One of the world’s largest marijuana companies announced the formation of an international advisory board on Thursday. Among those joining the team at Tilray are former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who also served as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, and Michael Steele, who headed the Republican National Committee (RNC) and served as Maryland’s lieutenant governor.
That the former chairs of both major parties are entering the legal cannabis industry reflects the narrowing political divide over the issue. But it also seems to reflect a personal evolution on the issue for Dean, who two decades ago as governor of Vermont opposed even legalizing industrial hemp out of concern that it would lead to marijuana legalization.
”I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to do that. It sends the wrong message to our kids,” he said at the time. “I think the principal interest of the advocates is to legalize marijuana.”
According to legalization advocates, Dean also effectively blocked a vote on a medical cannabis bill that was going through the Vermont legislature in 2002, repeatedly arguing that neither voters nor lawmakers should be able to implement a legal medical marijuana system because, to him, it was a public health decision and up to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine whether the plant had therapeutic value.
Though he later attempted to distance himself from more aggressive anti-marijuana actions at the federal level while running for the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination, he declined to rule out ending raids against medical cannabis facilities—but he did say individual patients suffering from serious illnesses shouldn’t be raided or locked up over marijuana.
During his ultimately failed presidential bid, Dean said he would require the FDA to completed a scientific assessment of cannabis within one year and that he was willing to accept whatever outcome the agency arrived at.
In the years since, he has remained sheepish about legalization, though he’s voiced support for decriminalization and said that “we need to completely change the way we deal with drug laws in this country.”
Steele, for his part, has talked frequently in recent years about the need to end federal cannabis prohibition and also cultivate a legal industry that’s inclusive and responsible. But during his time at the RNC, the party declined to embrace reform as part of its platform.
In an editorial for The Hill earlier this year, Steele said he’s a “strong supporter of medical marijuana.”
“I favor state-based access to medical marijuana from both a philosophical and policy standpoint,” he wrote. “I also support the reform of our federal cannabis laws to bring conformity to federal regulations and state laws.”
Later, he seemed to back broader legalization in an interview with Arcview.
“I don’t have a problem with adult use as long as it’s appropriately regulated and taxed and all those other things that make sure that it doesn’t get into the hands of anyone under a certain age,” he said. “And so there are ways that you can approach the private, personal use of cannabis beyond the medical scope that I think can go to address a number of the concerns that people have.”
Dean and Steele both appeared on a HuffPost Live segment in 2012, where they discussed the failures of the drug war and the shifting politics of reform. Now, the two political leaders will reunite to advise Tilray executives as the company “pursues its aggressive global growth strategy.”
Other members of the new international advisory board include former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, former Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaime Gama and former New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Donald McKinnon.
“We are honored to welcome this impressive group of distinguished leaders to the Tilray team,” company CEO Brendan Kennedy said in a press release on Wednesday. “As we pioneer the future of our industry around the world, the experts on our International Advisory Board will advise us on our rapidly expanding global business.”
The former DNC and RNC chairs aren’t the only former politics bigwigs to make headlines over embracing the legal industry. Former House Speaker John Boehner joined the advisory board of another marijuana firm, Acreage Holdings, earlier this year, announcing that he’s “all in on the cannabis industry.” Previously, he had said he was “unalterably opposed” to legalization.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.