Medical Marijuana's Most Unlikely Supporter is a 78-Year-Old Billionaire
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Last week, Massachusetts unveiled the questions that will be asked on the ballot this November. While these proposals no doubt faced stiff competition against 2008’s queries in the excitement category — remember dog racing and the misguided attempt to ditch the income tax? — the decision on whether to legalize medical marijuana will likely stir up debate and discussion. And it already has. A few left-wing organizations and hippie activists have stepped up to support the cause (shocker, right?), but so far it’s Peter Lewis, a nearly octogenarian billionaire and former chairman of Progressive Insurance, who has been the main financial backer.
In the initial campaign to reach the ballot, Lewis donated $525,000 to the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, the organization supporting the proposed bill. Their complete fundraising haul from that January report? $526,000, or about 99.8 percent of their total budget. So why has Lewis been bankrolling this campaign? Lewis admits in an interview with Forbes’ Clare O’Connor to smoking pot recreationally earlier in his life, but after an infection took his lower left leg, Lewis realized firsthand the value of marijuana as a pain killer. On his experience in the hospital dealing with that pain, Lewis writes, “I was very glad I had marijuana. It didn’t exactly eliminate the pain, but it made the pain tolerable — and it let me avoid those heavy-duty narcotic pain relievers that leave you incapacitated.”
Lewis believes that the federal War on Drugs is partly to blame for “outdated, ineffective, and stupid” marijuana laws, and has tried to bring reform on a state by state level. It’s been estimated that Lewis has donated at least $40 million to all types of marijuana reform in different states. This election year alone Lewis has donated to reform efforts in Washington, Colorado, and his home state of Ohio.
But do Lewis’ past attempts to legalize weed bode well for the Commonwealth? Currently 17 states and the District of Colombia allow medical marijuana, and 10 of those laws were prompted by successful ballot initiatives. So Lewis has had success in the past, and getting the question on the ballot should be considered a good sign for proponents of reform. Recent polls show that between 57 percent and 64 percent of Massachusetts voters would favor such a law.
Though it’s a ways to go until November, the early indicators look good for those of us who favor allowing medical marijuana. Not to jinx anything, but thank you, Peter Lewis.
Update, 08/14/2012 6:05 p.m.: Edited to include reference to Clare O’Connor’s work on Peter Lewis for Forbes. We regret the previous omission.