When Massachusetts voters head to the polls this November, marijuana legalization will be high on the agenda. As long as advocates collect enough signatures by July — which looks likely — Bay Staters will be able to vote on whether pot can be used for medical purposes.
If the cannabis reform ballot succeeds, one man will be able to take much of the credit: Peter Lewis, the billionaire behind insurance giant Progressive, who’s put forward almost every penny being spent on pro-legalization lobbying.
In January the group behind the Mass. bill, the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, reported raising $526,000. Of that, $525,000 came from Peter Lewis.
This isn’t the first time Lewis has effectively bankrolled a state’s entire pot legalization movement, usually to the tune of at least six digits.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimates that Lewis has spent between $40 million and $60 million funding the cause since the 1980s.
When I interviewed Lewis for last fall’s Forbes 400, he said he’d fund research and lobbying in any state where pot legalization looked likely to get to the voting stage.
You might wonder why a super-rich insurance exec is concerning himself with the controversial politics of drug reform. Well, medical marijuana is personal, not just a pet cause: after chronic health problems, Lewis had part of his left leg amputated in 1998.
Lewis never hid his pro-pot stance, but it took anarrest for drug possession in New Zealand in 2000 for his efforts to gain widespread attention (even the newspaper at his alma mater, Princeton, reported the crime). The lawyer representing him during his New Zealand possession case told the court that he smoked marijuana for pain relief, following his doctor’s advice.
Since then, he’s put his money where his pipe is, taking an active role within the pro-marijuana lobby and planning to funnel his fortune into ensuring no-one else has to break the law to cure their pain.
Luckily, a younger generation of super-rich drug reformers is following Lewis’ lead: in 2010, Facebook billionaires Sean Parker and Dustin Moskovitz gave $100,000 and $70,000 respectively towards California’s Prop 19 legalization bill, which eventually failed. Not to be outdone, Lewis kicked in more than $200,000.