Meet the Marijuana Moneymen

These eccentric billionaires have the cash that could legalize pot in Oregon.

What do a hedge-fund billionaire, an online sex-toy mogul and the nation's most beloved expert on backpacking in Europe know about Oregon that voters here do not? That it should be legal for the state's adults to smoke marijuana, and that they are willing to spend their personal millions to make it happen.

In November, Oregonians will have the chance to vote on an initiative to treat pot virtually like alcohol. If it passes, anyone 21 and over could buy marijuana, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission would tax and regulate it.

So far the campaign, called New Approach Oregon, has raised $2.4 million—nearly $1.5 million of which has come from wealthy out-of-state players. These rich eccentrics have paved the way for Oregon's campaign by bankrolling similar efforts in other states where measures have passed (Colorado and Washington) and failed (California).

"Each cared about it for a somewhat different reason, but very much for the right reasons," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They felt the war on drugs was basically doing much more harm than good."

Not all of these deep pockets have contributed here yet. But all have the checkbooks—and the drive—to make a serious change in what they consider an outdated drug policy.

Phil Harvey

For nearly a half-century, Phil Harvey—a multimillion-dollar mogul of dildos and porno mags—has been using the sex industry to fund international philanthropy. He's strategized ways to make condoms more appealing with prostitutes in Vietnam, traversed treacherous roads to remote pharmacies in India, and advocated contraception and greater STD awareness in Brazil.

Harvey has also focused his checkbook domestically, spending thousands of dollars to legalize pot over the past 30 years.

"The war on marijuana—by far the most widely used of the illicit, illegal drugs—is just a horrible travesty," Harvey, 76, tells WW. "Damage has been done in terms of civil liberties and incarcerating good people as well as corruption and violence in the U.S. and over the border, and on and on and on—the war on drugs has just been terribly destructive to our culture."

A 1964 post-college trip to India convinced Harvey he should work on population control. He was doing graduate studies in family planning administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he started selling mail-order condoms.

The business, illegal under federal obscenity laws when it started in 1970, became Adam and Eve, a sex-toy company that sells $100 million worth of products on the Internet every year, including vibrators (the "3-Way Fluttering Butterfly" enhancer is one model), bondage kits, and vanilla-, caramel- and organic wild strawberry-flavored lubes.

Adam and Eve has also bridged the gap between book club and bedroom with sales-oriented “Temptations Parties”—think Tupperware nights with a twist. 

Harvey has since bankrolled DKT International, a low-cost birth-control foundation operating in 21 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

He also has a penchant for fighting the status quo. Harvey sued the U.S. government after federal agents raided his company's warehouses in Hillsborough, N.C., in 1986 as part of an obscenity investigation. (The two sides settled seven years later.) 

In 2010, Harvey, who lives outside Washington, D.C., gave $105,000 to the failed Proposition 19 campaign to legalize marijuana in California. He has so far donated $150,000 to the New Approach Oregon campaign.  

"I'm happy to support anything that will assist in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana," Harvey says. "The climate is right in Oregon, from what I've seen."

Rick Steves

The host of public broadcasting's Rick Steves' Europe and author of countless travel guides used by tourists worldwide is also a longtime, vocal advocate of legal pot. 

He was co-sponsor of the 2012 marijuana legalization measure passed by Washington voters. "I'm not really a proponent of pot," Rick Steves told High Times in May 2013. "I just believe that if somebody wants to smoke it, that's their right."

Steves, 59, could not be reached for this story, but he has spoken openly elsewhere of his interest in reforming marijuana laws in the U.S.

He grew up in Edmonds, Wash., and first started touring Europe with his father, Dick, a traveling piano salesman, at age 14. He says his beliefs about marijuana took shape after his first encounters with weed as an 18-year-old backpacker funding hops through Europe by giving piano lessons.

"I'd get high and eat apple pie hot out of a medieval oven while listening to the Stones or something like that, surrounded by travelers from all over the world," Steves told High Times. "And I'd just think, 'Life is good.'"

In 1980, Steves started a one-man tour-guide service that operated out of minivans, and he self-published his first travel guide in 1980. Today, Steves hosts the most popular travel show on public television, publishes more than 50 guidebooks, and oversees a thriving European tour service that brings in around $30 million a year.

Steves started advocating marijuana reform under an assumed name on a local radio show during the just-say-no Reagan era. In 2003, he joined the national board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, the D.C.-based lobbying group seeking public support for legalization. 

Steves sees marijuana laws in the United States as an equity issue. "I'm just tired of rich white people smoking pot with impunity and poor kids and black kids getting locked up because of it," he told the Cannabist, The Denver Post website devoted to cannabis culture, in February. "It's racism. You can't take their vote away, but you can disenfranchise them by taking their lives away."

