Some of America’s most prominent pot prohibitionists stand to make fortunes from legal cannabis. Who are they, and how are they exploiting the reform movement while also delaying it?
Money talks, and BS walks. Cannabis is money. Its haters are BS. And as weed teeters on the twilight of nationwide legalization, haters are falling in love with the smell of money.
These days, we see hypocrites at every turn. Those who once demonized cannabis may soon grow wealthy from it. Some push against legalization while secretly profiting from legal cannabis. Some pretend they’re defending the plant, while continuing to inflict damage on the cannabis community and reform advocates. Others are opportunists, positioning themselves as experts only after they put the real experts in prison.
This was bound to happen. And it’s been happening. Cannabis is now a legit billion-dollar industry on track to join the trillion-dollar club. So who are these hypocrites, the two-faced exploiters and profiteers?
Bullish drew up a list including a few of the most powerful Americans who made this nation a drug war battlefield yet are poised to grow wealthy (well, even wealthier) from cannabis legalization. We want to emphasize this, so pardon the redundancy: These titans are making bank off bud, despite causing irreparable damage to marginalized communities across many, many decades over the very same plant — and they haven’t even hit a dab rig.
Former Speaker of the House
Board Member, Acreage Holdings
As House Majority leader, John Boehner (R-Ohio) once fought tooth-and-e-nail against cannabis reform. In 2011 he wrote that he was “unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana.” Why? He feared legalization “will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol” — the latter being a drug he enjoyed on the taxpayers’ dime.
While in Congress, Boehner helped block medical cannabis in Washington, DC; defeated amendments to prevent the feds from busting cannabis patients; voted to ramp up the War on Drugs in Mexico multiple times; and expanded harsh sentencing for juveniles, hundreds of thousands of whom have been incarcerated on pot offenses.
After nearly three decades in office and well over a hundred thousand marijuana arrests in his state of Ohio, he now serves on the board of Acreage Holdings, a weed investment firm. Between his shares in Acreage and Canadian pot company Canopy Growth, he’ll make between $16 million to $20 million when the US federally legalizes weed. His lucrative new post-political career includes helping rich people get richer from legal cannabis, too, via a paywalled stock tip newsletter.
Normally, we’d applaud someone like Boehner turning over a new (pot) leaf. He’s even said he might try a puff of ganja someday. But despite Boehner’s best intentions, he’s still doing damage. He still doesn’t get it.
In 2018, after joining Acreage, Boehner said during an NPR interview that he didn’t think there was “any harm that’s been done” by criminalizing cannabis. Obviously Boehner’s never been to prison or tried finding a real job with a felony on his record.
Senate Minority Leader
Champion of Hemp, Hater of Weed
Name a federal cannabis bill in recent years that could’ve changed the ganja game, and there’s a good chance Senator Mitch McConnell blocked it while running the US Senate from 2015 to January 2021. Well, all except one: The so-called 2018 Farm Bill. That bill legalized hemp nationwide, and McConnell was one of its biggest cheerleaders.
Ol’ Cocaine Mitch thought hemp was the nice guy’s version of weed, the one which doesn’t get anyone high. (That’s not entirely true anymore, but thanks anyway, Mitch!) As the story goes, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul convinced McConnell hemp and “marijuana” weren’t the same thing.
McConnell’s conversion to cannabis turned him into a champion of hemp. He became the most powerful Republican to push the 2018 Farm Bill. McConnell (and Paul’s) state of Kentucky is now the fourth largest producer of hemp in the US. Roughly 1,000 Kentuckians farm hemp, which is “four times more profitable than corn or soybeans and offers growth potential and better returns than tobacco,” CNBC reported in 2019.
McConnell also has millions of dollars sitting in Vanguard, a mutual fund company which holds about $47 million in cannabis stocks. The MORE Act (to legalize weed nationwide) and the SAFE Act (to permit federal weed banking) passed House votes but are still in Senate-limbo, largely thanks to McConnell and the GOP.
Former DEA Chief
CBD Consultant for the Consumer Brands Association
OK, here’s another exercise. Name a major food brand. Chances are, it belongs to the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) trade group. Trade groups unify multiple corporations to develop business plans together, execute strategies, and set prices. In 2019, CBA formed a special CBD Advisory Board to help its member corporations jump into the CBD game.
Of course, not a single member of CBA’s board has previously worked in the cannabis industry. And one board member, in particular, even built her career destroying the lives of cannabis patients and activists.
Once the chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (2003-2007), Karen Tandy now works as a CBD consultant on the Consumer Brands Association’s board. Back in the ‘90s, she busted Canadian pot activist Marc Emery for selling some seeds to American tourists — in Canada. At the time, she boasted about how the bust would derail the legalization movement.
Tandy’s pay rate at the CBD board remains a secret. But given she runs a business consulting agency, it looks like she’s beefing up a new resume to help megacorps legally deal cannabis products, psychoactive or otherwise. Funny, given she not only raided multiple state-legal medical cannabis operations during her tenure at the DEA, but also obstructed medical cannabis research in the US.
To be fair, Peter Thiel has long supported legal weed. After all, he’s a tech bro. Tech bros tend to love weed (among other party favors). He founded PayPal and Uber, and once invested in the cannabis media site and data platform Leafly.
