Peter LewisThe most generous supporter of marijuana reform in America has died, leaving advocates without a major ally and a key source of financial backing.

Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance and a Cleveland billionaire, died Nov. 30 at the age of 80. Over the last three decades he gave as much as $60 million to marijuana causes – everything from political campaigns to legal defense funds.

He wasn’t the only big spender to back legal pot in recent years, but he was the biggest, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML.

“For this epoch, from 1995 to 2013, there’s no peer on the Earth regarding who put money up for marijuana law reform,” he said.

St. Pierre said Lewis left a double-edged legacy: On the one hand, he left a trail of unparalleled political successes that continue to reform cannabis law, while on the other he created a financing structure that advocacy groups became dependent upon.

These groups, including NORML, have failed to reach out to the tens of millions of Americans who support legal weed, St. Pierre said. Instead, they’ve relied almost entirely on big-wallet donors like Lewis.

“Frustratingly, Peter Lewis really was the sole funder for so many entities,” St. Pierre said. “Now we’re going to find out whether, when the funder’s no longer there, is this really a movement?”

With the momentum generated by Lewis’ contributions, that may not be an issue. Since his early days in the political arena, 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, starting with the Compassionate Use Act in California in 1996. Two of those states, Colorado and Washington, legalized recreational pot in 2012. More are expected to follow suit over the next three years.

And there’s no shortage of libertarian-minded millionaires and billionaires ready to pick up the banner. George Zoros, George Zimmer and John Sperling have all given substantial amounts of money to cannabis causes and are likely to keep the money flowing.

One of Lewis’ biggest beneficiaries was the ACLU, especially its drug litigation task force. The civil liberties group has been pushing against pot prohibition on the grounds that racial minorities are arrested for marijuana offenses at disproportionate rates.

From the beginning, Peter Lewis presented a different approach to drug reform, said Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU’s Ohio office. He rejected the anti-establishment tack and tried professionalism and politics instead.

“In the old days, who’s out there arguing for marijuana are the people that wanted to light up a joint in church,” Link 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.”


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