It feels strange to type “former Republican House Speaker John Boehner joins board of cannabis company” – but here we are.
Boehner’s history with cannabis
During his 24 years in Congress, first as a Representative for Ohio’s 8th District and later as Speaker, Boehner was no friend to the legalization cause.
In 1999, two years before he would lead the lower chamber, he voted against a bill to implement a voter-approved medical cannabis program in Washington, D.C. In 2004, Boehner was given a 0 percent score by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, indicating an “anti-legalization stance.” Two years later, he was ranked a -30 by the advocacy organization – indicating a “hard-on-drugs” stance. A -30 is the lowest score a lawmaker could receive.
Despite his prohibitionist history, Acreage Holdings, a New York City-based cannabis company, announced yesterday that Boehner had joined their board of directors. Bill Weld, the former governor and Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee in the 2016 election, also joined the board, but Boehner caught all the headlines.
In a joint statement, Weld and Boehner note that 94 percent of Americans are “currently in favor of some type of [cannabis] access” which they say is due to “increased awareness of marijuana’s many medical applications.” The statement invoked the failure of Veterans Affairs to consider cannabis “as an alternative to harmful opioids” and the Tenth Amendment – states’ rights – that has allowed 46 states to implement some form of legalization (including very restricted, CBD-only programs).
Boehner is just three years removed from his speakership but in a 4:00am tweet said he was joining the board because his “thinking on cannabis has evolved.”
“I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities,” he said in the tweet. Although, you have to wonder whether or not the fact that his daughter married a Jamaican man who was arrested in 2006 for possessing 4 grams of cannabis in Florida played a role in his evolution on this issue.
Cannabis industry reactions
Despite his organization twice giving Boehner the lowest legalization grade possible, NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri issued a statement indicating the group is willing to let bygones be bygones, saying that Boehner’s “evolution of marijuana legalization mirrors that both of the American public in general and Republicans specifically.”
Altieri cites a 2017 Gallup poll which found, for the first time ever, a majority of Republicans supported legalization (albeit just barely at 51 percent). In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found 63 percent of millennial Republicans supported broad legalization. Earlier this year, a Fox News poll found 59 percent support for legalization, which made it more popular than President Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Republican tax overhaul, and the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“Regardless of motive, former Speaker Boehner is still held in high regard by a large percentage of the GOP membership and voter base. We look forward to his voice joining the growing chorus calling for an end to cannabis criminalization,” Altieri said in the statement. “Anything that expedites the ability for patients to access this safe and reliable treatment alternative, and that facilitates an end to the practice of arresting otherwise law abiding citizens for the possession of a plant should be welcomed with open arms.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, Boehner pinpointed the moment he changed his mind about cannabis – seeing how it helped a friend deal with back pain. Moreover, Boehner said prohibition has “literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.”
“When you look at the number of people in our state and federal penitentiaries, who are there for possession of small amounts of cannabis, you begin to really scratch your head,” he said. In the interview, Boehner admitted that he “almost chuckled to himself” when Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the Cole Memo, which provided state-approved cannabis programs protection from federal interference.
Michael Correia, Director of Government Relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association said that while Boehner addition to Acreage’s board is “not a tipping point” that will push other GOP lawmakers and their constituents into the legalization camp, it is “an important first step” and that “it’s important to see the evolution of some former members of Congress.” Although Correia – whose handle is ThePotLobbyist on Twitter – said the addition of such a high profile former politician to a cannabis company board doesn’t surprise him.
“Now he’s free to tell you what he’s thinking and embrace some of these positions,” Correia said in an interview with Ganjapreneur. “I think as Speaker of the House he was the leader of his part and oversaw and spoke on behalf of a lot of different voices and what he could say as the Speaker would be possibly different than what he can say as a private sector individual.”
Correia suggested that some Republicans – especially the more federalist and libertarian-leaning – are coming to embrace cannabis reform because they believe in states’ rights.
“People who believe in federalism believe this should be a state issue,” he said. “And [Boehner joining the board] has been talked about a lot in D.C. It will get the media asking members of Congress, ‘If Boehner is doing this, what are your thoughts?’ And just raising the visibility on this issue is really important.”
Boehner’s new role
As a member of the board, Boehner will provide advice to Acreage “in terms of how they work with state and federal governments, how they work with local governments and advice on states that look promising.”
Boehner is far from the first U.S. politician to join the cannabis space – but he’s definitely the highest profile. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson – the top of the Libertarian ticket that featured Weld – once served as CEO and president for Cannabis Sativa Inc., which owns dispensaries and invests in the cannabis space. When Johnson left the company, he was replaced by former Democratic Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel. The New Jersey Cannabusiness Association is led by former Republican state Rep. Scott Rudder.
So, perhaps the tides are turning. Maybe Boehner can get the ear of some of his former colleagues and urge them to support one of the two bills in Congress that would effectively end cannabis prohibition. Or maybe it’s a publicity-type stunt by Acreage and a cash grab by Boehner – but here we are.