he gave $15 million to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

    Lewis also is known for his company's offbeat annual reports and his imaginative gifts.

    In 1996, he gave $2.5 million to a senior center swimming pool on the condition that the center give him a lifetime pass and never again ask him for money.

    He gave $300,000 to Arizona's Proposition 200, $500,000 to California's Proposition 215, $435,000 to Washington's Initiative 685 and $50,000 to Oregon's Measure 57.

    Lewis would not return telephone calls made in the past week, but consumer advocate Nader said Lewis is critical of drug laws, particularly concerning marijuana.

    "I think he really thinks that marijuana laws are wrongheaded from A to Z," Nader said.

    Researcher Julia Wotipka of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.


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