One thing about George Soros everyone can agree on: He isn’t worried what people think of him. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad blamed the American billionaire for nearly ruining Malaysia’s economy with massive currency speculation. Hard-core Russian nationalists decried as “meddling” his funding of progressive newspapers and institutions in post-Soviet Russia. Now, it’s a prickly domestic cause–drug policy–that has folks taking aim at this hard-nosed financier and controversial philanthropist.
Soros is the “Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization,” says Joseph Califano Jr. of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Clinton Administration drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey won’t speak directly about Soros, but McCaffrey’s spokesman, Bob Weiner, was typically biting in his assessment of the Lindesmith Center, a Soros-backed institution that serves as a leading voice for Americans who want to decriminalize drug use: “I’m sure Lindesmith’s desire to take us into nihilism and chaos and to jam our hospital emergency rooms with more users has some valid purpose.” Out on the lunatic fringe, anti-Semitic cult leader Lyndon LaRouche has labeled Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, the mastermind behind a global drug cartel.
As a creative philanthropist, Soros is perhaps best known for his largesse to causes in Central and Eastern Europe (last year alone he gave away half a billion in places like Bosnia and Kazakhstan). When in 1994 he chose, as one of his first domestic programs, to fund efforts to challenge the efficacy of America’s $37-billion-a-year war on drugs, he seemed intent on proving that he was either a fool or a visionary. It’s still too early for a final judgment. But one thing is clear: He’s touched a lot of raw nerves in challenging a long-entrenched view that the best way to fight drug abuse is through the criminal justice system.
That tendency was vividly apparent when in June 1998, at the United Nations’ second conference on drugs, General McCaffrey was handed a perfectly timed two-page advertisement that had just run in the New York Times. The banner headline read: the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. Eyewitnesses recall the general fuming. And no wonder: The ad, brainchild of Lindesmith’s director, Ethan Nadelmann, was an open letter signed by a spectacular array of opinion-makers, including numerous Nobel Prize laureates, former presidents, prime ministers and former UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.
Soros’s efforts to change the terms of the drug dialogue in America–from exhortation and punishment to treatment and rehabilitation–have ranged from such grand PR gestures as the Times open letter to the less glamorous tasks of research and grassroots advocacy. He has funded methadone-treatment and needle-exchange programs, supported a spate of successful medical-marijuana ballot initiatives and provided an institutional home in Lindesmith for Nadelmann, a man whom opponents tag as America’s most unabashed proselytizer for legalization of drugs. Over the past six years Soros has given some $30 million to drug reform–just 7 percent of his overall domestic giving, but nonetheless a significant sum in the circumscribed world of drug policy advocacy.
In an interview with The Nation, Soros argued that his interest in shaking up the conventional wisdom about the war on drugs–and challenging political leaders to look beyond the zero-tolerance military model–is entirely consistent with his vision of an “open society.” The parent organization of his worldwide philanthropic operation, the Open Society Institute (OSI), is founded upon the philosophical premise that nobody has a monopoly on the truth and that originally well-intentioned government efforts often turn repressive. “When I started looking to do something in the United States, [I saw that] one of the areas where policy has unintended adverse consequences is drug policy,” Soros says. “That was the insight that got me involved.” It’s hard to argue with the facts he cites: Back in 1980 the federal government spent $1 billion on drug control and approximately 50,000 Americans were incarcerated for drug-law violations. Today Washington spends $18 billion annually, 400,000 people are in jail for nonviolent drug-related offenses and drugs are still widely available to anyone who wants them.