LOS ANGELES – When the nation's first medical marijuana statute emerged in 1996, it was seen as just another quirky, California ballot initiative.
But when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 215, energized ballot backers decided to take their show on the road.
The cause attracted millions of dollars in donations — money that was eventually funneled into similar, successful campaigns in nine other states.
"If the money had not come in, I am not sure the thing would have gotten enough signatures," said Alan Block, author of Waiting to Inhale.
Some of that money came from businessman and Phoenix University founder John Sperling, one of three billionaires crusading to decriminalize drugs in America.
"None of the drug problems can be solved," Sperling said. "They all have to be managed, and they should be managed in a way that causes the least social pathology."
Sperling and like-minded capitalist George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis have spent more than $20 million to advance their cause since 1996.
"[Drug abuse] should be a medical problem, not a criminal justice problem," Sperling said.
Critics complain that what appears to be a grassroots movement for medical marijuana is actually a well-funded and highly sophisticated campaign to legalize all drugs.
"When you try to disguise it, put a wonderful PR 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.
Dean also fears that the wealthy trio is willing to spend whatever it takes to be heard.
"Without that vast amount of wealth, clearly they would not be having the impact that they're having today," he said.
Sperling, Soros and Lewis donated more than $1 million each last November to pass California's new law which sends first and second time drug offenders to treatment, not prison.
With similar campaigns getting off the ground in Florida, Ohio and Michigan, the billionaires say they're prepared to spend at least that much more.