Who is Bankrolling the Fight Against Cannabis Legalization?

Photo via Flickr user kev-shine

By Joan Eberhardt

Legal cannabis is a popular idea among voters, but wealthy donors are spending millions of dollars to prevent it from becoming a reality. An unprecedented number of states will vote on medical and recreational adult use cannabis legalization in nine states on November 8. Wealthy moguls and industries are bankrolling efforts to convince voters against measures that would create a legal marketplace for marijuana in their states.

In total, nearly $40 million will be spent convincing voters to support, or not to support, legal cannabis. The vast majority of that, nearly three-quarters, will flow to pro-legalization campaigns. Almost half of the pro-legalization cash has been raised in California alone.

There is no single interest organization funding anti-cannabis efforts, but several high-value organizations are spending millions of dollars to fund campaigns convincing voters against legalization efforts. While public support for cannabis legalization has never been higher, pharmaceutical companies, casinos, police unions, and big alcohol, all stand to lose revenue if cannabis becomes legal.

In Massachusetts, the state’s alcohol industry has been fighting legalization efforts. The Beer Distributors of Massachusetts and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts together donated $75,000 to anti-legalization efforts in that state. In total, over $600,000 will be spent by Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts against Question 4, which would legalize and regulate cannabis for adult recreational use. While both groups declined to tell media why they made the donation, it would suggest the alcohol industry is concerned that cannabis might bite into their business, though that has not been the case in Colorado.

Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is single-handedly responsible for one-third of the donations against cannabis legalization in this election cycle. Adelson, whose wife is a doctor specializing in addiction and has long been actively involved in anti-drug efforts, has donated 85% of the cash being used against legalization efforts in Florida.

Pharmaceutical companies, which have thrived in a market where cannabis is illegal and opioids are not, are also actively fighting legalization efforts. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who has publicly gone through his own personal troubles with painkillers, has made mental health and drug reform key components of his work today. Earlier this year, at the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America conference, Kennedy told attendees “Let me tell you, there is nothing more inconsistent with trying to improve mental health and reduce substance-abuse disorders in this country than to legalize a third drug.” The conference was sponsored by Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, the same drug that led to Kennedy crashing his car into a Capitol Hill barricade in 2006. Purdue, as well as other opiate manufacturers like INSYS Therapeutics and Abbott Laboratories stand to lose huge market shares of sales if cannabis can be legally used to treat chronic pain. States that have legalized cannabis see an immediate and sharp reduction in the number of prescription painkillers sold, and a 25% reduction in overdoses in the first year.

Cannabis legalization presents opportunities for small businesses to thrive in a burgeoning market, and there is strong public opinion for reforming the current laws. But those who have the most to lose are those who are profiting under the current system. Remember to vote on November 8.

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