Depending on whom you ask, Charles Koch is a titan of industry, dark money political bogeyman or the Marcus Aurelius of the libertarian movement. But soon Koch might be known as the billionaire who persuaded Republican and Democratic holdouts to legalize cannabis at the federal level.
And it’s not because he’s a pothead.
The only time the 85-year-old CEO of Koch Industries has consumed marijuana, he says, was by accident in the 1980s. He was helicopter skiing in British Columbia, and après-ski, he and his friends enjoyed a few gin and tonics at dinner. For dessert, the chef brought out a plate of brownies. Koch ate one and after a while felt a little “loopy.” He doesn’t know who infused the sweets with pot, but he says he has known many successful friends—doctors, lawyers and other professionals—who have used cannabis.
Although Koch isn’t big on consuming it himself, he’s going public now with a long-held belief: Cannabis should be legal nationwide. So he’s putting his name, and nearly $25 million of his $45 billion fortune, to influence criminal-justice reform and legalization by the end of 2021. Brian Hooks, Koch’s right-hand man, says that a good barometer to gauge what Koch and his network are eventually willing to spend is what they’ve already put toward these issues—some $70 million in total over the last two years.
“It should be the individual’s choice,” says Koch from his office in Koch Industries’ sprawling granite compound in Wichita, Kansas. “[Prohibition] is counterproductive. It ruins people’s lives, creates conflict in society and is anti-progress. The whole thing never made sense to me.”
In April, Koch’s political advocacy group, Americans For Prosperity, joined other organizations to form the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, whose members have already started lobbying Congress to help lift America’s federal marijuana ban. Sitting at his desk in front of an oil painting of his late father, Fred, who founded Koch Industries as an oil-and-refinery company in 1940, Koch is finally ready to talk about why he’s pushing for legalization.
As a staunch libertarian, he sees cannabis prohibition as a basic infringement on personal freedom, as well as a destructive public policy that adds to America’s mass-incarceration problem. The U.S. should have learned from the “nightmare” of alcohol prohibition a century ago, he says.
Koch is not alone in his view. Nearly 70% of Americans now believe cannabis should be federally legal. Currently, 18 states allow for adult use and 37 have legalized medical marijuana, creating an industry that generated more than $17.5 billion in legal sales last year—a figure expected to balloon to $100 billion by 2030.
However, it’s unclear whether the long-awaited federal legalization bill, a draft of which Sens. Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker and Ron Wyden introduced in July, can get the 10 Republican senators and all 50 Democratic senators needed to pass it. Schumer readily admits he doesn’t yet have the numbers and President Biden does not support legalization. For politicians on both sides of the aisle who still oppose cannabis, Koch has two questions:
“If you don’t like marijuana, or don’t like people doing that, and you have all these laws, how’s that working out for you?” he asks, before making his second point: “Marijuana, as I understand it, is less addictive than alcohol. So why is alcohol legal and marijuana isn’t?”
Koch admits that he is not on the front lines fighting for legalization—Brian Hooks, the CEO of Stand Together (which Koch founded) and Koch Industries’ former longtime general counsel Mark Holden, and others, are doing the boots-on-the-ground work.
“I’m in the philosophy department,” Koch says. And his philosophy is simple: Prohibition creates more problems for a country with a jail and prison population that has soared to more than 2 million.
“By criminalizing [cannabis], it has huge negative manifestations, not only for the individuals who get trapped in that system, but also for society,” he says. “We want a society that empowers people to realize their potential and contribute, but with these laws you block out millions of people.”
Koch and the Koch network have raised and spent billions of dollars over the last few decades, with a third going to right-of-center public policy. Koch admitted in his latest book, Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, that he regrets stoking partisanship. “Boy, did we screw up. What a mess!” he wrote. Now, when it comes to ending the war on drugs, he says he’s ready to partner with anyone.
In 2015, for instance, Koch threw his political muscle behind Weldon Angelos, a Utah man who was serving a 55-year sentence for selling about $1,000 worth of weed to an informant in the early aughts. (In his opinion on the case, Angelos’ judge called the mandatory minimum sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”) Koch told Holden to launch a campaign to fight for criminal justice reform and work with President Barack Obama to fight for Angelos’ early release.
Angelos remembers when he first heard Koch was supporting his case while he was in prison in Mendota, California.
“I didn’t know who the Kochs were,” he says. “I was walking the track with someone, and they said, ‘The Kochs? Do you know who Charles Koch is? If he’s helping you, you’re out of here . . . just watch, he’s got influence.’”
In 2016, Angelos was unexpectedly granted a sentence reduction after serving 13 years. (And in 2020, President Trump gave Angelos a full pardon.) Last summer, Angelos reached out to Koch to see if he wanted to work together to support marijuana legalization, and the Cannabis Freedom Alliance was born.
In a country where hyperpartisanship defines the political landscape, an ideological influencer like Koch might be the key to getting legalization passed.
Now that Koch has come out as pro-cannabis, it has given cover to others who have kept their views on legalization private, says Randal Meyer, a lobbyist and member of the Cannabis Freedom Alliance. Knowing that Koch is involved brings people “a lot of comfort,” he says.
Brian Hooks of Stand Together explains that their strategy depends on support inside and outside the halls of politics. It includes a heavy emphasis on grassroots activism, lobbying, the creation of broad-based coalitions, as well as media and advertising.
In June, Amazon announced that it will lobby in support of cannabis legalization, and as other companies including Altria, Brink’s and Molson Coors launched a think tank to propose federal policy, suddenly, it seems, marijuana legalization is no longer a neo-hippie cause carried on by the likes of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
“For too long, drug policy has been mischaracterized as something that’s come from the fringes,” Hooks says. “When in fact the majority of Americans, for a long time, have recognized that the system is wrong.”
Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior advisor to President Obama, worked with Holden on legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. The legislation garnered support of 80 senators, but Mitch McConnell, who was Senate Majority Leader at the time, blocked it from reaching the floor in 2016. Two years later, under President Trump, the First Step Act passed.
Jarrett says that the criminal justice reform would not have passed without Koch’s support. “That’s how you get things done in Washington—it might mean you have strange bedfellows,” she says.
More than anything, Koch sees marijuana legalization as the beginning of the end of the federal war on drugs. Here, the modern philosopher king looks to a 19th-century French economist for wisdom. “For a law to be respected,” Koch says, paraphrasing Frédéric Bastiat, “it must be respectable.”