Marijuana legalization: Prop 19 in California starved for cash
Proposition 19, the California ballot measure to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation for adults has raised $2.1 million. Most of the money is from one donor: Richard Lee, a medical marijuana entrepreneur.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP/ File
In a state where contentious ballot measures can spawn multi-million-dollar throwdowns, no one for or against California's high-profile marijuana legalization initiative has raised much cash.
Most notably absent are big donations from the thriving medical marijuana industry, a seemingly natural base of support for a measure being sold as a way to raise tax revenue for the cash-strapped state.
At the same time, the Yes on 19 campaign has still outraised the No campaign by about 10 to 1.
Supporters of the measure to legalize possession and cultivation of limited amounts of pot for adults had raised $2.1 million as of Tuesday, the latest deadline for campaigns to report their contributions. Nearly three-quarters of the money has come from the businesses of the measure's main backer, Richard Lee, a one-time rock concert lighting technician turned medical marijuana entrepreneur.
About $1.3 million of the Yes campaign's money went toward the signature drive to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Opponents had raised just more than $210,000, much of it from law enforcement sources.
Both sides had about the same amount of cash on hand as of Tuesday: about $54,000 for the No campaign and $67,000 for the Yes campaign.
Ballot measure watchers said initiatives that deal with social issues typically attract less funding than measures that involve major industries such as oil, energy and insurance. The California measure is one of 149 citizen initiatives nationwide in the 2010 elections.
The one glaring exception is Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. Groups for and against the measure spent more than $83 million, a national record for a ballot measure on a social issue.
In the pot debate, both sides have relied on media attention rather than brimming campaign chests to get their messages out. The approach seems to be working.
In a recent Field Poll, 84 percent of respondents said they had heard of Proposition 19, compared to under 40 percent for other major measures on the ballot Nov. 2.
Missing are the big advertising campaigns and media events that generated heat around past ballot measures.
"People have strong feelings about this. They're not easily swayed. TV adverstising doesn't have as big an effect, pro or con," Lee said.
Recent polling does suggest that many likely voters have made up their minds: Fewer than 10 percent of likely voters said they were undecided on Proposition 19, according to the most recent Field and Public Policy Institute of California polls. The measure was ahead in both polls.
Still, supporters are faced with the irony of having little funding for a measure billed as a money-maker for California.
Absent have been contributions from the deep-pocketed donors who underwrote the successful 1996 campaign to pass Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California.
"The large donors who funded Prop. 215 and traditionally fund the large cannabis reform organizations are all suffering from donor fatigue," opined Steve D'Angelo, founder of Oakland's Harborside Health Center dispensary. "Due to the fluctuations in the overall buisness world, they are watching their money more carefully than they were when Prop. 215 passed."
Men's Wearhouse chief executive George Zimmer, a San Francisco Bay area resident who donated heavily to the medical marijuana measure and gives frequently to drug legalization causes, donated $20,000 during the signature drive for Proposition 19. He has given only $500 since.
The measure has also sharply divided the multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry itself.
Medical marijuana dispensaries could lose out if cities allow other retailers to sell the drug. Users would no longer need recommendations from doctors who specialize in medical marijuana to obtain the drug. And illicit growers could see legalized marijuana drive prices into a tailspin.
Lanette Davies, who runs the CannaCare medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, said she believes that the ballot measure's provision allowing local governments to regulate the sale of marijuana will lead cities and counties to curb access to marijuana for both recreational and medical use.
In recent years, conflicts have raged between dispensary owners and cities trying to shut down medical marijuana shops. And Davies believes Proposition 19 will give local governments an excuse to ignore the state's medical marijuana law, which she said provides stronger protections for patients.
"It just undermines what we've done so far," she said.
The drafters of Proposition 19 say the measure would have no impact on the rights of medical users under the earlier law.
Opponents of the measure are being heavily outfunded, as they were on some past pro-drug measures.
Nearly half the funding has come from groups that represent law enforcement officers. Other major donors include the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Hospital Association, a Southern California Indian tribe and a state lobbying group for beer distributors.
Campaign spokesman Roger Salazar blames the tepid fundraising in part on higher profile contests such as the race for governor drawing attention and money. He also said some voters inclined to oppose the measure might not give money because they have a hard time imagining the status quo could change.
"People tend to look at it and say, 'Of course it's going to lose, who's going to vote for that?'" Salazar said.
History could also work in the No campaign's favor.
Ballot measure backers must typically spend a lot to convince voters to support change, while opponents can sometimes succeed simply by sowing reasonable doubt, Matsusaka said. "You can vastly outspend your opponent on the pro side and still lose," he said.