December 10, 2014 / 11:47 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. marijuana foes discuss launching tax-exempt funding body

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Marijuana legalization opponents could launch a tax-exempt fundraising body as early as next year that would let them shield donors, part of a broader 2016 election strategy aimed at raising more cash and merging political factions, activists said on Wednesday.

The idea was discussed in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday at a private meeting and conference call involving some 30 civic, health, law enforcement and business leaders, including former United Parcel Service Inc Chief Executive Oz Nelson and retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey.

If the group proceeds in 2015 with the 501(c)(4), possibly to be called the Campaign to Stop Big Marijuana, it would let funds be raised without disclosing donor names, as is done by pro-cannabis groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project.

“There was a recognition by somebody on the phone that we have no money and that has been a huge problem in this struggle for ideas,” said McCaffrey, a U.S. drug czar under former President Bill Clinton, who confirmed talk of the 501(c)(4).

The meeting, held after a seminar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, follows defeats for marijuana opponents at the polls in November when Oregon and Alaska voters passed measures to legalize recreational pot use and usher in retail shops like those in Washington state and Colorado. A District of Columbia vote to allow possession faces congressional opposition.

More states, including California and Nevada, are likely to vote on similar initiatives in 2016.

“[Marijuana advocates] have a popular argument that’s an easy sell to the general public,” said Vanderbilt University drug law professor Robert Mikos. “Opponents haven’t found a new argument to use.”

Opponents face an uphill climb. Legalization advocates backed by national organizations have had more cash to spend on advertisements, vote drives and campaigning.

“It was getting key people together at the table to think out how best to inform policy,” said Kevin M. Gray, a South Carolina doctor who attended.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana President Kevin Sabet, who said he pushed for the tax-exempt group, said there was a moment of relief over a U.S. spending bill that bars the nation’s capital from using funds to implement legal pot.

Sabet said the group also discussed lobbying 2016 presidential candidates and appealing to wealthy donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who spent some $4 million campaigning against Florida’s medical pot initiative, as well as corporations concerned about stoned workers and liability. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Tom Ramstack in Washington, D.C.)

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