In Memory of Peter Lewis

CoIn Memory of Peter Lewislumbus Free Press | December 5, 2013 | by Mary Jane Borden

The passing of a billionaire hardly goes unnoticed and Peter Lewis is no different. In drug policy circles, on either side of the fence, he needs no introduction. At age 80, Peter died in his Florida home on November 23, 2013. He will be remembered for far more than just his money.

I’d like to say that I knew Peter, but in truth, I never personally met him. Yet, in the six degrees of separation, we’re only one degree apart. He had probably seen my name many times, and I, his. He knew some of the same people well who I know well. However, the times that I could have met him, I made other choices.

The 2001 Drug Policy Foundation Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico serves as but one example. On the expansive hotel staircase leading to the ballroom in which Peter would be speaking, I encountered one of my new reform colleagues (now a long-standing and trusted friend). “Come upstairs with me and meet Peter Lewis,” he urged. Bedazzled by all of the famous faces I had met that weekend, I nodded, yes. But my heart lay elsewhere – the trip to Albuquerque served the dual purpose of being a celebration of my 25th wedding anniversary. I could meet Peter Lewis, or leave with my family. I chose the latter. That one degree of separation remained in place. Later, I incidentally learned that, instead of me, Peter met with Rob Kampia, the Executive Director of the newly formed Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), who presented him with a business plan that, over the course of coming decade, would spend millions of Peter’s money on marijuana reform.

Those funds were transformative. Peter headed a Fortune 500 company, and he brought his business-focused acumen to what had heretofore been a loosely knit, poorly organized, largely clandestine and consequently tainted “movement.” Through MPP, he established a competitive grants program driven by business principles like goals, objectives, milestones and budgets. The winners weren’t those with the loudest bullhorn, rather the best plans. 

How do I know this? For ten years, I was the grant writer for DrugSense/MAP, a perennial MPP grant recipient. Peter built better and more effective organizations by tying his funds to specific deliverables, much like any business would. DrugSense and many other marijuana reform-focused organizations benefited not only from an infusion of capital, but also from the structure and vision that Peter imposed. All told, 17 of my MPP grant applications were funded for a total of more than $700,000; I understood that Peter hand-picked every one of them.

Either by himself or through MPP, Peter also funded numerous ballot initiatives such as those in Washington State (2012 - $2 million), Massachusetts (2012 - $246,000), Arizona (2010 - $240,000), California (2010 - 218,000), Michigan (2008 - $1.8 million) and Montana (2004 - $555,000).

While these measures were largely successful, Peter wasn’t necessarily happy with their outcome. Some victories were bittersweet.

In Montana, an aggressive crackdown by U.S. Attorneys produced 33 convictions. It, combined with a hostile state legislature that would have overturned the initiative were it not for a gubernatorial veto, decimated the state’s fledgling medical marijuana program. Similarly, the implementation of Michigan’s measure was largely left to a hostile legislature, while the state’s Attorney General, who led the opposition during the election, has fought tooth and nail against it post passage. The strict restrictions in Arizona’s initiative – banning home grows, for one – winnowed the patient pool down from original estimates that exceeded 100,000 to around 40,000 presently.

Peter even put funds into Ohio reform, only to be disappointed by the failure of the “Treatment in Lieu of Incarceration” ballot initiative in 2002 and by five languishing legislative bills.

But he never completely forgot his home state. In 2011 as reported in the Columbus Dispatch, Peter issued an RFP “to include drafting ballot language, qualifying for the ballot, building an organization, communicating with voters, and raising money." Peter’s business principles were again self-evident – goals, objectives, milestones and budgets – with one exception: legacy. The RFP placed equal value on best practices and a sustainable model that could be used in other states. With one degree still separated from him, this grant writer sent a proposal, only to have it rejected like all of the other submissions. A wise man, Peter. It was not Ohio’s time.

Peter’s influence continues in the form of the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment. Unlike any other ballot initiative in the country or perhaps the world, the OCRA focuses on the right to make use of the Cannabis plant in its many forms and creates a commission to craft regulations and oversee the rollout of this burgeoning industry. The co-authors of the amendment, me among them, looked at the failures in Ohio and other states to craft a measure that could both serve as a model and lay the groundwork for smoother implementation, two key requirements of Peter’s RFP. The Ohio Rights Group is building the organization to pass this measure based items in the RFP such as best practices, grassroots mobilization and a strategic plan that defines goals, objectives, milestones and a budget.

They say, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation. When the OCRA passes in 2014 and the nation follows with the total repeal of cannabis prohibition in 2016, all of this and more will have been accomplished in memory of one man, Peter Lewis, separated from us now by another place and another time.

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