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Why the Marijuana Industry Wants Friends Like John Boehner

Is John Boehner the future of the weed industry?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Thinkstock.

Americans want marijuana to be legal, or at least more legal. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 70 percent of Americans oppose federal interference in state-legal marijuana markets, and even more want some form of access for medical use.

In one recent sign of the solidifying bipartisan consensus, last month former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who once declared himself “unalterably opposed” to legalization, joined the advisory board of cannabis company Acreage Holdings. Boehner’s thinking evolved, he told Bloomberg, after seeing how cannabis benefited a friend with a bad back. Echoing statements he made as speaker, Boehner added, “We have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.”

Beginning with California, which became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 and has since legalized it for recreational use, the states with the most fully developed cannabis industries have tilted Democratic. But the movement has begun to reach even some deep-red states. In June, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to legalize medical marijuana, and Utahans will likely vote on it in November. Polls predict both will pass easily. The important question of legalization is no longer whether to do it but how to do it. The involvement of Boehner in Acreage—as well as its other new adviser, former Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld—represents not just an embrace of marijuana by parts of the GOP but the emergence of a distinctly GOP way of regulating it. In a way, that’s encouraging for the normalization of the drug—but it’s also troubling, especially for proponents who want the emerging cannabis industry to reckon with the many racist outcomes of the drug’s past.

While the races use marijuana at approximately equal rates, minorities, especially blacks, are far more likely to be punished for it, and have been for decades. By evangelizing the drug itself and ignoring its history, Boehner is showing Republicans how to make peace, and perhaps make hay, with legalization. As states figure out what kind of policy regimes they want to govern cannabis sales, the industry could be drawn to a Republican view of regulation, one that disadvantages the very groups that have suffered from marijuana’s illegality up until now.

Acreage declined to make Boehner available for an interview, but in a statement with Weld, the former speaker said marijuana has benefited veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and “numerous other patient groups” including as a safer alternative to opioids.
Federal prohibition makes it far more difficult for researchers to study the plant as a medicine, and Boehner wants to see that change, as well. (Both Boehner and Weld told Bloomberg they’ve never used the drug.)

In 2016, state legal marijuana businesses generated $6.7 billion in sales for their overwhelmingly white owners. In the same year, there were more than 650,000 marijuana arrests nationwide, almost 90 percent for possession only. Blacks are several times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana offense. Despite what Boehner implied, relatively few small-time pot busts lead to long prison sentences. But any kind of criminal record can still have devastating effects on the offenders’ lives by blocking access to jobs, student loans, public housing, and even their own children.

Many within the marijuana industry are eager to be perceived as good. They emphasize the plant’s medical benefits, as well as the taxes it pays and jobs it creates. They speak of the war on drugs’ widely acknowledged failures. But even for those companies and lawmakers that want to make amends for the plant’s past—and ensure it has a more equitable future—making it happen has proved difficult so far.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Alex Halperin on SLATE

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Published: May 25, 2018
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