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Ohio billionaire bankrolling Mass. marijuana question

Money over common sense, the American way. -UA

BOSTON – A proposed ballot question that would legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in Massachusetts is being bankrolled almost entirely by an Ohio billionaire who has backed similar efforts in other states.

According to state campaign finance reports, Peter Lewis, chairman of the board of the auto insurer Progressive Corp. contributed $525,000 to the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, which is supporting the question.

That accounted for virtually all the $526,167 raised by the group in 2011.

Lewis has also backed pro-marijuana efforts in Ohio and Washington.

The Massachusetts ballot question would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis to get permission from their doctors to use marijuana.

The plan also calls for the state to register up to 35 nonprofit medical treatment centers around the state to distribute the marijuana.

A public relations firm representing the Committee for Compassionate Medicine said the goal of the question is “to ensure that Massachusetts patients have the same access to the necessary medical resources to fight debilitating diseases that are available in sixteen other states.”

“Peter Lewis and others have provided the initial funding to ensure the Committee for Compassionate Medicine qualified for the November 2012 ballot and to establish a grassroots political organization and fundraising infrastructure for that effort,” the statement said.

With that financial boost, the group is hoping to draw thousands of supporters to help convince voters to approve the measure if it reaches the November ballot.

Critics of medical marijuana initiatives say weakening the prohibition against the drug could send the message to young people that smoking pot is no big deal, ultimately encouraging more teens to experiment both with marijuana and harder drugs.

Under the ballot question, the new treatment centers would be authorized to acquire, cultivate, possess and process marijuana, including the development of related products such as food, tinctures, aerosols, oils, or ointments.

Those patients allowed to possess marijuana would be issued registration cards by the state Department of Public Health after a physician determines in writing that they have one of the qualifying medical conditions.

Nothing in the ballot question changes state laws against driving under the influence, forces health insurers to cover the expense of the marijuana, or requires employers to allow for on-site medical use of marijuana.

The bulk of the money contributed by Lewis – $350,000 – went to hire professional signature gatherers to collect the tens of thousands of signatures needed to guarantee the question a spot on the November ballot.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts also received $9,000 in consulting fees, according to the records with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

It’s not the first time Lewis has waded into the debate about expanding access to marijuana.

Lewis is helping fund a campaign in Washington state to legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use.

That question – which would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and impose a 25 percent excise tax on wholesale and retail sales of marijuana – appears headed for the November ballot in Washington.

And in his home state of Ohio, Lewis said last year that he was seeking proposals for a medical marijuana ballot issue for 2012.

Last month, backers of a ballot question to legalize medical marijuana were given the OK by the Ohio attorney general’s office to begin collecting signatures to put it on the November ballot.

The amendment to Ohio’s constitution would also allow those with a debilitating medical condition – including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and Crohn’s disease – to use, possess, produce and acquire marijuana and paraphernalia.

It would also authorize vendors to make and distribute the otherwise illegal drug and set up a state oversight commission.

If the Massachusetts question lands on the November ballot it won’t be the first time that voters here have been asked to change state law regarding the drug. Generally they have been receptive.

In 2008, Massachusetts voters overwhelming backed a 2008 initiative which decriminalized the possession of an ounce of less of marijuana. The law instituted a $100 civil fine instead.

Then in 2010, advocates placed 18 nonbinding advisory questions on local ballots in communities across the state to get a sense whether Massachusetts voters would support another overhaul of marijuana laws.

Nine of the questions supported the use of marijuana for medical reasons while another nine backed legalizing the drug outright, allowing the state to regulate and tax it.

Voters responded to the questions with a resounding “yes.” Support ranged from 54 percent in some districts to up to 70 percent in others.

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