After years of being “unalterably opposed” to the legalization of cannabis, former Republican speaker of the House and Ohio congressman John Boehner has changed his mind.
Earlier today, Boehner said “my thinking on cannabis has evolved” and announced his new role on the board of advisers of a large if little-known American cannabis company called Acreage Holdings, previously known as High Street Capital Partners, which holds plant-touching licenses in 11 U.S. states. Acreage also announced that former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld will join its board of advisers, and both Boehner and Weld have committed to join Acreage’s board of directors once it is formed.
“I’m convinced descheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities,” Boehner tweeted.
While Boehner’s dramatic about-face on the subject of legalization is an undeniable win for the legalization movement, it also shows how complicated progress is for a movement that has been fighting for sensible drug policy for decades and only witnessed adult-use legislation in the last six years.
As speaker of the House, Boehner fought legalization tooth and nail, writing to one constituent in 2011, “I am unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug. I remain concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol.” As Quartz reported this morning, more than 400,000 Americans were arrested for selling and trafficking marijuana between 2011 and 2015, when Boehner served as one of D.C.’s most powerful politicians.
But now that Boehner—who stepped down as speaker and resigned from office in 2015—is no longer one of D.C.’s most powerful politicians, he has apparently come around to the idea that legalization is the right path forward for America and the rest of the world. And not only does Boehner support reforming drug laws, he’s actually advocating for descheduling cannabis, a distinction worth pointing out as many prominent Democrats still only support the rescheduling of marijuana from its current (and absurd) position as a Schedule I substance.
I spoke earlier with Acreage Holdings CEO Kevin Murphy, who refers to Boehner as a “senior statesmen and thinker.” He acknowledged Boehner’s prohibitionist past but says the former speaker has a compelling answer to the question of his recent shift in perspective.
“He’s passionate about the people in this country,” Murphy said of the former speaker, “and when asked what really had an impact on swaying his views, he came forth with one of the best answers I’d ever heard. ‘The people changed my mind.’”
Sure enough, a definitive majority of Americans support legal cannabis, but they have for a number of years—so what took Boehner so long to come around? And now that Boehner himself supports legal marijuana, what’s he going to do about his harmful history as a top-level prohibitionist?
Those are the questions on some industry veterans’ minds, some of whom reacted strongly to Tuesday’s news on social media.
“There’s a great opportunity here,” Ean Seeb, a cannabis industry pioneer and founding partner at Denver Relief Consulting, told The Daily Beast. “But we have yet to see Acreage Holdings execute on anything other than making an announcement that somebody who helped ruin many other people’s lives now has the opportunity to profit from the very same thing that he was actively speaking up against previously.
“Acreage could have used this opportunity to create a new foundation that would work to reform cannabis laws, to take people out of prison, to start petitioning for pardons to help nonviolent offenders who were only guilty of possessing cannabis. The industry can see through this entire sham; Boehner appears to only be in this for financial gain.”
Even if Boehner is primarily motivated by the prospect of a 420-derived paycheck, his 180-degree swing still represents a significant shift—and will likely be remembered as one of the first high-profile prohibitionists-turned-advocates to come from the upper ranks of the U.S. federal government.
Acreage Holdings’ Murphy absolutely sees Boehner’s turn as a tipping point of sorts: “There is no question, and we couldn’t be more proud to be helping lead the charge to what we hope to be a descheduling of cannabis.”
Of course Acreage has a dog in this fight—or 11 of them, even. Because cannabis remains federally illegal, Acreage’s marijuana businesses cannot fully integrate across state lines; Any pot products grown or processed in Maryland currently have to stay in Maryland, and the same goes for the company’s 10 other state-regulated markets.
But were cannabis to be descheduled and ultimately made legal at the federal level, a far-reaching company like Acreage is then set up to combine and centralize its cultivation and processing resources to fill shelves at its dispensaries in these many states, and likely more, making for a vertically integrated national cannabis chain that would be the envy of the industry.
Will Boehner still be around to see that day? Acreage’s Murphy hopes so, but today’s announcement is only the beginning for his high-powered board, Murphy told me.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have the speaker and Gov. Weld on our board,” he said, “and we look to announce some others going forward who are equally interesting and perhaps equally impactful.”
Ricardo Baca, a lifelong journalist, is the founder of The Cannabist and of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency.