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Remembering Peter Lewis: Billionaire Marijuana Law Reformer
Peter Lewis passed away on Saturday just weeks after celebrating his 80th birthday. He was the chairman of Progressive Insurance and a philanthropist, most notably for marijuana policy reform, to which he has donated well over $40 million since the 1980s.
In 2011, Lewis wrote a Forbes piece explaining why he’ll keep battling drug laws. Here it is:
Billionaire Peter Lewis: My War on Drug Laws
Our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and stupid. I’m not alone in thinking this: Half of Americans believe we should stop punishing people for using marijuana. And not coincidentally, more than half of Americans have used marijuana themselves. I am one of those Americans, and I know firsthand that marijuana can be helpful and that it certainly isn’t cause for locking anyone up.
My story is fairly simple. I grew up after college in a world where social drinking was the norm but marijuana was hidden. When I was 39 I tried marijuana for the first time. I found it to be better than scotch. But it wasn’t until I had serious medical problems that I realized how important marijuana could be.
When I was 64 my left leg was amputated below the knee because there was an infection that couldn’t be cured. I spent a year after the amputation in excruciating pain and a year in a wheelchair. So during that period 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.
I am a progressive by birth, by nature, by philosophy—that’s the name of the insurance company I ran as well, which is coincidental—but I am a small ‘p’ progressive. I don’t believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense. Everything that has been done to enforce these laws has had a negative effect, with no results.
It’s become sort of a central philanthropic interest of mine—by no means my only interest. But I’m pretty clear. I’ve thought it through, and I’m trying to accomplish something. My mission is to reduce the penalties for growing, using and selling marijuana. It’s that simple.
I’ve been conducting a great deal of research on public opinion on marijuana. Change in this area is inevitable, much like the movement toward equal rights for gays and lesbians. An ever shrinking fraction of the country resists changing marijuana laws, largely for moral reasons. But change is coming. It’s just a question of when and how we get there.
When you think about all the people who have used marijuana—from political leaders to sports stars to corporate executives to people from every walk of life—one way to win this battle is for people to just be honest. If everyone who used marijuana stood up and said, “I use this; it’s pretty good,” the argument would be over.
I’m amazed that anyone could oppose marijuana for medical use. It’s compassionate. Doctors recommend it. But the federal government is so hung up on its war on drugs that it refuses to even allow medical research on marijuana. So I’ve supported changing the laws state by state, and I’ll continue to do so.
On legalization beyond medical use, we may be some years away, or we may find that we suddenly reach a tipping point, much like the end of alcohol prohibition in the last century. I’m supporting innovative ideas to move toward a system that would regulate, control and tax marijuana.
I’m retired; I have time to work on this, to treat it with the same seriousness that I treated my former work running a large corporation. I care deeply about it. I deeply believe that we’ll have a better country and a better world if marijuana is treated more or less like alcohol.
Thanks to Forbes