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Meet the People Paying to Help Legalize Pot in Maine

Brett Levin
Flickr/Creative Commons

Meet three men: One man made his fortune selling auto insurance to high risk drivers. Another inherited his wealth from his father, who had cashed in on scented soap. And one launched a catalog that sells sex toys. What do these people have in common? They’re all funding the Maine campaign to legalize recreational marijuana.

You may know Progressive Insurance and their ads featuring “Flo.” You may not know that company’s longtime CEO, Ohio billionaire Peter Lewis, was an active supporter of the marijuana movement in the United States.

It started in 1998, after Lewis got an infection and suffered a partial leg amputation. He hated the effects of prescription painkillers. So he started smoking pot. A lot. For pain relief. Lewis’ marijuana use turned to advocacy after he got arrested in New Zealand for possession a few years later. He became a leading financier for pot legalization groups and causes. He spent millions attempting to end prohibition.

Graham Boyd is the head of New Approach, a Washington DC-based political action committee that joined forces with Lewis six years ago.

“I think that really enforced for him the idea that we needed to change these laws so that people would not be criminally punished for using marijuana, especially for medical purposes,” Boyd says.

New Approach has already made its mark in Maine. It stepped in this year when a citizens’ initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana ran into trouble. Maine’s Secretary of State had ruled that the measure didn’t qualify for the ballot. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol contested the ruling in court, but it needed money to pay legal costs. Boyd’s PAC provided $93,000 to Maine to pay for the lawyers.

“Peter believed strongly that the marijuana laws were terrible policy, that they were cruel, they were unjust and that they were ineffective,” says Boyd. “The word he often used is that they were stupid.”

The investment paid off. The PAC-funded attorneys convinced a Superior Court judge that the state erred when it disqualified the pot campaign from the ballot. The PAC has given close to $270,000 to the marijuana campaign, more than half of its donations so far. And it has a whole lot more to give – $7 million more, according to the latest IRS filings.

New Approach has had other victories as well: in Colorado, Washington and Oregon. In Oregon, the PAC spent nearly $2 million on the marijuana legalization effort. Its PAC raised an additional $5 million. And by the time other advocates kicked in donations, more than $9 million had been spent to convince Oregon voters to end prohibition – more than any other marijuana campaign in the country. Oregon opponents mustered just $180,000. They were swamped by pro-legalization campaigns, which ran many ads.

Peter Lewis didn’t live to see the Oregon victory, or the one in Alaska. He died of a heart attack late in 2013. But Lewis’ family members have since stepped in. So have a new crop of donors.

“They joined with members of Peter’s family to form a group that would fund and support the kinds of responsible marijuana reforms Peter had supported,” Boyd says.

It’s not easy to find out who is helping to bankroll the pro-legalization campaign in Maine. To find New Approach donors, you have to search the group’s IRS filings. Otherwise, you’d never know that Sean Parker, Henry van Ameringen, Cari Tuna, Phillip Harvey or family members of Peter Lewis are some of the biggest donors.

Boyd describes them as like-minded philanthropists. But they’re all from different backgrounds.

  • Sean Parker founded the music sharing service Napster and is the former president of Facebook. He has a reported net worth of over 2 billion dollars.
  • Tuna also has a Facebook connection. She’s married to Dustin Moskovitz, who served as the company’s first chief technology officer. He’s reportedly worth over $10 billion.
  • Henry Van Ameringen is the heir to a fortune amassed by his father, A.L., who many years ago convinced makers of bar soap and detergent to add scent to their products.
  • Philip Harvey is the founder of the Adam & Eve sex toy catalog.

Harvey is a libertarian with a particular disdain for outdated laws. His DKT Liberty Project has given $150,000 to New Approach so far this year and spent $15,000 on the Maine ballot campaign.
All of these well-heeled out-of-state donors could become a focal point for criticism as the Maine campaign rolls on. Additionally, the projected growth of the marijuana industry – and Silicon Valley’s new interest in it – is already starting to generate rhetoric about so-called “big marijuana.” Boyd dismisses it, saying the New Approach donors don’t have a financial motivation – they’re philanthropists, he says.

“I think that’s a red herring and one that needs to be called out,” says Boyd.

Still, a report by the Washington, DC-based group New Frontier published this spring projected legal marijuana markets to grow by $7 billion by the end of this year. Future growth is pegged at nearly $23 billion by 2020. It also predicted that this will mark a watershed year for the pot industry.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.