By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - They are three very different men who have two things in common: incredible wealth and an unshakable belief that the nation's war on drugs is a lost cause.
With more than $9 billion among them, George Soros, Peter Lewis and John Sperling do far more than express their opinions. They've spent millions on campaigns targeting get-tough drug laws in one state after another.
These distant tycoons have marched into Ohio with a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot. Their plan would spend $247 million over the next seven years to send thousands of nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs instead of state prisons or county jails.
Supporters of Issue 1 call their billionaire backers crusading philanthropists willing to tackle a social issue that's paralyzed policymakers.
"The war on drugs is a disaster, and politicians are unable, really, to move forward with effective reforms," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a spokesman for the three men. "We think the public is significantly ahead of the politicians."
Opponents call their plan too costly and dangerous for Ohioans and describe them as rich conspirators secretly plotting to legalize drugs.
"I think their amendment will destroy what's working in Ohio," said Sharon Keys, director of outpatient treatment for the Hamilton County Drug Court. "I don't think they're na‘ve. I think they just don't care."
Where Issue 1 is concerned, the three say little, relying on a team of campaign consultants and spokesmen to do their talking for them.
Even the nation's drug czar, John Walters, can't get his foot in their door.
"We've made requests, especially with Mr. Soros, to meet with them privately," said Mr. Walters, officially the director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. "I'd like to persuade them that what they're doing is not in the public's best interest."
Mr. Walters' comments show just how fundamentally Mr. Soros, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Sperling have altered the national debate on drugs.
The drug czar, as a matter of policy, ignored groups trying either to legalize drugs or water down sanctions. To do so, Mr. Walters said, would simply make such groups appear more credible.
All that changed in 1996 when the three men backed a successful California ballot initiative allowing marijuana use for medical reasons.
Since then, the wealthy trio have underwritten 16 other winning drug policy campaigns. Voters have passed medical marijuana laws in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state and the District of Columbia.
Two separate issues rewrote drug forfeiture laws in Utah and Oregon. Drug treatment initiatives similar to Ohio's Issue 1 were approved by Arizona voters in 1998 and in California in 2000.
Most of the $4.2 million spent help pass California's drug treatment campaign came from these three men. In Ohio, they provided most of the $1 million spent to get more than 700,000 petition signatures to put Issue 1 on the ballot.
The California and Ohio efforts also drew the support of another wealthy individual, Richard Wolfe.
Director of a California-based high-tech consulting firm, Mr. Wolfe is an Ohio native and relative of the Wolfe publishing family that owns the Columbus Dispatch newspaper.
Mr. Wolfe has spent $200,000 to support the California initiative and donated another $200,000 for the Issue 1 petition drive in Ohio.
"No state legislature can realistically push for drug liberalization in any way," he said. "Any legislator who proposes anything like this gets targeted in the next election as soft on crime."
He also believes Ohio's drug laws aren't fairly enforced.
"There are drug courts in Ohio, but for the most part if you are black or Hispanic or poor, too bad, you're in prison," Mr. Wolfe said.
While he insists that the mission of Issue 1 is not to legalize drugs, he said that's an idea he supports.
Although he has donated a substantial amount of money, Mr. Wolfe does not consider himself one of Issue 1's leaders. He said Mr. Soros, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Sperling are the ultimate decision-makers.
"They don't call me and ask, `should we do this?' " he said.
So who are these people?
Born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1930, George Soros survived the 1944 Nazi occupation with his own street smarts and the help of false papers his father created for his and other Jewish families.
Coming to America in 1956 with about $4,000 in his pocket, he built a $7 billion personal fortune by betting on the value of money in currency markets. In 1992 he made more than $1 billion when he gambled the British government couldn't protect the value of its pound sterling.
In a 2001 interview for National Public Radio he said his aching back helped guide his investment decisions. If something was wrong with his portfolio, "my back seemed to know it before my brain did," he said.
Retired now, Mr. Soros runs a network of private foundations that have given more than $2 billion to help support open societies and capitalist governments in eastern European countries.
"He's probably been the single greatest supporter of human rights positions in the world," Mr. Nadelmann said. "Drug policy reform is about 2 percent of his charitable giving.
"When communism fell he began looking at his own country and asked the question is the U.S. truly an open society," he added. "Basically the view is the war on drugs is doing more harm than good, and dealing with drug abuse mostly through the criminal justice system is a mistake."
Cleveland native Peter Lewis turned the insurance company his father co-founded into Progressive Inc. the nation's fourth largest auto insurer.
Most Ohioans know his company by its television commercials, in which Progressive promises to share competitors' rates with customers.
Worth an estimated $1.3 billion today, Mr. Lewis has given $50 million to New York's Guggenheim museum and another $55 million to Princeton University, his alma mater.
He's no stranger to strong opinions. After he gave $36.9 million to Case Western Reserve University to build a business school in his name, he announced the project was being mismanaged and promised to boycott all Cleveland charities until the university board was restructured.
He also was arrested two years ago in a New Zealand airport when drug-sniffing dogs alerted customs agents to the marijuana in his briefcase. Mr. Lewis pleaded guilty and was released after giving an undisclosed amount of money to a drug treatment center.
In a story about his life published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mr. Lewis said drug laws are racist because blacks get harsher penalties than whites. He also said he wants drugs legalized and regulated like alcohol.
John Sperling made his fortune by creating the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school catering to adult professionals who want career-enhancing degrees.
With evening classroom programs in 22 states and on the Internet, Mr. Sperling made most of his $1.1 billion when he took his company public in 1994. He has said he started taking on other issues to fight "boredom."
Besides his drug reform efforts, Mr. Sperling is also known for spending millions on a company called Genetic Savings and Clone that he hopes will someday clone family pets for profit. The idea was born out of his personal desire to re-create his 15-year-old pet dog, Missy, after she dies.
"The war on drugs is a war against the minority poor," he told Fortune magazine in April. "And it's a welfare program for cops."
While Mr. Walters says issues of fairness toward the poor and minorities need to be addressed, he disagrees with their other claims.
"Basically they suggest our prison system is locking up low-level offenders, and that's ludicrous," he said. Mr. Walters said less than 2 percent of drug offenders in prisons nationwide are jailed for simple possession. Of that 2 percent, he said, most were charged as traffickers but pleaded to lesser offenses.
Mr. Walters and other Issue 1 opponents point to Mr. Lewis' and Mr. Wolfe's comments to underline their accusations that Issue 1 is more of a first step to decriminalize drugs than a true effort to expand treatment.
"Their goal here, I think, is that they want to legalize drugs in the United States," Mr. Walters added.
Issue 1 supporters say the legalization claims are simply not true.
"We're not a legalization organization," Mr. Nadelmann said. "Our mission is to reduce the dual harm of drugs and drug policies."
"Although some of our members may favor legalization, that is not what this is trying to do," said Dave Fratello, the campaign's legal director. "We don't think the support exists for legalizing drugs, but there is a majority in favor of some middle ground proposals."
Though they've had numerous successes in other states, opinion polls show Ohio voters may hand the drug policy alliance its first big defeat. The ballot summary voters will read Nov. 5 prominently mentions the $247 million cost for expanded drug treatment over the next seven years.
While Issue 1 supporters argue millions more would be saved in reduced prison, jail, court, police and health and welfare costs, those savings are not mentioned in the ballot language.
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