Until 2012, just about every cannabis ballot measure in the United States could be traced back either to Marijuana Policy Project or to Drug Policy Alliance—or to those advocacy organizations’ founders—starting with the historic legalization of cannabis for medical use in California in 1996.
But something changed after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first jurisdictions in the world to legalize cannabis for adult use: a major industry was born. Instead of funneling millions of dollars earned from cannabis sales into these two organizations that had led drug policy reform for years, the cannabis industry started to spend to lobby lawmakers and to fund campaigns themselves. (Read Cannabis Wire’s cannabis lobbying coverage.)
This year, for example, the roughly $5.5 million spent to put adult use on the Arizona ballot came entirely from existing medical cannabis companies in the state, which includes multistate operators like Harvest Health and Recreation and Curaleaf. (It’s worth noting that the ballot measure puts these entities at the front of the line for new adult use business licenses.)
The New Approach PAC emerged in 2014. A Cannabis Wire analysis of disclosures found that the PAC has raised just over $32 million since its formation, and has come to far outspend the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance when it comes to cannabis on the ballot. The PAC has also become a contributor to MPP and DPA. This year, for example, Cannabis Wire found that the PAC gave more than half a million dollars to Drug Policy Action, the political arm of Drug Policy Alliance.
This year, with one exception (more on that below), New Approach PAC is the top backer of cannabis ballot measures. Cannabis Wire found that the PAC has raised nearly $10 million in 2020, and it is backing every campaign for medical or adult use legalization in 2020, except in Arizona. So far, the PAC has spent roughly $3.8 million on medical or adult use legalization measures in Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. And, it has spent another $3.5 million backing an effort in Oregon to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic uses and one in D.C. that would, according to the campaign, “make the enforcement of laws against natural plant medicines (entheogens) among the lowest law enforcement priorities,” including psilocybin.
The exception? A D.C.-based group called the North Fund that has given roughly $4.7 million to the Montana effort. The Fund does not disclose its donors, and is therefore considered a “dark money” group. The Fund gave more to cannabis legalization in Montana than to any other effort in 2020, during which it has spent roughly $10 million. The Fund, for example, is also backing Proposition 118 in Colorado, also known as the Paid Medical and Family Leave Initiative, and it backed Missourians for Healthcare, a Medicaid expansion effort that passed during the August primary election.
While some New Approach PAC contributors have backed cannabis legalization for years—including Dr. Bronner’s, the late Henry van Ameringen, and the family of the late Peter Lewis, who began backing cannabis ballot efforts in the 1990s—a look at New Approach’s top contributors reveals some surprising names. Philanthropist Cari Tuna, for example, is the wife of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Speaking of Facebook, there is also Napster founder Sean Parker, who was also Facebook’s first president. And then there’s philanthropist Alexandra Cohen, who is the wife of incoming New York Mets owner Steve Cohen.
Below is a list of the New Approach PACs contributors, including: name; occupation, description, or connection to cannabis, where relevant; total amount; and year of first and last contribution.
• Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: $9.539 million [2014 – 2020]
• Henry van Ameringen (philanthropist): $6.517 million [2014 – 2020]
• Daniel R. Lewis (philanthropist): $4.9 million [2014 – 2020]
• Cari Tuna (philanthropist): $2.35 million [2014 – 2015]
• Adam J. Lewis (philanthropist): $2.2 million [2014 – 2016]
• Sean Parker (philanthropist): $1.25 million 
• Philip D. Harvey (founder, DKT Liberty Project): $891,500 [2014 – 2019]
• Scotts Miracle-Gro Company: $760,000 [2018-2020]
• Brendan Kennedy (founder, Privateer Holdings): $750,000 
• Alexandra Cohen (philanthropist): $750,000 
• Toby Lewis (philanthropist): $700,000 [2014 – 2016]
• Privateer Holdings (cannabis-focused private equity firm): $490,000 [2014 – 2018]
• Angela Howard (designer): $300,000 [2014 – 2016]
• Jonathan D. Lewis (philanthropist): $150,000 
• Aegis LLC: $150,000 
• MST 1998 Trust FBO TC Swift: $100,000 
• Good Growth Alliance (Scotts-linked 501(c)4): $100,000 
• Richard J. Steves Jr (travel host): $60,000 
• Thomas Cody Swift (director, Riverstyx Foundation): $50,000 
• Matt Stone: $50,000 
• iAnthus (cannabis company): $25,000 
• Ghost Management Group (Weedmaps): $25,000 
• Pamela Sands: $20,000 
• Christian Groh (Leafly): $10,000 
• Claudia and Carey Turnbull: $2,500 each