Billionaire financier George Soros gave $1 million Tuesday to support Proposition 19, California's ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Prop. 19 was having trouble attracting significant funding, and only Monday rolled out its first television ad in the Los Angeles area. The big contribution from Soros -- long a supporter of drug-reform efforts in California and across the nation -- will allow a much more intense media blitz in the final week before Election Day.
But with so many people having already cast ballots by mail, it's not clear whether ads will counter the measure's recent slump in the polls in time to make a difference.
It will, Dale Jones of the Yes on 19 campaign asserted Tuesday; she told reporters on a conference call that it "has always been an educational campaign," and Soros' money will further that mission.
"Once people have read the initiative and understand Prop. 19 and see what it will and will not do, we see overwhelming support," she said. "Every bit that supporters chip in, more people will get the right message."
As for the contribution's timing, it was "better late than never," Jones said. "We appreciate just in this last week that people are stepping up their efforts and redoubling their commitment."
Roger Salazar, spokesman for the campaign against Prop. 19, said it was always expected that the measure's proponents would outspend its opponents.
"But the more they spend, it seems, the more the public becomes aware of the flaws in Prop. 19," he said, noting the contribution's last-minute timing. "If they're willing to put that kind of money behind a misleading ad that deceives the public, it shows they're in rough shape."
With Soros' contribution, about $3.4 million has been put up in support of Prop. 19 so far. About $1.4 million of that came from proponent Richard Lee, of Oakland, founder and president of Oaksterdam University, and was spent on the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot. The campaign against Prop. 19 has raised about $315,000 this year, although the California Chamber of Commerce last week began spending $250,000 on radio ads urging voters to oppose the measure.
Soros reported his contribution Tuesday morning to the Secretary of State's office, even as readers woke up to his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in support of legalization.
"Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually," he wrote in the Journal. "It also would reduce the crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens are subject to arrest. Police could focus on serious crime instead."
Soros also cited racial disparities in marijuana enforcement. "I agree with Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, when she says that being caught up in the criminal justice system does more harm to young people than marijuana itself. Giving millions of young Americans a permanent drug arrest record that may follow them for life serves no one's interests."
Soros contributed not to the main Yes on 19 committee established by proponent Richard Lee of Oakland, but to a supporting committee -- the Drug Policy Action Committee to Tax and Regulate Marijuana/Yes on Prop. 19 -- established by the Drug Policy Alliance; Soros has been a major funder of the alliance and sits on its board.
The Yes on 19 ad launched Monday features Hoover Institution research fellow and former San Jose police Chief Joseph McNamara.
"Today, it's easier for a teenager to buy pot than beer. Proposition 19 will tax and control marijuana just like alcohol," McNamara says in the ad. "It will generate billions of dollars for local communities, allow police to focus on violent crimes and put drug cartels out of business. Join me and many others in law enforcement. Vote yes on Proposition 19."
Prop. 19 wouldn't actually establish a uniform scheme to regulate and tax commercial cultivation and sales, but rather would let cities and counties choose whether to adopt their own. Also, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill into law to reduce minor marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, like a traffic ticket, significantly reducing court costs.
A recent study by the RAND Corp. public-policy think tank indicated Prop. 19 will only help put cartels out of business if California's legal marijuana is smuggled into other states and undercuts cartels' prices there. And most major law enforcement groups -- including the California Police Chiefs Association, the Police Officers Research Association of California, the California Narcotics Officers Association and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals -- oppose Prop. 19.
McNamara said during Tuesday's conference call that how much money Prop. 19 will save and how much it will raise in tax revenue may be subject to debate, but must be seen in the context of what is being spent now in what he called an unsuccessful and harmful prohibition. He also noted that Mexican authorities seized about 130 tons of drug cartels' marijuana last week near California's border, saying, "This is a major source of their profit."