Florida: Billionaire Marijuana Philanthropist, Progressive Insurance Chairman Peter Lewis Dies

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By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

Peter Lewis, the billionaire chairman of Progressive Insurance and a prominent donor to marijuana legalization, died Saturday afternoon at age 80 at his home in Coconut Grove, Florida, according to his adviser Jennifer Frutchy.

Lewis was a high-profile backer of drug-law reform, reports Luisa Kroll at Forbes. He spent almost $3 million on the November 2012 election, contributing $2 million to the I-502 marijuana legalization drive in Washington state and another $1 million to the medical marijuana effort in Massachusetts; both were successful.

"We were, of course, incredibly grateful for Mr. Lewis's significant contributions that made Initiative 502 possible," I-502 author Alison Holcomb told David Holley of Bloomberg News. "We're very hopeful that others will follow in the example he set."

Cynics pointed out that Progressive Insurance is the chief source of the auto insurance policies that those convicted of driving under the influence of marijuana in Washington (cannabis DUI) under I-502 will be forced to buy; 502, in addition to legalizing possession of up to an ounce of pot, created a whole new crime in Washington state, that of driving with more than 5 ng/ml of THC in the blood (previously, law enforcement had to prove actual impairment to make a DUI stick).

The philanthropist spent more than $40 million funding the cause of cannabis legalization since the 1980s, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"Our marijuana laws are outdated, ineffective and stupid," Lewis told Forbes in a 2011 interview. "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."

Lewis, a native of Ohio, said he first tried marijuana at age 39, saying he found it "better than scotch." He later used it to combat pain from a partial amputation he had at age 64 due to an incurable infection on his left leg.

He was worth more than $1.3 billion at this death, the majority of which is tied up in Progressive stock. Lewis owned more than 6,500 pieces of art, and had donated more than $100 million to Princeton University's arts programs. He donated hundreds of millions to Princeton during his lifetime, according to the Daily Princetonian. Last year, he announced a $5 million gift to the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Lewis became the CEO of Progressive in 1965, having built it from the company his father co-founded in 1937. He held the top spot for 35 years, and turned his wealth into support for a number of progressive causes, including marijuana law reform.

"The history of Progressive is very much the history that Peter Lewis laid down," said Progressive President and CEO Glenn Renwick, reports the Associated Press. "He really was a special person; there's no doubt about that."

(Photo: Cleveland.com)