Marijuana Mogul's Death Leaves Potential Funding Up in the Air

Marijuana legalization philanthropist Peter Lewis: "Our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and stupid."

Peter Lewis, the Ohio-born chairman of Progressive Insurance and a major financial supporter of marijuana legalization and other social-justice reforms, passed away on Nov. 23, apparently of natural causes. He was 80.

“Our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and stupid,” he said in 2011.

"When I was 39 I tried marijuana for the first time," Lewis added. "I found it to be better than scotch." When he had his left leg amputated below the knee in 1997, Lewis used medical marijuana.

Another reason for Lewis' support can be traced back to his marijuana arrest in New Zealand in 2000.

It would be difficult to overstate Lewis' influence on drug policy reform over the past two decades. Now that he's gone the question many are asking is what impact will this have on marijuana legalization. It's an unseemly question, yet it's one that needs to be addressed. The reform movement has lost funders before, though not one with this sort of net worth ($1.25 billion, according to Forbes).

How big an impact did Lewis have on drug policy reform? In 2004, Lewis began funding the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) to the tune of $340,000. By 2007, he reportedly upped that figure to $3 million. In 2008, Lewis gave the MPP a total of $3.5 million, according to MPP's annual report for that year.

In 2010, Lewis significantly reduced his commitment to the MPP (just  $900,000) before leaving the organization. In October of that year, he donated $159,000 directly to the Prop 19 legalization campaign in California, which lost.

In 2012, Lewis put more than $2 million into the I-502 legalization campaign in Washington. He also backed Amendment 64 in Colorado, though to a lesser extent ($33,000) and spent an additional $525,000 on medicalizing marijuana in Massachusetts. All three initiatives won.

While NORML estimates that Lewis, in total, contributed between $40 and $60 million to the marijuana cause in the last 20 years, that figure is most likely closer to between $20 and $30 million.

Details of Lewis' will have yet to be released to the public. Many organizations work with high-dollar donors on estate planning to make sure that their generosity can continue. That's part of long-term planning for nonprofits. Distasteful as it may seem to some, it's quite common and how they survive. In all likelihood, Lewis left significant sums to various groups.

Lewis' instincts and judgment will be sorely missed. It's not only that he poured millions into legalization efforts, usually when he gave money the efforts were by and large successful. His death is a huge loss for the drug policy reform movement, and for marijuana legalization in particular. Let's hope that the organizations Lewis left behind will continue to benefit from his largesse for years to come.

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of