Sheldon Adelson, the politically influential billionaire and Donald Trump supporter, is bankrolling the fight against marijuana legalization measures on several state ballots this year. Meanwhile, Adelson the philanthropist gave money to research that supports the medical use of marijuana.
The casino magnate has donated $2 million to Protect Nevada’s Children PAC, $1 million to Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, and $500,000 to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, to oppose ballot measures that would legalize recreational use in those states, and $1.5 million to the Drug Free Florida Committee, which opposes a measure to legalize medical use there.
But several studies conducted by researchers at the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases at Tel Aviv University have highlighted cannabis’ potential to treat certain degenerative diseases.
A 2013 study conducted by researchers from the center found that two parts of cannabis, THC and CBD, could help regulate inflammation in patients with autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. A 2011 study had similar findings.
“It has become a ‘political plant and subject,’ and it even affects getting funds sometimes for research on it,” Ewa Kozela, co-author of the studies, told The Intercept in an email.
“I did my Ph.D. on morphine which is the main active chemical of opium, extract of poppy plant,” she added. “Now morphine is one of the most potent pain killers used in medicine although its use is (and should be) strictly controlled. I wish cannabis the same future.”
A 2004 study at the Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse in Tel Aviv — coauthored by Miriam herself — found no adverse effects of cannabis use on methadone maintenance treatment for painkiller and heroin addicts. By contrast, a 2008 study, also coauthored by Miriam, reported that “cannabis abuse” on admission at their Las Vegas clinic led to people abandoning the methadone treatment earlier.
The Adelsons were both involved in drug addiction issues before they met each other in 1988. Miriam was already respected in her career as an internist with a specialty in drug addiction. Sheldon was involved in drug addiction advocacy. His two sons suffered from drug addiction; the younger, Mitchell, died of an overdose in 2005 at age 48.
In 1993, the couple opened the Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse, Treatment & Research in Tel Aviv. In 2000, they opened a clinic with the same name in Las Vegas. The clinics treat painkiller and opiate addiction.
“What is true is that when we met, on a blind date, we had a subject in common to talk about — but forget it, the subject is very painful for him,” Miriam told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2008.
Kozela said that Adelson’s politics have not affected her research. “My impression is that all this time we were just given trust and all the freedom required to carry on with our interests and curiosity. But again, as you see, it gets political all the way, everyone interprets it the way he wants to see it,” she said.
Adelson did not reply to The Intercept’s request for comment.
“Pro marijuana folks have awoken a sleeping giant in Sheldon and Miriam Adelson,” Andy Abboud, vice president of Adelson’s casino company, Las Vegas Sands, told the Associated Press in 2014.
Ben Pollara, campaign manager for Florida medical marijuana group United for Care, told The Intercept he can’t understand Adelson’s intentions. “Certainly the folks who have an incentive to oppose this kind of stuff are people with interest in the rehab-industrial complex, because marijuana prohibition feeds a lot of clientele into those businesses,” Pollara added, referring to people who are court ordered to attend a rehabilitation program.
The pharmaceutical industry has been opposed to marijuana legalization as well.
As my colleague Lee Fang reported, Insys Therapeutics Inc., which donated $500,000 against the legalization of marijuana in Arizona, is developing synthetic THC. The alcohol industry is also spending against legalization.
“We’ve definitely seen a more active opposition from the pharma industry,” Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Guardian,adding that medical marijuana patients are frequently substituting marijuana for pharmaceuticals.
“I wish [Adelson] would find a better use of his time and money than opposing marijuana reform initiatives,” Pollara said. He added: “Marijuana has never taken a single life from an overdose, and you can’t say that about basically anything in your medicine cabinet.”
Correction: November 3, 2016
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Amanda Reiman’s statement about marijuana being used as a substitute for pharmaceuticals. It has been corrected.