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The Adelson Endowment: Why a Casino Billionaire is Propping Up Prohibition

What’s the deal with Sheldon Adelson’s crusade to continue the war on cannabis?

The 83-year-old conservative political donor, ardent prohibitionist, and billionaire casino magnate (he owns no fewer than three Las Vegas gambling palaces—the Sands, the Venetian, and the Palazzo) recently dumped buckets of money on campaigns opposing both medical and adult-use cannabis legalization.

In the past few weeks Adelson has given $1.5 million to the campaign to defeat Amendment 2, Florida’s medical marijuana measure; $1 million to fight adult use legalization in Massachusetts; $500,000 to oppose legalization in Arizona; and $2 million to defeat Question 2, Nevada’s legalization initiative. That’s a total of $5 million—and nobody on either side of the issue thinks that’s the end of it. In 2014 Adelson spent $5 million alone in Florida, a donation that singlehandedly shifted the medical marijuana measure’s outcome in that state.

That doesn’t count the $140 million he spent purchasing the Las Vegas Review Journal, which had a history of supporting cannabis legalization. Soon after Adelson took over, the paper withdrew its prior endorsement of legalization. It has now officially come out against Nevada’s Question 2 (and is the only major paper to endorse Donald Trump).

Adelson’s donations beg the question: Why? Why is he so determined to prop up cannabis prohibition?

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The answers seem to lie in his family history. Adelson’s 48-year-old son, Mitchell, died from a drug overdose involving cocaine and heroin in 2005. His other son, Gary, has also struggled with drug addiction. For years, Gary Adelson has allegedly been estranged from his father altogether.

Since his son Mitchell’s death, Adelson and his wife Miriam, a physician who specializes in addiction treatment, have donated millions, and perhaps even billions of dollars to create and support the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases, housed within the medical school at Tel Aviv University. Established in 2007, the center was Israel’s first academic research institution dedicated to curing addictive diseases and uncovering their biological mechanisms. Researchers at the center study addiction, and also have made important discoveries about the positive medical benefits of cannabis. Which makes his continuing effort to defeat the legalization of medical cannabis a bit odd, to say the least.

He Has So Much More to Give

Given his passion around the issue of prohibition, and the billions of dollars at his disposal, perhaps the more pressing question in 2016 isn’t why Adelson is giving so much to defeat legalization—but why he’s given so little.

In the small subculture of cannabis legalization, $5 million is a big deal. But in Sheldon Adelson’s world it’s a drop in the bucket.

Consider it within this context. Forbes currently estimates Adelson’s net worth at $31.5 billion, which makes him the 12th richest person in the United States.

Four years ago he spent like the drunken sailor of American politics. Adelson gave an estimated $150 million on candidates and issues during the 2012 election cycle. $20 million alone went to Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign.

Earlier this year it appeared as though Adelson was ready to pony up more donations in the eight- or nine-figure range. In late May, the Wall Street Journal reported that Adelson was talking with Donald Trump’s people about forming a pro-Trump super PAC. The move, said the Journal, “would add financial firepower from one of the most prolific donors of the 2012 cycle.”

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But Adelson’s support failed to materialize for Trump. NBC News reported that the Republican kingmaker “was prepared to support Trump after the [Republican] convention, but the candidate’s tumultuous post-convention stretch revived concerns” about the Republican nominee’s fitness and ability to win in November. Trump’s post-convention fight with the mother and father of slain Muslim-American U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan wasn’t merely ill-advised and unseemly; it was also costly, to the tune of tens of millions of Adelson’s dollars.

Finally, in late September, news outlets reported that Adelson had finally opened his wallet—but not to Trump. The New York Times reported that the Las Vegas billionaire had donated $40 million to Republican congressional candidates and only “a token” $5 million directly to the Trump campaign. In Adelson’s world the donation was so small that Vanity Fair characterized it as a snub.

So: If Adelson’s $5 million donation to Trump is a snub, what does that make his $5 million donation to the prohibitionist cause?