Los Angeles – There’s something on the wind from out West, but you may not want to inhale too deeply.
The billionaires who in 1996 helped California's Proposition 215 become the nation’s first medical-marijuana law are fanning the smoke to the rest of the country.
The man holding the lighter is John Sperling, the founder of a Phoenix University and billionaire businessman, who wants to use his millions to get America to look at the drug problem in a different way.
"None of the drug problems can be solved," he said. "They all have to be managed, and they should be managed in a way that causes the least social pathology."
Proposition 215 was passed overwhelmingly in California, with monetary help from Sperling and his friends. Now Sperling, capitalist George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis are out to do it again nearly tenfold, having spent more than $20 million to get medical-marijuana statutes passed in nine other states.
Their critics say that while Sperling and his associates claim to be trying to use marijuana to help glaucoma sufferers and ease the pain of cancer patients, the truth is the so-called grassroots movement is just the first step in a scheme to legalize all drugs.
"When you try to disguise it, put a wonderful P.R. spin on it as they're doing with these ballots, make it more compassionate by not putting out the real information, they're confusing Americans," said Arthur Dean, of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America.
Sperling says the war on drugs isn’t working, so it may be time to look at it from a different perspective. And he’s prepared to put his money where his mouth is with his support for laws changing the punishment for drug users.
"We're talking about a very small percentage of the population and they're the ones that need help," he said. "It should be a medical problem, not a criminal-justice problem."
And to that end, Sperling, Soros and Lewis spent more than $1 million each last November to help pass a California law that sends first- and second-time drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. They’ve got similar ideas for Florida, Ohio and Michigan.
But Dean just sees a trio of big spenders who are using their financial clout to force their views on the country.
"Without that vast amount of wealth, clearly they would not be having the impact that they're having today," he said.