In addition to co-sponsoring the measure to legalize marijuana in Washington two years ago, Steves shelled out $350,000 for the campaign to pass it. He continues to work with NORML and in September 2013 launched a campaign offering to match up to $100,000 in donations to that group's efforts to reform marijuana policy in other states. He has not yet given to the Oregon campaign. 

"Really, I want to make marijuana less scary for the people who wish it would just go away," Steves told High Times, "because marijuana is never going to go away."

Henry van Ameringen

The 83-year-old philanthropist and gay activist has given at least $150 million of his family's money to support everything from HIV/AIDS clinics to pot reform campaigns. 

Henry van Ameringen is also reportedly part of a billionaire group of liberal contributors to the Democracy Alliance, which a June story in Politico highlighted as the left's answer to the Koch brothers. He also backs political campaigns pushing for gay rights. In 2008, Time magazine said he was part of a "homosexual justice league that can quietly swoop in wherever anti-gay candidates are threatening and finance victories for the good guys."

"I've never been very political," van Ameringen wrote in the Huffington Post in 2012. "But in the 1980s the AIDS epidemic began, and staying on the sidelines was simply not an option.… I began funding LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations, with the goal of combating the stigma that had cost the lives of many people I knew.” 

He inherited International Flavors and Fragrances, a $2.8 billion-a-year company founded by his Dutch immigrant father, Arnold, in 1917. The company's products include scent additives for facial soaps and dryer sheets, and FlavorFit taste enhancers.

Van Ameringen gave $50,000 to support Washington's legalization measure in 2012 and contributed $100,000 to New Approach Oregon in March.

He has also donated money to support alternative drug treatment programs, such as that offered by the Washington Heights Corner Project in his home, New York City. Van Ameringen declined to be interviewed by WW, but Corner Project executive director Taeko Frost sees no inconsistency between van Ameringen's support of her clinic and legalizing marijuana.

"He understands public health policy and drug policy as it relates to public health," Frost says. "I think by supporting this type of legislation he's continuing advocating the health and social context of drug policy and its effect on individual use.” 

George Soros

He is the billionaire who nearly toppled the Bank of England. More than perhaps any other private citizen, he fought to bring democracy to Eastern Europe. Now he wants to make it easier for Oregonians to get high.

George Soros, 83, made his $23 billion fortune managing the Soros Fund Management hedge fund. Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Washington Times that Soros spends about $4 million a year funding marijuana legalization through the New York-based group. 

"He thinks the war on drugs is a disaster," Nadelmann tells WW.

Drug Policy Action, a related PAC, has given $410,000 to the New Approach Oregon campaign so far. It also gave $80,000 to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's election campaign in 2012 after she declined to support rigid enforcement of the state's marijuana laws. "I will make marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients," Rosenblum wrote on her campaign website. (Rosenblum is married to WW Publisher Richard Meeker.)

Born in Budapest in 1930, Soros lived under the Nazi occupation of Hungary before going on to study at the London School of Economics. In 1969, he launched his hedge fund in the United States. In 1992, he bet against the British pound, helping to force the devaluation of the currency. 

In 1979, Soros founded the Open Society Foundations, a human- and civil-rights organization. The group spent $1.5 billion on democratic development in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. "Soros now claims, with characteristic immodesty," wrote New Statesman magazine in 2003, "that he was responsible for the 'Americanization' of eastern Europe."

Soros has called himself a "class traitor." He supports President Obama, and donates to the American Civil Liberties Union. He told The Washington Post in 2003 that getting then-President George W. Bush out of the White House was the "central focus" of his life.

He's recently made headlines in his court battle with ex-girlfriend Adriana Ferreyr, who says Soros promised her a $1.9 million New York penthouse but gave it to his then-fiancee, Tamiko Bolton, instead. Ferreyr wrestled Soros' lawyer in court, and hit Soros in the head. Soros offered his ex $6.9 million to drop the lawsuit, to no avail.

For years, Soros has been funding harm reduction and decriminalization of drug use through the Drug Policy Alliance. Marijuana legalization is just one piece of his personal campaign for more progressive drug laws.

"Like many parents and grandparents, I am worried about young people getting into trouble with marijuana and other drugs," he wrote in a 2012 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. "The best solution, however, is honest and effective drug education."

The Peter Lewis Family

For an insurance guy, Peter Lewis took a lot of risks. The Progressive Corp. CEO, who died last November, built his company by covering drivers nobody else would touch. 

He also smoked pot. After part of his left leg was amputated in 1998, he started using the drug to ease the pain. 

But he wasn't especially careful with weed, either. In 2000, he was busted in New Zealand after he arrived at Auckland Airport with 33 grams of marijuana in his bags. Police also found a stash of marijuana in the floorboards of his yacht, The Lone Ranger, which was docked in Auckland at the time.

"Our marijuana laws," he told Forbes in 2011, "are outdated, ineffective and stupid."

