The political committee behind Question 3, called the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, is well funded—controversially so.
From August of 2011 to Sept. 20, 2012, the committee raised $1,071,502, according to records from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Of that, $1,022,000—95 percent—came from one donor, Peter Lewis of Mayfield Village, Ohio.
Lewis’ profession is listed on the reports as “retired.” But he’s best known as the longtime chair of the insurance company Progressive—and, more recently, as the funder behind drug reform campaigns here and in other states, as well as other political causes. Forbes magazine recently reported that Lewis has spent somewhere between $40 million and $60 million on marijuana reform efforts since the 1980s. Other high-profile donations to the Massachusetts campaign include $10,000 from Marcia Carsey, a Hollywood TV producer (The Cosby Show, Roseanne), and $25,000 from Henry van Ameringen, the heir to a fragrance company who also supports mental health and gay rights campaigns.
“Our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and stupid,” Lewis wrote in Forbes in 2011. “I’m not alone in thinking this: half of Americans believe we should stop punishing people for using marijuana. And not coincidentally, more than half of Americans have used marijuana themselves”—including Lewis, who wrote that he began as a recreational user but later came to rely on the drug for pain relief, after having his leg amputated due to an infection at the age of 64. In recent years, marijuana reform—both legalizing its medical use and regulating and taxing its recreational use— has “become sort of a central philanthropic interest of mine,” he wrote.
Lewis’ money has helped the Committee for Compassionate Medicine pay, among other bills, $28,000 in legal fees to the Boston firm Libby Hoopes; $177,000 to the Dewey Square Group, a national lobbying firm with an office in Boston; $131,000 to the Boston PR firm Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications; and $433,000 to SpoonWorks, a Brookline-based firm hired by the committee to collect petition signatures.
Lewis’ money has also left the committee vulnerable to criticisms. “Essentially, this ballot is being bought by an out-of-state deep pocket,” Heidi Heilman of the Mass. Prevention Alliance, a leader of the opposition to Question 3, told the Advocate. It’s a situation too common in American politics, she added: “The wealthy get to make the rules.”
Heilman’s sentiment was seconded by Mary Boyle, a spokesperson for Common Cause, who recently said in an article by Boston University’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting on ballot question funding: “You are not supposed to be able to buy a [ballot campaign]. Democracy should not be for sale to the highest bidder.”
The same article included an email comment from Jennifer Manley, a spokesperson for the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, about Lewis’ role in the Massachusetts campaign: “Mr. Lewis is extremely passionate about ensuring all patients who can benefit from the use of medical marijuana have safe access to it. … Massachusetts’s prohibition on medical marijuana means that patients and their physicians are unable to consider the full spectrum of medical treatments available. In providing compassionate care, it should be up to the doctor and his or her patient to decide the best course of treatment, as it is in 17 other states.”
Vote No on Question 3, the committee opposed to the measure, has run a shoestring campaign, collecting a total of $1,800 in donations, with no one donor giving more than $600. That highest donor was Kris Mineau, executive director of the Mass. Family Institute, a conservative Woburn-based nonprofit that also opposes gay marriage and abortion and supports prayer in public schools and other public venues. The committee also lists an in-kind contribution of $1,195 from the Mass. Medical Society, which hosted a campaign event for the group. As of its most recent finance report, filed last month, the Vote No on Question 3 committee had yet to report any campaign expenditures.
Heilman said the funding behind the Committee for Compassionate Medicine reveals the group’s bigger agenda: “This is one billionaire pushing his national agenda to legalize pot. He’s done it state by state, and Massachusetts is one of his targets.”
Heilman said her group will counter the large war chest of the opposing side “one vote at a time. … Every informed voter understands how devastating this will be for the state of Massachusetts.”
If the tables were turned—if a wealthy donor offered to fund the “No on 3” side—would Heilman accept the money? “If you are asking me how I feel about out-of-staters coming in and buying the ballot question, I feel that that is an obstruction of the democratic process,” she said.