Paying for Change: For Marijuana Policy to Change, It Needs Another Sugar Daddy

The drug legalization movement is in mourning. If the elected leaders of the free world listen only to the billionaires, marijuana reform lost its loudest voice when Peter Lewis, chairman and retired CEO of Progressive Auto Insurance, died Nov. 23 at the age of 80.

Lewis was a latecomer to the wonders of the magic plant — turning to it for pain half a lifetime ago at 39, decades before “medical marijuana” entered the lexicon — but became a total convert. He declared cannabis “better than scotch,” and over the last 20 years, he did more than any other one person to reverse the country's drug policies.

He wrote checks. Lots and lots of them.

When medical marijuana's birthing in California in 1996 seemed in doubt, he wrote checks. When Washington had the shot to join Colorado last year to legalize the drug, he ponied up, contributing $1.5 million out of the total $6.1 million spent on campaigning. In all, Lewis gave the drug reform movement $60 million since the 1980s, according to his Associated Press obituary.

Lewis had rarified company — fellow billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who still lives, gave $1 million to California's failed legalization effort in 2010. But more than anyone else, Lewis kept the money required to enact change flowing. He had “no peer on Earth,” National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Executive Director Allen St. Pierre told reporters.

Now he's gone. And that's a problem.

The conventional wisdom, breathlessly repeated in national media, is that more than a dozen states are ready to legalize marijuana. Until another Peter Lewis can be found, California will not be among them.

Last week, a legalization effort with ties to Lewis filed paperwork, though it's unclear if they'll circulate petitions. If they do, they'll be leading the charge.

It looks all but certain that California will have to wait until at least 2016 for another opportunity to end drug prohibition. Two legalization efforts will try to get on next year's ballot; the problem is, they have no money. They're using mostly volunteers. And volunteers is not the way more than a million signatures are collected in a few months — and it's no way to scrape together the $10 million or more needed to run and win a statewide campaign in California.

To date, no interested billionaire willing to put his or her name on the end of failed policy has stepped forward. This is strange. These days, there is no shortage of activist billionaires on Market Street. Looking further afield, one can find big ideas to send humans to the moon or at least catapult them to Los Angeles in a series of tubes. These things may or may not be possible. Legalization, though, is a near-certainty with money, yet the idea people are toying instead with fantasies.

It takes money to foment revolution in America today. Silicon Valley is the most logical place for drug reformers to find the necessary start-up capital to fund change. But if Silicon Valley's elites are ready to disrupt drug prohibition, they aren't saying. Nobody, from Bill Gates on down to Mark Zuckerberg or Marc Benioff, has mentioned drug reform as an issue worthy of bankrolling. There are many worthy causes, of course, and perhaps many that are worthier. But for now, the Hyperloop is a bigger deal than legal drugs.

Tech has dabbled in drug reform. The innovator here is none other than Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder, early Facebook investor, and recent “ravager of the Redwoods,” pilloried in the press for his summertime wedding in Big Sur. Parker gave $100,000 to Prop. 19 in 2010, as did Gmail inventor (and coiner of “Don't be evil”) Paul Buccheit, who isn't even a billionaire.

Facebooker Dustin Moskowicz, who at 29 has $3.8 billion, or almost twice as much money as Parker, chipped in $70,000. These are all large sums of money very few of us will ever see at one time, but chump change when it comes to funding change.

Marijuana could have been legal in California yesterday, if someone rich enough wanted it badly enough. All that's missing in this movement is money, and for now, the money has passed on.

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