Today, his investment firm Privateer Holdings owns a 76% stake, currently worth $1.6 billion, in the Canadian pot company Tilray. (It was worth about $14-18 billion when Privateer first bought in.) Tilray is publicly listed on the Canadian and US stock exchanges. In January, it partnered with Anheuser-Busch InBev to distribute Sweetwater Brewing’s beer in Colorado. Thiel’s investment in Tilray will likely swell once the US follows Canada’s footsteps to nationwide legalization.
Additionally, Thiel bankrolled a number of enlightened legislators, too. Rand Paul, Ron Paul, and Dana Rohrabacher have been friendly to legal weed. Even Orrin Hatch backs medicinal cannabis.
So, what makes Thiel a hypocrite?
While he’s helped weed-friendly Republicans stay in office, Thiel also cut checks for Tom Cotton (who reportedly once said that voters didn’t care about legalization), Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (who told pot activists to “Go eat Doritos!” during a debate), and Ted Cruz (who expanded costly drug testing for Americans on unemployment benefits).
Thiel’s campaign donations extend to the entire Republican party. A party which unofficially claims cannabis legalization should be “left to the states,” then does everything in its power to prevent reforms in its strongholds. Thiel’s large donations to the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC helped Mitch McConnell block key weed reform bills for years. He also gave a whopping $2 million to prohibitionist Carly Fiorina’s presidential super PAC in 2020.
Now that Sheldon Adelson’s kicked the bucket, the top billionaire blocking weed legalization is arguably Philip Anschutz. Ironically, Anschutz lives in the Mile High City of Denver, the first US city to sell regulated, recreational pot.
Anschutz has pumped money into Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and Smart Colorado, two of America’s largest anti-pot organizations (which, even more ironically, are also based in Denver). In 2015 and 2016, the Anschutz Foundation gave Smart Colorado a total of $160,000. In 2016, SAM received $50,000 from the foundation. And he provided $3 million to launch CeDAR, an anti-weed drug rehab clinic at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
Dr. Christian Hopfer, who runs CeDAR, said in an interview that the cannabis industry “isn’t that much different than the alcohol industry or the tobacco industry or the sugar industry. It’s what you’d expect in a capitalist economy with a reinforcing substance.” Compare Hopfer’s talking point to statements made by SAM’s Kevin Sabet, who also fearmongers the cannabis industry as an addiction-for-profit scheme akin to Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco. Birds of a feather, no?
Additionally, Anschutz’s charitable donations include hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-weed Christian organizations in 2016, such as Young Life ($186,000) and Dare 2 Share Ministries ($50,000). Both organizations peddle the myth of legal weed leading to rampant teen pot use. Multiple studies confirm a spike in teen use has not happened following cannabis reform. If anything, teen use has gone down in legalized states.
What makes Anschutz a hypocrite, though? Granted, we don’t know if Anschutz has weed investments like Peter Thiel or John Boehner. He built his fortune from railroads, oil, and real estate, but these days he makes his money from music festivals, movie theaters, concerts, and pro sports events. He owns AEG, the Coachella Music Festival, and — this is where things get interesting — the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Staples Center is the home arena of the LA Kings, the LA Clippers, and the LA Lakers. Some of its biggest sponsors include Pepsi Co. and Anhesuer-Busch InBev, the beer company. The Staples Center is also partnered with Constellation Brands to sell Modelo and Corona beers at its concession stands.
Pepsi, Anheuser Busch, and Constellation Brands all have skin in the legal cannabis game. Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch InBev sell cannabis-infused beverages. Constellation Brands owns a controlling stake of Canopy Growth, one of Canada’s biggest weed companies. So, Anschutz may hate cannabis, but he’s got no problem with his business taking payola from name-brand corporations that are mainstreaming, and profiting from, legal cannabis.
However, in all fairness, Anschutz is a high-roller. He’s got his fingers in a lot of pies. It’s inevitable that he’d partner with companies invested in weed. Except the Staples Center took money from an actual pot company: WeedMaps.
In 2019, the big Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones, Jr. fight took place at the Staples Center. It netted $80 million from Pay Per View broadcasts alone, placing it in the Top 10 grossing boxing matches of all time. WeedMaps, the “Google Maps of Weed,” sponsored the event. Anschutz doesn’t stand to profit from legal weed; he already is profiting from legal weed.
He could make even more, though. The Coachella Music Festival currently bans cannabis on its grounds, even though weed is legal in California. Outside Lands, another festival based in California, made over $1 million selling legal weed on site. If Coachella ever changes its policy, it, and Anschutz, would likely see similar sales figures.
BS Talks, Money Walks
Really, we could find hypocrisy just about anywhere in this country. As the saying goes, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. Or is there?
The thing is, even though the people listed here may be hypocrites, they’re still making money from legal weed. That fact alone not only means cannabis has gone mainstream, it means it’s changing minds and winning hearts. At the end of the day, BS may talk, but money certainly can walk society in the right direction, too.
Ethical consumption — and ethical investments and profits — require giving back to those harmed most by the War on Cannabis. The people listed above, and everyone else like them, have an obligation to right the wrongs of the past. Social justice programs are a step in the right direction. Bills like the MORE Act include social justice provisions. These prohibitionist profiteers ought to throw their financial support behind bills and programs designed to help drug war victims get a piece of the pot pie.
Basically, consider who gets your hard-earned money, and consider how that could change things for the better — or the worse.