“I became intrigued by the medical and the medicinal advantages, and the opportunities that cannabis provides.”
When it comes to cannabis, Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had a change of heart. During his tenure as a public servant, he preferred keeping marijuana in the DEA’s Schedule I category, alongside drugs that aren’t considered safe to use even under medical supervision.
“I was into all of that mindset for many years. I experienced the 60s and 70s and saw the downside of drugs,” Daschle tells Benzinga. “And I think there was a mentality that the best way to address drug abuse and the challenges we face with drugs generally, not necessarily just cannabis, was to try to dissuade people from using drugs by enforcing the laws. And I think that mentality was very pervasive and it was bipartisan.”
Today, the scenario has changed. Cannabis is legal for all adults in 11 states, for medical purposes in 34 and five more states—New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota—recently voted to legalize it. And Daschle has changed his tune.
Last year, he even joined the Board of Advisors for cannabis company Clever Leaves Holdings Inc, a multinational cannabis company with cultivation operations in Colombia and Portugal. The former senator knows Clever Leaves CEO and co-founder Kyle Detwiler well. They are both South Dakotans.
“We have a state connection,” Daschle says. “Kyle has a photo with me when he was in high school and I was in Congress.”
In 1978, Daschle was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served eight years. In 1986, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and was chosen as Senate Democratic Leader in 1994. With his political career behind him, Daschle is lending his expertise to the business of cannabis.
“But, over time, science, more information, new approaches to medicine, and really some appreciation of the disjointed history around all of this—it all came to converge,” Daschle adds. “And I became intrigued by the medical and the medicinal advantages, and the opportunities that cannabis provides.”
There are also deals to get done. Daschle, however, downplays the lucrative aspects of the business.
“Frankly, I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t need the money. I’ve been very successful in life. And money isn’t a motivator,” he says. “I’m at a point where I want to do the things I really care about. I want to do the things where I think I can still add some value. I want to do some things that could maybe matter for my children, and grandchildren, and for future generations. So money isn’t a real motivation for me. I’m happy to accept monetary compensation for the things that I do. But I must say there are many things far more important to me than the money.”
The Full Spectrum
Daschle isn’t the only politico to have changed his mind about cannabis in recent years. Former speaker of the House John Boehner was once “unalterably opposed” to cannabis legalization. Today, he sits on the board of New York-based cannabis company Acreage Holdings.
President-elect Joe Biden’s political career was also opposed to cannabis. Yet, during his 2020 campaign, Biden stated that his administration would pursue cannabis decriminalization and expunge cannabis convictions.
For Daschle, his focus is on the medical benefits.
“I’ve done quite a bit of reading. I don’t think there was any one moment where it just clicked, it was an evolution. I recognize that, in healthcare especially, things are changing dramatically,” Daschle says. “We’re in the middle of a transformation in healthcare, COVID-driven in part, but driven by many different factors.”
Among these factors generating change in healthcare is the advent of cannabis as mainstream medicine. As a military veteran himself, Daschle is particularly interested in the use of cannabis for the treatment of PTSD.
“One of the things that I have taken a great interest in over all of my professional life are veterans. And I served on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees for 26 years,” he says. “So I took a real interest in PTSD and came to appreciate the potential of cannabis as we look to the medicinal advantages and opportunities that it may provide for not only PTSD patients, but others as well.”
In his view, the DEA needs to reschedule the plant so it can be studied.
“Rescheduling is really key to our efforts, and that opens up a plethora of opportunity for more research, more understanding,” he declares.
But, when will we see cannabis rescheduled and legalized? In the former politician’s view, it’s just a matter of time.
“I think the patchwork that we have today is a step in the right direction. But you don’t really know when you go from one state to the next what the laws are; you have to do your own research to find out. And while it’s not that difficult to do, I think it is important for us to have a national, rather than a statewide, framework. And I think that day will come relatively soon.”
This month, a historic vote was made in the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill constructed to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances and abolish criminal penalties connected to cannabis.
The House subsequently passed a bill to reduce barriers and broaden scientific research into medical cannabis. It also enables private manufacturing and distribution of cannabis exclusively for research demands.
“We’ve made great progress in the last election on state ballot issues across the country,” Daschle says. “I think we can continue to do that. In the meantime, we ought to continue to elevate the issue at the federal level and hope that more and more members in Congress understand, as I’ve come to understand, just what potential there is.”
Why Clever Leaves?
There are three reasons for Daschle’s being bullish when it comes to Clever Leaves.
“One, their adherence to law and their determination to stay within the parameters of current law, and to respect that they’ve done that extremely well,” he says. “Secondly, their dedication to medical applications of cannabis; that really is what led me to explore the partnership and the relationship we have. And I think they’re just getting started. There’s some real potential there.”
Third is the company’s international breadth and scope, he explains.
“An amazing success story in a very short period of time, obviously starting in Colombia, Canada and Europe, with Portugal,” Daschle adds. “And that’s just an enormous footprint for a cannabis company as young as it is and has really done extremely well. So I’m impressed with their international scope, their focus on medicine and my personal relationship with people like Kyle.”
Daschle also touts that it’s “so much easier to run a successful cannabis business legally” in Colombia than it is in the United States.
“That will change and, as it does, I’m sure Clever Leaves’ footprint in the United States will grow dramatically,” he says. “But also I think Colombia has a great economy. I’ve been there on a number of occasions and have a great affection and fondness for the country. I’ve traveled the country quite a bit, so I’ve had the opportunity to better understand Colombia. And obviously, because of its remarkable growing environment, it’s perfect for the cannabis production aspects of our lives.”
Whether Daschle will partake in using cannabis himself remains to be seen.
“You know, I like a good glass of wine. I like a good brandy or a good gin,” he says. “I have to admit, I’m not a user of cannabis, but I think people find it to be recreationally equivalent to moderate use of alcohol. And everything in moderation sounds to me like the best approach going forward.”