COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the death of Cleveland billionaire and philanthropist Peter B. Lewis, the push for relaxed U.S. marijuana laws lost its most generous supporter. That's left supporters wondering what comes next.
Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, died Saturday at age 80. Since the 1980s, he had donated an estimated $40 million to $60 million to marijuana law reform — including underwriting ballot campaigns, research, political polling and legal defense efforts.
Largely through Lewis' efforts, and those of several other billionaires, 20 states since 1996 have passed medical marijuana laws, 17 have decriminalized the drug and two have passed legalization language.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said organizations that relied on Lewis' largesse will almost certainly need to build new fundraising structures if they want to carry on. Those include some 25 nonprofit groups that have grown up around the medical marijuana and marijuana legalization questions.
"For this epoch, from 1995 to 2013, there's no peer on the Earth regarding who put money up for marijuana law reform," St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre calls that a bittersweet state of affairs for the cause he shared with Lewis — the sweet being because Lewis was so reliably generous and bitter because he believes Lewis' deep pockets made others complacent.
He said polling has identified 40 million U.S. marijuana consumers among 300 million Americans, yet only perhaps 30,000 people over a decade have donated to groups like his.
"Frustratingly, Peter Lewis really was the sole funder for so many entities," he said. "Now we're going to find out whether, when the funder's no longer there, is this really a movement?"
Carla Lowe, founder of the California-based political action committee Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said she has no doubt that proponents of relaxed drug laws will find the resources to promote their agenda.
"There's plenty of money out there. The drug money is beyond what I can begin to comprehend," she said. "I've been fighting this for 37 years and I've seen nothing but more money, not less."
She named billionaires George Soros, George Zimmer of Men's Warehouse and Phoenix University CEO John Sperling among those who will carry on.
"On our side, we need a George Soros but we don't have one," she said. "It's moms, dads and grandparents just pounding away and never giving up."
A key element of Lewis' reform efforts was the funding of $7 million provided for the American Civil Liberties Union's drug litigation task force, St. Pierre said. That was on top of tens of millions of dollars given to the ACLU in general support.
Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU-Ohio, said Lewis was a risk-taker who was full of ideas for meeting his goals, and he left a mark on every organization he served, whether it was his alma mater Princeton University, the Guggenheim Museum, Case Western Reserve or his insurance company.
"In the old days, who's out there arguing for marijuana are the people that wanted to light up a joint in church," she said. "Peter believed that's just not the way to lead on a controversial social issue. So he figured out you had to be smart about it, and present an appearance with confidence and integrity."
She said Lewis' efforts may very well carry on through his family.
"The good thing to know is that his family — his wife, former wife Toby, all the children — all extremely charitable and all have exhibited degrees of interest in his issues," she said.
State Medical Marijuana Laws: http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-medical-marijuana-laws.aspx
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