Drug Donors | Excellence in Philanthropy | The Philanthropy Roundtable

Like a dam giving way, public policy transformations often progress slowly-and then all at once. So it is with the movement to decriminalize marijuana. The fringe opinion of 20 years ago has gone mainstream: Public support for “medical marijuana” now regularly approaches 75 or 80 percent in opinion polling, and out-and-out legalization of the drug has begun to attract small majorities overall, and lopsided majorities among younger respondents.

The story starts with financier and philanthropist George Soros. Since 1994, Soros has poured nearly $80 million into research and advocacy in support of marijuana legalization and other rollbacks of drug law, including ending criminal sentences for non-violent drug crimes. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Soros lambasted the federal “war on drugs” as “a $1 trillion failure” that has created a massive black market and shifted the burden of enforcement onto fragile production and transit countries like Afghanistan and Mexico.

According to an in-depth report by Kelly Riddell of the Washington Times, Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society donates roughly $4 million every year to the Drug Policy Alliance and its electoral arm, Drug Policy Action, each of which supports decriminalization and legalization efforts, as well as fighting incarceration, and projects such as needle exchanges and distribution of overdose antidotes to reduce the harm done by drug use. These organizations led the Colorado and Washington legalization efforts, and laid much of the groundwork for medical marijuana. Soros also supports work by the American Civil Liberties Union in favor of marijuana legalization, and the Marijuana Policy Project, which organizes policy change and state ballot measures.

“There has been no real regulation of this new industry. It’s like the Wild West out here.”
Soros’s efforts were more or less matched by Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis, who first tried pot in his 30s and called it “better than scotch.” The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimates that Lewis spent $40-$60 million to support drug legalization from the 1980s until his death in 2013. Soros, Lewis, and various nonprofits associated with them provided 68 percent of the funding for the group that mobilized the legalization initiative in Washington state, and two thirds of the funding for the organization that pushed pot legalization in Colorado.

These formal funding relationships buttress a series of informal connections in the Soros drug-policy universe. For example, Drug Policy Alliance president Ira Glasser is a former executive director of the ACLU. And Marijuana Policy Project co-founders Rob Kampia, Chuck Thomas, and Mike Kirshner formerly did advocacy at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

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