When it comes to marijuana, Barney Frank and Bill Weld were both decades ahead of the political curve.
Frank, the longtime former Massachusetts congressman, supported legalization when he was a state representative in the early 1970s. Weld, for his part, backed medical marijuana as the governor of Massachusetts in the early 1990s. (Neither proposal went anywhere.)
Now, it’s Frank who will follow in Weld’s footsteps by joining a marijuana company. But while Weld last year joined the board of a slick conglomerate with national ambitions, Frank is linking up with a decidedly less corporate operation: Beantown Greentown, a local group of underground growers, marketers, and event organizers — you may remember their 100-foot joint stunt — trying to go legit.
Frank told TWIW this week that he met Beantown Greentown co-founder Andrew Mutty through his husband’s brother; both are avid snowboarders and surfers.
Impressed by the company’s business plans and the longtime dedication of its founders to cannabis as more than just a profitable commodity, Frank has agreed to make public appearances on Greentown Beantown’s behalf and use his political connections to push for further liberalization of marijuana laws, especially at the federal level. In exchange, Frank gets a 1.5 percent stake in the firm, which is applying for state cannabis licenses.
“I have no objection in principle to corporations, but I think the people who have been working away on this forever shouldn’t get squeezed out,” Frank explained in an interview. “I like the fact that, for them, it’s both a business and an ideological commitment. It gave me confidence there aren’t going to be any unethical practices or exploitation — they’re part of the community they’re trying to serve.”
Locally, Frank said he’d like to see more small businesses and cooperatives such as Beantown Greentown succeed in the Massachusetts cannabis industry. After all, he pointed out, the Ocean Spray cranberry co-op is one of the state’s most successful nationally-known companies. The former congressman also urged the Cannabis Control Commission to authorize social consumption and delivery licenses.
“Of course we should have them,” Frank scoffed, referring to marijuana cafes. “Marijuana is much less deleterious in its social impact than alcohol. We have bars, which generate by far the most impaired driving, so I don’t understand what the problem would be.” As for delivery, he said, the state should simply emulate the rules governing alcohol delivery.
On the national level, Frank is extremely bullish about the prospects of proposed federal marijuana reforms.
Frank said his friend and former colleague Ed Perlmutter, a Democratic congressman from Colorado who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, recently “guaranteed” him that a bill allowing banks to legally service state-regulated marijuana companies would become law this year.
“It’s going to pass the House overwhelmingly,” Frank predicted. “Democrats want it. Banks want it. The Republicans are split. But the main obstacle before was [former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, who was obstinate on this, and now he’s gone.”
Frank said he was hopeful that even the Republican-controlled Senate would back legislation allowing banks to work with cannabis operators. He noted that two of the body’s most politically-vulnerable members — Republicans Cory Gardner and Susan Collins of Colorado and Maine, respectively — both come from states where the drug has been legalized.
“Cory [Gardner] is going to go to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch [McConnell] and say, ‘hey, if you want me back in office, we need to pass this bill,’ “ Frank said. “I’m fully convinced it will be legal for banks to take this money by the end of the year.”
I won’t endorse such an emphatic prediction, but given the source, we have to treat it as more than just idle speculation. Frank, after all, once chaired the House Financial Services Committee and in 2010 lent his name to the landmark Dodd-Frank Act, the most comprehensive overhaul of the country’s financial sector in a generation or more.
Frank’s support of medical marijuana and full legalization long predates the more recent upswing in public support for those policies, which are now backed by a strong majority of Americans; he filed a number of pro-marijuana bills while in office, and even used the occasion of his retirement in 2012 to push the issue.
“When I announced my retirement [in 2011], [then-President Barack] Obama invited me and my husband to a private lunch,” Frank recounted. “I only raised two issues with him: cutting military spending and allowing states that had legalized marijuana to go forward without federal prosecution.” Obama, he said, agreed in principle.
The ultimate goal, Frank added, is full federal legalization.
“I’ve been a major advocate for that my whole career,” Frank said. “It’s just good public policy, and it would actually improve people’s respect for federal law.”
Asked whether he thinks President Donald J. Trump would back legalization, Frank is again optimistic.
“A lot of Trump voters smoke this stuff,” he said.