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 has been appointed to the board of advisers of Acreage Holdings, invoking the need for veterans to access the drug legally to explain his change of heart, Boehner said in a statement Wednesday. The company grows and sells legal weed and operates in 11 states.
Acreage Holdings was formerly known as High Street Capital Partners. The company is a financial backer of Prime Wellness, which owns a permit to cultivate medical marijuana in South Heidelberg, near Reading.
Boehner's acceptance of marijuana tracks with evolving beliefs about the drug and its uses among Americans and even Republican lawmakers, Erik Altieri, executive director for the Washington-based marijuana advocacy group NORML, told the Washington Post.
But, Altieri said, Boehner probably would have been more influential if he supported marijuana use for veterans while he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle with treatment options for post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions.
"It would've been more helpful for him advocating for this 10 years ago," Altieri 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, "I remain concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol."
Boehner's daughter, Lindsay Marie, married a Jamaican-born Rastafarian in May 2013. Rastas believe marijuana is a religious sacrament.
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.
"I have concluded descheduling the drug is needed so that we can do research and allow the VA to offer it as a treatment option in the fight against the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities," he said.
Spokesman David Schnittger said Boehner's evolving position has been the result of close study after leaving office.
Nine states plus Washington have legalized recreational use of the drug, and 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.
Boehner is joined on the board of advisers by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican who left office in 1997 and was former New Mexico Gov. 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 whether Boehner or Weld holds a paid position 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.
Legal marijuana sales topped $9 billion in 2017, according to one industry estimate. Worldwide, legal marijuana could be a $57 billion industry by 2027, according to a report by Arcview Market Research.
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, Weld 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. A number of Republican lawmakers criticized a recent move by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back a long-standing policy of federal noninterference with state-legal recreational marijuana laws.
Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, told the New York Times that Boehner "should be actively working to reform federal marijuana laws to allow states to determine their own policies, rather than just consulting with a business to navigate the conflicts between state and federal law."
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 has confused the VA and lawmakers on what it can evaluate.
Veterans advocating for decriminalizing marijuana have spoken with Boehner in the past, Schnittger said. "It was an argument he heard as a member, considered, and never dismissed," he 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 more than 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, and the cannabis industry has stepped up lobbying lawmakers in both parties.
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 veterans' households said they use weed for medical reasons.
Altieri 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. The VA has said 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
"Think of the number of veterans who could've had relief sooner," he said.