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Soros backs softer pot penalties in Mass.

Associated Press | 9/3/2008, 4:57 a.m.

A measure that would decriminalize minor marijuana-possession cases is on the ballot in Massachusetts largely because of one man: billionaire financier and liberal activist George Soros.

Of the $429,000 collected last year by the group advancing the measure, $400,000 came from Soros, who has championed similar efforts in several states and spent $24 million to fight President Bush’s 2004 re-election bid. The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy needed about $315,000 of that just to collect the more than 100,000 signatures that secured a spot on the ballot, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by The Associated Press.

“All of us owe George Soros a great deal of gratitude,” said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

If the measure is approved in November, Massachusetts would become the 13th state to lift or ease criminal penalties on marijuana possession. The proposal would make having an ounce or less of the drug a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.

A spokesman for Soros referred questions to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. Soros’ efforts to ease penalties for drug crimes have come through the alliance, where he is a member of the board of directors.

Nadelmann said Soros feels the war on drugs is draining money and resources that could be better spent.

“He thinks the [ballot question] is a responsible initiative to reduce the over-reliance on criminal justice sanctions in dealing with marijuana,” Nadelmann said. “Marijuana should not be a priority of the criminal justice system.”

Soros is credited with putting financial muscle behind many of the state initiatives easing marijuana laws — beginning with a 1996 California ballot question to allow marijuana use for medical purposes. From 1996 to 2000, Soros backed medical marijuana questions there and in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Maine.

More recently he has focused on criminal justice reform efforts, including pushing a proposal in California this year that would prohibit sending drug offenders back to prison for parole violations unless they commit a new felony, have a violent or serious record, or are considered high risk by prison officials. He has also contributed to Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden and has helped support a group running ads opposing Republican John McCain.

Soros’s wealth was estimated at $8.8 billion by Forbes magazine last year. He was also the second-highest-paid hedge fund manager last year at $2.9 billion.

Critics say marijuana decriminalization sends the wrong message to young people — that using drugs carries few consequences. Not only are there health risks associated with marijuana, they say, but users often end up moving on to more dangerous illegal drugs.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone said the marijuana being sold on the street these days is more potent than that sold three decades ago.

“Decriminalizing marijuana is a slippery slope and sends the wrong message,” he said. “Compounding this is the fact that users of marijuana are 10 times more likely to be injured, or injure others, in automobile crashes.”