USA -- John A. Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House who once said he was “unalterably opposed” to decriminalizing marijuana laws, has joined a board of directors for a cannabis company with an eye on rolling back federal regulations.
The former Ohio congressman, who led a party that was historically opposed to legalizing marijuana, has been appointed to the board of advisers of Acreage Holdings, Boehner said in a statement Wednesday. The company grows and sells legal weed and operates in 11 states.
“I have concluded descheduling the drug is needed so that we can do research and allow [the Department of Veterans Affairs] to offer it as a treatment option in the fight against the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities,” he said.
The move is a stark reversal for the former speaker, who in 2011 wrote a constituent that he was against “legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug,” adding that “I remain concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol.”
Boehner reiterated his opposition to legalization as recently as September 2015. Nearly half a million people were arrested for selling weed during Boehner's term as speaker from 2011-2015, Quartz reported.
Spokesman David Schnittger said Boehner's evolving position has been the result of close study after leaving office.
Currently, nine states plus Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational use of the drug, while many others allow some sort of medical use. The Justice Department has been prohibited from using federal funds to target state-legal medical marijuana businesses since 2014.
Erik Altieri, executive director for the Washington-based marijuana advocacy group NORML, told The Washington Post that Boehner’s acceptance of marijuana tracks with rising American and even Republican lawmaker evolving beliefs about the drug and its uses.
Boehner is joined on the board of advisers by former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, a Republican who left office in 1997 and was former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson's running mate in 2016 on the libertarian party ticket. As governor, Weld advocated for medical marijuana legalization since 1992.
It is unknown if Boehner or Weld hold paid positions on the board. Acreage Holdings spokesman Lewis Goldberg declined to discuss salary or benefits of its executives. Weld told Bloomberg he was considering an investment in the company.
Weld, a former federal prosecutor, said the conventional wisdom about marijuana during the Reagan administration was that it acted as a “gateway drug” to more harmful substances.
“Now there’s some evidence that it can become an exit drug” and an alternative to opioid addiction, which has become the primary public health concern in Massachusetts, he said in an interview with The Post.
Weld said his advocacy will likely find appeal among conservatives who champion state laws to regulate issues without federal interference.
In a joint statement, Boehner and Weld focused on a long-standing concern among veterans and advocacy groups — federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and ecstasy.
Current prohibitions have stymied research at Veterans Affairs to evaluate the drug's efficacy in treating post-traumatic stress and physical pain as the result of military service, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin said earlier this year. Critics of restrictions say a tangle of federal laws that regulate research and funding have confused VA and lawmakers on what it can evaluate.
Veterans advocating for decriminalizing marijuana have spoken with Boehner in the past, he said. “It was an argument he heard as a member, considered and never dismissed,” Schnittger said.
Descheduling cannabis would not legalize it nationally, but it would end federal marijuana enforcement and allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
Polls show that over 60 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana completely, with well over 90 percent in favor of legal medical use. Democrats eyeing a 2020 presidential run have grown increasingly vocal about the shortcomings of current federal law.
Acreage Holdings, a main player in the increasingly white-collar marijuana trade, will expand its research initiatives among universities as it seeks to “demystify” cannabis, chief executive Kevin Murphy told The Post. The company cultivates, processes and distributes marijuana in the growing, billion-dollar industry, according to its site.
The company focused on veterans in its messaging because they are “passionate” about broadening marijuana options available to former troops, Murphy said.
The American Legion, the largest veterans group in the country, found in a 2017 survey that veterans overwhelmingly support marijuana use for medical reasons. About 22 percent of veteran households said they use weed for medical reasons.
Altieri, of NORML, said he hopes Boehner will use his influence within the GOP to extend acceptance of marijuana, which may lead to legalization laws for veterans and nonveterans alike.
But, he said, Boehner probably would have been more influential had he been a proponent of marijuana use for veterans while he was speaker. Altieri said an earlier intervention “could’ve reduced veteran suicide,” which VA estimates to claim the lives of 20 veterans a day.
“It would’ve been more helpful for him advocating for this 10 years ago,” he said.