A Princeton graduate who took over Progressive in 1965, Lewis built the 100-employee insurance firm that his father, Joe, co-founded into one of the largest auto-insurance companies in the country.

A philanthropist, Lewis gave away almost half of his $1 billion fortune, according to a November 2013 story in The New York Times. He gave a record-breaking $7 million to the ACLU's endowment in 2001, and also donated to the Center for American Progress. But Lewis was stubbornly principled, a quality he displayed in 2005 when he stopped donating to the Guggenheim Museum after a disagreement with the director over the museum's budget. He had donated almost $77 million to the Guggenheim over 11 years.

Marijuana legalization was one of his most impassioned causes. NORML estimates Lewis donated between $40 million and $60 million supporting legalization beginning in the 1980s.

Lewis gave $2,038,700 in Washington and $909,350 in Colorado. He donated $96,000 to New Approach Oregon in the fall of 2013 before he died. In June 2014, his family donated another $250,000 through the New Approach PAC, which it had founded.

"I don't believe that laws against things that people do regularly," Lewis told Forbes in a 2011 interview, "like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense."

John Sperling

He is a Reedie who paid a lot of money to have his cat cloned—and named the result Cc for "copycat." He's also an academic whose for-profit education empire made him a billionaire—and earned him the derision of his peers. 

John Sperling is the 93-year-old founder of the Apollo Education group, best known for its University of Phoenix chain. Forbes assesses his net worth at $1.2 billion. And he's used his wealth to pave the way for marijuana legalization. 

Sperling tells in his autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, how he grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, the seventh child of a family living in a small cabin. His mother was a fundamentalist Christian, his father a railroad worker who often beat him. Here's how Sperling recalls his father’s death: “I could hardly contain my joy.” 

He barely finished high school, but developed an intellectual thirst aboard a merchant marine ship, where he worked in the freighter's engine room. Sperling met older crew members who lent him such books as Notes From Underground and The Great Gatsby, and played a role in forming his former identity as a socialist.

After graduating from Reed in 1948, Sperling went on to study at Berkeley and Cambridge. He became a tenured history professor at San Jose State University, but had a better idea for how to run higher ed: for a profit. 

In 1976, he founded the University of Phoenix, now the largest private university in the U.S. The Apollo Education Group, which owns the university, reported net revenue of $2.3 billion during the first nine months of fiscal 2014. 

In the 1970s, Sperling used marijuana when he was struggling with prostate cancer. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he gave sizable donations to legalization campaigns on the West Coast and in his native Arizona. In 2012, he donated $70,000 to Rosenblum's campaign for attorney general. 

Sperling has not yet given to New Approach Oregon. But he gave $1 million each to the campaigns for California's Prop 36 in 2000 and Prop 5 in 2008, both of which sought to decriminalize nonviolent drug use.

The University of Phoenix magnate says he doesn't care what people think of his support for legalizing pot. "Popular causes find money everywhere," he told Fast Company in 2013. "What's the point of backing them?"

 David Bronner

The president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps has been arrested twice in front of federal buildings. In 2009, he planted hemp seeds on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's lawn to protest a ban on domestic cultivation of the plant. In 2012, he milled hemp oil in a metal cage outside the White House. "DEAR MR. PRESIDENT," said a sign atop the cage, "LET U.S. FARMERS GROW HEMP!" Police and firefighters had to cut open the steel cage with a chain saw before arresting him.

"We were very frustrated with the Obama administration taking baby steps," David Bronner tells WW.

Bronner, a 41-year-old Harvard grad, runs his family's soap-making company, which pioneered the use of organic ingredients and prints the moral teachings of its founder (Bronner's grandfather, Emanuel) all over the label in tiny type. 

By age 25, Bronner was in charge of the business, and decided to add hemp, the non-psychoactive strain of cannabis, to the product for its moisturizing qualities. Soon after, the Bush administration declared hemp illegal. In response, Dr. Bronner's funded the hemp industry's litigation against the DEA and defeated the feds' tighter regulations on hemp.

Bronner says his company advocates industrial hemp because it's a sustainable crop that doesn't require large amounts of herbicide. "But we're also advocates to change a failed drug policy," he says of the company's donations to marijuana legalization.

"When nonviolent people are being arrested and families are being torn apart, the harms of [marijuana] prohibition are much worse than any problems associated with marijuana use," Bronner says.

Dr. Bronner's gave $390,000 in Oregon this year to various campaigns against genetically modified foods, including local bans and a statewide ballot measure requiring labeling. 

The company gave $125,000 to the Colorado campaign to legalize pot, and Bronner personally gave $75,000 each to the campaigns in Washington and California. In 2012, the company gave $5,000 to support a pot legalization measure here, and Bronner says it will give at least $100,000 this year.

“The country is shifting fundamentally,” he says. “I think Oregon pushing through is crucial.” 

WWeek 2015

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