Former head of Michigan medical marijuana licensing board pleads guilty to accepting bribes

The former head of a Michigan medical marijuana licensing board has agreed to plead guilty to accepting $110,000 in bribes to influence his decisions when he led the panel over a two-year period, authorities said Thursday.

Charges against Rick Johnson and three other men were announced by U.S. Attorney Mark Totten at a press conference in the capital, Lansing.

Johnson was chairman of the marijuana board for two years until spring 2019. The Republican also was one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Capitol, serving as House speaker from 2001-04.

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“Public corruption is a poison to any democracy. … That poison is especially toxic here,” Totten said. “The marijuana industry has been likened to a modern-day gold rush, a new frontier where participants can stake their claim and just maybe return big rewards.”

The marijuana board reviewed and approved applications to grow and sell marijuana for medical purposes.

Rick Johnson chairs the Michigan medical marijuana licensing board as it meets before a capacity crowd in Lansing, Michigan, on June 26, 2017. Federal authorities said on April 6, 2023, that Johnson accepted more than $100,000 in bribes and agreed to plead guilty.

Rick Johnson chairs the Michigan medical marijuana licensing board as it meets before a capacity crowd in Lansing, Michigan, on June 26, 2017. Federal authorities said on April 6, 2023, that Johnson accepted more than $100,000 in bribes and agreed to plead guilty. (Dale G Young/Detroit News via AP, File)

Johnson and the others have signed agreements to plead guilty in coming weeks and the investigation is ongoing, said Totten, the federal prosecutor in western Michigan.

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A message seeking comment from Johnson’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned.

Johnson accepted $110,200 in cash and benefits from at least two companies while voting in favor of granting them marijuana licenses, according to the charge filed in federal court in Grand Rapids.

Johnson “provided valuable non-public information about the anticipated rules and operation of the board and assistance with license application matters,” the court filing states.

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A man who was seeking a license was charged with paying bribes, and two lobbyists were charged with a bribery conspiracy.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer abolished the medical marijuana board in 2019, a few months after taking office, and put oversight of the industry inside a state agency.

Michigan voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2008. A decade later, voters approved the recreational use of marijuana.

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