Marijuana: Amendment 64 opponents, backers fueled by controversial out-of-state money

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Update below: While Washington and Oregon have marijuana measures on the November ballot, Colorado's Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, continues to attract more than its share of national attention -- and money from national organizations. Indeed, even as 64 opponents decry the out-of-state dollars fueling pro-Regulate forces, they're collecting cash from an outside outfit who critics say has links to beatings and rape.

I-News has done a fine job tracking the moolah attracted by Amendment 64 in stories like this one, as well as via its Voter's Edge website. Here, for example, is a graphic depicting funding in support of the proposal through September 18:

As you can see, the majority of the lucre (82.4 percent) was donated by the national Marijuana Policy Project, with other beyond-Colorado organizations, including Drug Policy Action and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps contributing sizable chunks of the $1.4 million raised for the effort through mid-month.

These figures explain the following statement from Roger Sherman, the No on 64 campaign director, shared as part of his response to a Denver Post poll from a week and a half back showing the initiative with over 50 percent support. "We have seen a tidal wave of out-of-state money trying to influence the outcome of our election and seeking to use Colorado as test case for a national pro-pot agenda," he said in a statement. "We always knew it would be an uphill battle to fully inform Coloradans about this dangerous, deceptive amendment to our state constitution."

Betty Aldworth, a spokeswoman for Amendment 64, rejects Sherman's characterization.

"The proponents of the initiative" -- Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente -- " have been working on this issue in Colorado for eight years, and I'm a seventeen-year Coloradan. We are not carpetbaggers. We've been concerned about the welfare of Coloradans for long enough that this claim can be shown to be baseless."

Aldworth adds that "it's entirely typical that campaigns receive support from national organizations."

That's also true of Smart Colorado, which isn't exactly eschewing donations from folks without Colorado area codes. Here's an I-News graphic showing its funding through September 18:

The total shown above is much smaller than the pile o' dough gathered by those in favor of Amendment 64 -- but the percentage of out of state money is similar. The $151,000 or so from Save Our Society From Drugs (SOSFD), based in Florida, accounts for just over 78 percent of Smart Colorado's donations.

Moreover, SOSFD carries other baggage, as recounted in a recent article from The Nation headlined "GOP Mogul Behind Drug Rehab 'Torture' Centers Is Bankrolling Opposition to Pot Legalization in Colorado."

Continue to read more about Save Our Society From Drugs -- and to see a response from Smart Colorado spokespersons. Here's an excerpt from writer Lee Fang's piece, which focuses on the group's driving forces, Mel and Betty Sembler:

The Semblers have been waging a war on marijuana for decades.

Before they led Save Our Society from Drugs, and its sister nonprofit, the Drug Free America Foundation, the Semblers were at the helm of STRAIGHT, Inc., which operated drug abuse treatment centers, mostly for teenagers, from 1976 through 1993.

Former clients of the rehab center recount episodes of brutal beatings, rape and systematic psychological abuse.

At one facility in Yorba Linda, California, state investigators found that STRAIGHT Inc. subjected children to "unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse...and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting." Samantha Monroe, who was placed into a STRAIGHT Inc clinic in Tampa at age 13, says she was locked in a room, and forced to wear a clothes stained with urine, feces and menstrual blood -- a punishment her counselors called "humble pants."

Richard Bradbury, a former STRAIGHT patient and counselor-turned-whistleblower, told the St. Petersburg Times that Monroe's experiences weren't unique. "It was pure child abuse," Bradbury told reporters. "Torture."

For what it's worth, Mel Sembler is also a big financial supporter of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- so it's not as if his STRAIGHT past has turned him into a pariah.

Update, 11:53 a.m. September 25: We noted in our original post that we'd reached out to Smart Colorado for a reaction to The Nation article. However, campaign director Roger Sherman isn't interested in getting into what he calls "a tit for tat" discussion of the assertions made in it.

"It's pretty transparent their slant on the issue," he says, emphasizing that the author of the article didn't contact Smart Colorado for comment. As for the substance of the charges involving STRAIGHT, and the connection to Save Our Society From Drugs and Mel Sembler, he says he's seen no evidence to suggest the negative claims are true. Indeed, he believes them to be "baseless."

Sherman then shifts the focus to the spending comparisons documented in the post. "We're being outspent five to one," he allows. "But The Nation would never talk about the millions of dollars dropped into the proponents' campaign by the Marijuana Policy Project, and neither would the Huffington Post."

Nonetheless, he says, "we want to stay focused on the negative consequences of Amendment 64," as opposed to out-of-state-funding comparisons, which he considers to be "noise and a distraction."

Hasn't Smart Colorado raised this very issue by criticizing the Amendment 64 campaign for the amount of cash it's collecting from outside Colorado? Sherman acknowledges that it has -- and when asked if he'd turn down a million-dollar donation from out of state, he jokingly says he'd send the party in question a wire transfer. "It's the reality of campaigning," he points out. "They're very expensive."

As for Smart Colorado spokesperson Laura Chapin, she maintains that The Nation's portrayal of the No on 64 effort "is about as accurate as the replacement refs in the NFL game last night" -- a reference to a controversial call that cost the Green Bay Packers a victory. "The reporter didn't bother to call us, and if he had, he would have discovered that there are a lot of Democratic legislators and public officials opposed to 64. The CEA, the state's largest teachers union, is opposed to 64, too -- because it's bad policy."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Amendment 64's lead in poll won't lead to complacency, campaign says."

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