Last year, former Speaker of the House John Boehner joined the board of Acreage Holdings, one of the country’s largest multi-state cannabis companies (MSOs), and became the most prominent face of the legal marijuana industry in Washington D.C. Boehner “helped legitimize our industry more than perhaps anything had before it,” Acreage CEO Kevin Murphy recently told WeedWeek.
Boehner, who served as speaker from 2011 to 2015, is an unlikely pot lobbyist. While in office, he declared himself “unalterably opposed” to legalization. His “evolution” on the subject coincided with his receipt of an Acreage stock package currently worth about $12M (based on information in Canadian regulatory filings) and potentially worth $20M if a planned acquisition of Acreage closes.
It’s worth asking what Boehner’s influence might mean for the industry’s future. Many cannabis companies claim to care about the plant’s medicinal properties or rectifying injustices of the war on drugs. Boehner’s career, however, suggests he will advance the interests of the industry’s largest shareholders, which now include him.
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Boehner grew up near Cincinnati, the son of a bar owner, and he started working at the family establishment before he was 10. The second of 12 siblings, he was the first person in his family to graduate from college. Before Congress, he worked as a salesman and then executive at a plastics distribution company. Opposition to organized labor, environmental regulations and anything else that might depress profits were the animating issues of his political career.
Boehner was first elected to Congress in 1990, and he rose quickly. He became a key lieutenant on Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and when Republicans took the House in 1994 Boehner became the fourth ranking member of the caucus.
Boehner is a lifelong cigarette smoker, and the next year he attracted attention for distributing checks from tobacco lobbyists to lawmakers on the House floor. Boehner later said he regretted the incident, but I couldn’t find any indication the money was returned. (Acreage didn’t respond to the question.)
Since joining the industry, Boehner has said conversations with veterans have changed his mind about the benefits, real and potential, of medical marijuana. While he may be right, he lacks the credibility to deliver the message.
During his 26 years in Congress Boehner accepted more money from the tobacco industry than any other lawmaker according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2016, Boehner joined the board of Reynolds American, maker of his beloved Camels. (He left when the company was acquired.)
Another reason to doubt Boehner’s commitment to public health: As speaker his caucus repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) without proposing an alternative. Today, 20 million Americans have health insurance because of the law.
For an industry obsessed with the stigma around its product, it doesn’t help that Boehner says he has never tried cannabis. Despite his eight figure stock package, he won’t take a puff. It would be difficult to personify the stigma more fully.
On policy, the Speaker’s views and voting record were in line with his very conservative caucus. But Boehner cultivated an affable dealmaker persona, which can matter more than a voting record when retired lawmakers peddle their influence.
On several occasions, Boehner leveraged his perceived centrism to dignify right wing conspiracies and misinformation.
Probably the most consequential of these came in early 2011 when Donald Trump was riding the racist “birther” theory to political prominence. On ‘Meet the Press,’ Boehner said he believed President Obama was an American citizen, but added, “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.”
As the senior most Republican in the country, Boehner had the opportunity to reject the pernicious libel. Instead he welcomed it into the GOP tent.
Boehner similarly declined to lead on climate change, Like many prominent Republicans, he embraced the cop-out that as a non-scientist he wasn’t qualified to discuss the issue.
Boehner is still not a scientist. But now that it is his job to tell the American people what to think, he’s decided to weigh in on the health benefits of cannabis, a subject he knows nothing about.
More than a year after Boehner joined Acreage, his effectiveness as a cannabis industry advocate remains an open question. In June the Democrat-controlled House voted to support the States Act, which would protect state-legal cannabis businesses, a major step towards reform, which reportedly has support from President Trump. As far as is known, however, Boehner has not won the essential support from his friend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Boehner has been more successful in making Acreage look like the most attractive American partner for Ontario-based cannabis giant Canopy Growth. In April, Canopy announced plans to acquire Acreage for US$3.4 Billion once American law allows. (Depending on how it’s worded, enacting the STATES Act could enable the deal, according to Acreage.)
Then-Canopy CEO Bruce Linton said the presence of Boehner, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld (R), and former conservative Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on its board boosted Acreage’s credibility. “They have reputations they can’t risk — and we need that,” Linton said.
(Acreage’s tactics for growing its market share are reportedly under investigation in Massachusetts and Ohio. An Acreage spokesman says the company operates in “strict compliance with any and all state regulations.”)
Since joining the industry, Boehner has said ordinary marijuana users don’t pose a threat and should not be imprisoned. But he has expressed no regrets about his failure to change the law when he was in a position to do so. Though possessed of the smarts, charm and tenacity to retire second in line to the presidency, he appears not to understand the unique circumstances which enable a federally illegal industry to pay him so handsomely.
Here’s the transcript of a TV interview Boehner recently gave to Axios:
Axios: So when you were a politician, you said you were unalterably opposed to legalization. One thing I want to ask is what harm has been done by the fact that we didn’t legalize it back then?
Boehner: Well I don’t know if there’s any harm that’s been done, but the American people’s views on this began to change. Frankly, my views on this began to change.
Axios: So you say you don’t think that there was much harm done, I mean there was people getting arrested, there were people getting thrown in jail, and that counts doesn’t it?
Boehner: Well yeah, but that was under a different set of rules, at a different time.
Axios: Do you think there’s something unfair about the idea that African Americans were disproportionately incarcerated as the result of these laws, and yet, the minute that the laws get loosened, it seems to be white Americans who benefit.
Boehner: Well yeah, the states are the ones issuing the licenses. Although the industry, by enlarge believes, that these people are being treated fairly.
Axios: And they should not have any obstacles in terms of entering this industry.
Boehner: No. I mean they’ve been released. They’ve done their time or they’ve changed the rules and they were released. They should have access to it like anybody else. But again, we’re in the early stages. Once there’s legalization of some sort, on the side of the federal government, tens of billions of dollars roll into this industry overnight.
Axios: Where does that leave a formerly incarcerated African American trying to make their own way into this business? How can they compete?
Boehner: It’s tough competing in any business. I would say the biggest challenge on the minority side, would be access to capital. If you don’t have the capital it’s hard to get into the business. And if you don’t have enough capital, it’s hard to stay in the business. I do think that may be a challenge.
During Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign, the Republican party fixated on a similar idea. In a speech President Obama said “If you’ve got a business– you didn’t build that.” He meant successful businesses depended on things they didn’t pay for, like roads and telecommunications infrastructure. Republicans, including Boehner, distorted the meaning into an attack on entrepreneurs, and made it the theme of their convention.
Today a company Boehner didn’t build has made him rich. Within cannabis, that company is an outlier. It has built value by raising capital and acquiring licenses, not producing great products and delighting customers. The other people and companies who built this industry, the ones who have suffered and sacrificed for it, might want to ask themselves if Boehner speaks for them.