For anyone still hoping to shove the legal marijuana horse back into a “Just Say No” stable, former Speaker of the House John Boehner offered a wake-up call Wednesday.
The retired conservative leader is taking a potentially lucrative board seat at Acreage Holdings, a company that exemplifies the shockingly rapid speed with which old-school c-suite capitalism has come to dominate a legalization movement once framed in utopian little-guy bootstrapper terms.
“[M]y thinking on cannabis has evolved,” Boehner wrote in a tweet announcing the news. He also cited, accurately, the drug’s capacity to help two groups accustomed to serving as political footballs: veterans and those struggling with opioid addiction.
Not named as drivers of his change of heart: The tens of millions of people, most of them black and Latinx, who’ve been sent to prison behind the pigheaded prohibitionism that Boehner helped uphold during his many years in office.
The investor class for the cannabis boom was always going to have a blanched demographic skew, given the yawning wealth gap between white people and non-white people in the United States. But even at the smaller-time entrepreneurial end of the weed economy, the cast is almost entirely white. That’s partly a reflection of the same inequality fundamentals, since someone who wants to get a state license for a weed business generally needs to have at least a quarter-million bucks just for fees and lawyers. But it’s also been welded into the legalization movement’s infrastructure. State laws typically bar anyone with a drug conviction from working in the weed industry, even as hourly retail workers let alone as a licensee who could turn his startup expenses into a fortune within a few years.
The type of industry role Boehner will play is likely to compensate him handsomely. An Acreage spokesperson declined to comment on the firm’s executive pay policies, but such positions typically pay a few thousand bucks per meeting for a few meetings a year — sometimes in cash, but often in the flightier currency of stock options. Whatever the size of Boehner’s windfall here, though, it’ll be more money than just about anyone imprisoned under the old policies he upheld can expect to make from legalization.
Acreage does not currently have any program or policy in place aimed at redressing the well-known racial injustices of the transition from prohibition to legalization, the spokesperson said.
It’s fitting on several levels that Boehner, who publicly insisted he’d never come around on legalization for years, chose to flip the table over at this time and in this way. The weed business has taken pains to make itself seem more adult, more in tune with the rhythms and mores of unfettered capitalism, more interested in mergers and acquisitions than in jam bands and human happiness. It has recrafted its image specifically to attract people like Boehner: unabashed free-market types who revere big business and deplore the touchy-feely.
Until a few weeks ago, the company Boehner is joining traded under the punny tongue-in-cheek moniker High Street Capital Partners. Acreage Holdings is a new, more serious-sounding name for a firm that’s spent the past six years doggedly chasing pole position in the green race.
However little a company’s name matters, the shift still illustrates something significant: A market space initially treated with cocked eyebrows and wry cracks about stoner stereotypes is reorganizing around the stale, staid dignity that American high commerce prefers.
Where other economic sectors are able to define themselves as they evolve, cannabis can’t escape the pull of those same deep-set symbols the culture’s been stamping into all of us since Reefer Madness. But if Boehner’s firm is trading the tie-dye for a tailored suit, they’re doing it in good company. The whole cannabis industry is already starting to look a lot like any other retail product space.
Multiple pot firms have set up factory-scale cultivation and refining campuses, seeking to profit as specialty landlords who never actually touch the drug — a transposition of the business model behind shopping malls. One of those titans plans to market a glossy branding line to producers that harkens back to Amway or the holistic supplements business. The conglomerate behind Corona beer has acquired a 10 percent stake in a Canadian weed company, and Canadian weed investors have hoovered up a handful of relatively small, objectively large American weed companies. A man in California is even launching a subscription weed service modeled off of newish e-commerce platforms that sell members on the promise of individually-curated monthly boxes of outerwear or gadgets or sports gear.
The faces behind those developments are overwhelmingly white. The marketplace they’re crafting has all the sleekness of the tech startup world, and less and less of the small-business opportunity-society idealism long associated with the legalization cause.
It isn’t all grim, of course. A more efficient and powerful weed lobby will be good for the prospect of further positive changes to the legal treatment of cannabis. Just as Big Tobacco’s influence has been good for cigarette smokers and the beverage industry lobby is good for people who like a tipple now and then to take the edge off, corporate weed with influential friends will shore up the interests of cannabis users every time it pushes to maximize its own profits through lobbying.
But the ideas that Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands for, and that Boehner stood for for so long while he was second in the line of presidential succession, are already starved for support.
A bipartisan caucus of lawmakers has denied the Department of Justice funding to attack medical marijuana for years, and is now beginning to push for an expanded version of that policy that would shield adult-use recreational pot firms from drug warriors in Washington too. Entrepreneurs and analysts alike all but laughed in Sessions’ face when he showily rescinded a series of memos governing DOJ handling of state-legal marijuana production and consumption, noting he stood no real chance of reversing the progress made at state level over the past half-decade because there’s simply too much money to be made.
If the Sessions-style crusade against legalization is already a lost cause beyond the industry lobby’s power to add or detract, there’s less luster to the fact that the pot lobby’s interests align generally with the public’s. The changes Sessions can’t overcome were wrought by voters, not the voracious capitalist forces legalization unleashed. The primary influence that latter force will have going forward will be to draw up high walls around the massive profits cannabis promises, capturing the greatest possible piece for the shareholder cigar-club class the industry’s been retrofitting itself to for years now. The people who carried the heaviest burdens of the drug war will now be clamoring for access to the rising tide Boehner’s new industry colleagues hope to capture for themselves.