Josh Richman , Oakland Tribune,
A Massachusetts-based nonprofit group is placing 150 billboards in Oakland and San Francisco to urge support for convicted marijuana grower and activist Ed Rosenthal. The billboards, of various sizes, have two slogans. One is "Free Ed. Free The Jury. Free America," and the other is "Vote Your Conscience. Free America." The signs are the work of Change the Climate Inc., a Greenfield, Mass., educational nonprofit group. "Change the Climate is a national organization primarily of parents and business people," said executive director Joseph H.
White Jr. "Our perspective is that existing marijuana laws for the most part are really counterproductive, they're a waste of tax dollars, ... and as a parent, they put my children at risk." The all-volunteer group has run ad campaigns in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere calling attention to the government's huge spending on prosecution and imprisonment of marijuana offenders. California law allows medical marijuana use, but federal law still bans all growing, possession and use. Rosenthal, 58, of Oakland, was arrested in 2002 by Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Jurors at his federal trial were not allowed to consider his status under California's medical marijuana law, and were not told of his protection by an Oakland ordinance. "When the stormtroopers of the federal government busted in while he was doing the city's good work, and the judge would not allow any consideration of a law now supported by over 80 percent of Americans, it cried out for justice, and that's why we chose the case," White said. White, 47, is a father of three and a co-founder of Share Group Inc., a telemarketing firm that does fund-raising, voter outreach, customer service and grass-roots organizing for progressive nonprofits and socially responsible companies. Among Change the Climate's directors is Mal Warwick, founder and chairman of a direct-mail fund-raising business in Berkeley. This is the largest billboard campaign Change the Climate has mounted so far, White said, estimating its cost "in the tens of thousands." White said the group's funding "comes from business executives like Peter Lewis -- chairman and CEO of insurance giant Progressive Corp. -- and others" as well as parents and others who see the ads. Lewis has helped bankroll drug reform efforts across the nation, including California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative. Financier George Soros and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, who often pool their money with Lewis' for drug reform efforts, are not donors to Change the Climate, White said. The group's 2001 tax return shows revenue of about$34,000, of which $31,000 came from just two donors whose names are blanked out; White said he doesn't recall who they were. "We don't have a lot of contributors -- we have a handful of well-off individuals who are often the kind of people who help fund new organizations, whether they be in marijuana reform or other social issues," he said, adding that more donors have given since 2001. "One of our larger contributors over the last two years is a well-known Bay Area high-tech entrepreneur." Contact Josh Richman at firstname.lastname@example.org