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Ex-politicians are lining up to profit off the end of their war on marijuana

NBC News logo NBC News 6/12/2019 Matt Laslo
John Boehner wearing a suit and tie: Image: John Boehner, Key Speakers At The 2016 SALT Conference © David Paul Morris Image: John Boehner, Key Speakers At The 2016 SALT Conference

Lock your doors, shut your blinds and hide your kids. There's a danger lurking about that's menacing suburban, rural and urban communities alike: hypocritical politicians trying to get rich off the nation's burgeoning marijuana industry.

Beware. The list is long and growing.

After years of blocking cannabis proposals and deriding the plant, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, became the most high profile hypocrite when he — along with former Massachusetts governor and now long-shot presidential candidate Bill Weld — joined the board of the Canadian marijuana firm Acreage Holding.

Both men reportedly have 625,000 shares of the firm, which could sell for around $3 billion; according to The New York Times, each man could net as much as $20 million. Still, Boehner denies his new position on marijuana is motivated purely by profit.

"No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No," Boehner told me earlier this year when I bumped into him walking the grounds of the Capitol. "I just kind of found myself, like a lot of Americans, beginning to look at this differently as the states began to approve this one after another."

While Boehner isn't a registered lobbyist, he's certainly encouraging his former colleagues to legalize marijuana federally, which would give him a huge payday. And Boehner's not alone.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and ex-Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, both Democrats, are now on the board of Northern Swan Holdings, a cannabis investment firm based in New York. Combined, the two spent close to five decades as elected officials in Washington and never even co-sponsored a marijuana bill until Crowley was facing a primary challenge from now Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, during which he added his name to a pre-existing marijuana reform bill.

And it's not just American politicos seeking to get rich off the globe's billion-dollar cannabis industry. Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak are both on the boards of cannabis firms, and former Mexican President Vicente Fox is also now cashing in on marijuana (even though he was no friend of weed while in office).

It's great that these powerful men have seen the light after long public careers built, in part, on their staunch support for the failed war on drugs, but they seem to be motivated by a different shade of green than other marijuana advocates.

Being motivated by money is certainly their right, but it seems that, as part of these conversions, they should also feel a moral obligation to help right many of the numerous wrongs of the war on drugs that they helped perpetuate over their storied careers.

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Millions of Americans have been arrested and had their lives upended simply for possessing marijuana. In 2017 — well after more than half of states had legalized medical marijuana and some had announced full legalization and/or decriminalization initiatives — 659,700 people were arrested for marijuana, and a staggering 90.8 percent of those arrests were merely for possessing weed, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. And, while African Americans and Latinos make up 31.5 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 46.9 percent of those arrests.

Those arrests — which have steadily increased since the war on drugs was officially launched in the '70s — have left whole communities blighted to this day. And many of those arrested, especially those who were lower income and/or minorities, have been basically locked out of the U.S. economy ever since, because those felonies have followed them around like a scarlet letter.

There are some proposals floating around Capitol Hill to address that problem head on. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize cannabis at the federal level while giving clean slates to nonviolent marijuana offenders. It also sets up a fund to provide things like job training in the communities that have been ripped apart by high incarceration rates — and those are rarely white communities. That's why Booker tells me he won't even support a federal legalization bill unless it offers a ray of hope to minorities.

"At this point it's too obvious and urgent and unfair that we're moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn't do something on restorative justice," Booker told me this year. "I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities."

Another proposal that's still being crafted would allow the Small Business Administration to start giving loans and advice to minorities who are trying to get into the nation's ballooning cannabis industry.

These bills may or may not be the best solutions, but they're at least hopefully redirecting the conversation in Washington away from just the dollar bills, which looks to be the motivating factor for many prohibitionist politicians turned pot proponents.

(There are, to be fair, at least two former American lawmakers cashing in on cannabis that stand out from the rest, because they actually advocated for legalization while in office: Former Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, both Republicans. They deserve all the green — of whichever variety they choose — that they want. But they're clearly in the minority.)

The increasing number of former lawmakers now making bank off the backs of many of the nation's minority communities — the very communities their policies helped suppress and depress — need to take a hard look in their fancy mirrors, because they seem to still be the problem, not a solution to the mess they helped create.

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