Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and Republican megadonor who died on Monday night at 87, left an indelible mark on American politics.
Adelson was one of the first ultrawealthy Americans to funnel oceans of cash through “super PACs” to influence policy and elections, and one of the most effective. Later in life, Adelson become an ardent drug prohibitionist—a view he held at least in part because of personal tragedy—and, as public opinion turned against the drug war, the last reliable tranche of money for marijuana legalization opponents to tap.
But after burning millions in failed efforts to defeat cannabis ballot initiatives in 2016, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, a doctor, gave up.
For anyone trying to find money to beat back the tide of drug-policy reform, that was the end of an era. For anyone opposing the drug war, it was the end of the beginning.
Since the Adelsons quit the field, to date, nobody else—not a tycoon with disposable income, nor a political lobby or a corporate interest in pharmaceuticals—has tried to fill the gap. Since then, political campaigns to legalize cannabis have encountered no well-funded opposition.
If you are a policy shop trying to oppose psilocybin legalization or an expanding marijuana industry, you have to go to the grassroots, or try to bootstrap your effort yourself. And as the last election cycle demonstrated, that is no way to win.
MORE FOR YOU
On Election Day—on the same night the presidency was won by Joe Biden, whom the Adelsons spent $75 million in 2020 trying to defeat, according to Federal Election Commission filings—voters in five states approved legalization or medical-marijuana measures. Weed won in Mississippi and in deep-red South Dakota, where voters became the first to skip over medical cannabis altogether and go straight to adult-use legalization.
Cannabis legalization swept the field, in part because opponents could muster only token opposition. Across the country, anti-drug reform backers raised only a hair above $1 million.
The Adelsons, who fund two opioid treatment centers through their charitable foundation, one in Las Vegas and the other in Israel, entered the drug-policy reform world relatively late. Despite their spending—enormous for average Americans, chump change for a couple who live in a 44,000-square-foot house with 20 bathrooms—didn’t manage to accomplish very much.
In 2014, a Florida defense attorney put up $4 million to put medical marijuana on the ballot. In came Adelson, who plunked down $5 million to defeat it—85 percent of the cash Drug Free Florida had to beat back giving sick people cannabis access.
In 2016, the Adelsons donated a total of $9 million to campaigns in four states opposing either recreational or medical-marijuana, according to Ballotpedia. These all turned out to be losing wagers.
California and Massachusetts legalized recreational cannabis. Florida (finally) legalized medical marijuana. Only in Arizona was an Adelson-backed effort to defeat legalization successful. Like in Florida, Adelson won only a brief delay.
Without Adelson or any other deep-pocketed backer, this past year, a who’s-who of Arizona conservatives could raise only a fraction of what a single cannabis company paid to legalize, and lost handily. And that was the best-funded effort. New Jersey, probably the biggest prize of all, the pro-legalization campaign had no organized opposition at all.
Fighting cannabis legalization is a strange look for a 21st-century power player in Las Vegas, where the legal weed industry is thriving and cannabis is becoming just as much of a part of the Sin City fabric as celebrity chefs, Celine Dion, and slot machines.
Adelson’s biggest investment in the drug war was in the media. After Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal for $140 million in 2015, the paper cancelled its endorsement of Nevada’s 2016 legalization measure.
Why did Adelson, who made billions building the Venetian-branded casinos in Vegas as well as in Macau, hate weed so much? Why would he spend years believing the outmoded, exploded theory that cannabis was a gateway drug?
Neither Sheldon nor Miriam Adelson ever explained exactly why they were content to burn millions trying to defeat legalization. “It is a personal passion of theirs,” Andy Abboud, the vice-president of Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation, told the Associated Press in 2014.
The power couple were a “sleeping giant” that the “mainstreaming” of marijuana had “awakened,” Abboud added.
The likeliest reason for the Adelson’s opposition is that the personal was political. Adelson lost a son to a drug overdose in 2005. A second son reportedly suffered from addiction and became estranged, according to the Washington Post.
Ideology stemming from personal tragedy was the theory offered by NORML as to why Sheldon Adelson wrote checks to keep cannabis illegal—and why Miriam Adelson, as recently as last year, called cannabis a “gateway drug” to opiates and asked for a “crackdown” on legal weed.
The Adelson’s investments usually yielded returns. The United States’ Middle Eastern policy under President Donald Trump reflected their own—and they donated to Trump generously. But if they ever asked the president to do something about the American cannabis industry, the value of which has eclipsed the Adelson fortune, Trump didn’t heed.
Adelson will be laid to rest in Israel, where he and his wife maintained a residence and held citizenship (and where there’s also a thriving cannabis industry, a fact of modern-day Israeli life that Adelson seemed content to live with). And Miriam Adelson, whom a 2015 New York magazine profile suggested has wider political ambitions than her husband, remains alive and active in conservative politics in both the United States and in Israel, where she owns the country’s second-largest newspaper.
Adelson money will almost certainly bankroll conservative causes for years to come. Fighting marijuana legalization does not appear to be one of them. The culture war on weed has been won. And Sheldon Adelson lived long enough to know it.