What is a whistle blower? And why is he whistling about the government blocking cannabis?
Feature image credit: Susan Walsh/AP
What is a whistle blower? It’s someone who acts like John Elias.
Elias serves as a senior official in Antitrust Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. In that capacity, he was forced to go after several companies in the cannabis industry — even though they did nothing illegal — at the request of Attorney General William Barr.
His testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee demonstrates a jaw-dropping act of whistleblowing at the highest levels of government. It also shines light on how far Republican operatives are going in order to cripple America’s nascent cannabis industry.
What is a Whistle Blower Good for?
Elias testified under oath that the DOJ pestered cannabis companies about mergers and acquisitions not because of improper behavior — none was ever found — but because Barr disliked the industry.
Elias estimated twenty-nine percent of his office’s work involved pursuing pointless investigations meant to hurt cannabis companies meant to de-legitimize the cannabis industry. That’s a lot of wasted taxpayer money spent trying to intimidate a fully legitimate operation.
So how did it happen? Trump’s DOJ investigated cannabis companies trying to merge.
When the DOJ believes that a merger will create a monopoly or substantially lessen competition, it gets involved. Antitrust laws ensure that American consumers don’t fall prey to bad business practices and ensure fair competition exists.
Consumers may remember a recent antitrust ruling against Microsoft, whose Windows operating system forced consumers to use a Microsoft-created web browser. In this way, Microsoft effectively killed web browser competition for a dominant share of the market (Windows users). The government ordered them to allow other browsers to function on their operating system.
How The Move Affects Cannabis Companies
There is certainly nothing close to a monopoly on cannabis (unless you count weed for government research, which can only be made by one supplier).
But there are some large cannabis businesses. In 2019, two such companies — MedMen and PharmaCann — were trying to merge into one entity, so they filed the appropriate paperwork for government review.
Even though both of these businesses are big, officials in the Antitrust Division determined that a merger would not harm consumers because many other cannabis operations existed to serve consumers.
Then Barr involved himself. Overriding the work of senior staff and workers, he ordered that the companies go through a process called “second review” before the government would approve the merger.
Second review is labor-intensive process in which the government requests all of a company’s files that explain its products, market conditions, financial health and more. In many cases, the load of documents the government requests is so larger that companies with established legal teams still hire outside attorneys to help complete the project.
It takes valuable time away from company work and significantly slows down the merger. For these reasons, second reviews are only requested when competition is likely to be disrupted.
Or, in this case, when the attorney general has some problem with an entire industry. All told, the government subpoenaed 1.3 million documents from the companies. At least one attorney looked over every single one. The price tag was staggering. This is what a government plan to hurt cannabis looks like.
Barr’s Case Against Cannabis
What is a whistle Blower? Here’s a perfect explanation. John Elias blew the whistle about the DOJ’s involvement in the cannabis industry because he could prove the government wasn’t acting in good faith.
His testimony claims Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general, “acknowledged that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices in the DOJ headquarters building,” Elias said.
He added: “Personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation.”
The Spin Machine
Barr overruled his staff’s decision to let the PharmaCann-Medmen merger happen by claiming the DOJ had “not closely evaluated this industry before” and therefore needed more information before it could accurately assess the situation, according to Elias’ testimony.
However, that rational does not fit the legal basis described in the Department’s guidelines for investigating a merger. It’s akin to giving a student a failing grade on an essay because she used a word the teacher didn’t know.
But that’s not the only spin on this case.
For those wondering how right-leaning media feels about a clear reach of government overreach, it helps to examine a Fox News article about John Elias. Instead of answering the questions, “What is a whistle blower and why are they coming forward?” Fox seeks to ask whether a career government worker has ever worked with Democrats.
The article covers Republican congressman Doug Collins’ questioning of Elias during his testimony. The conduct of the U.S. attorney general did not interest Collins. Nor did why the government was spending taxpayer money on pointless, politically motivated actions. He only cared if Elias had ever sought out a job working for Democrats.
Fox Distorting Truth (Again)
Not if Elias had worked with Democrats. If he had talked to them about possibly taking a job. Spoiler alert: He had. Better spoiler alert: He didn’t actually take the job.
The article even includes an embedded tweet from Collins, which says that Elias’ taking a meeting about a job with Democrats “tells you all you need to know” about the issue. What is a whistle blower, again? Is it someone whose career options prevent them from telling the truth? Fox News and Doug Collins would have us think so.
Hopefully, Soon We Won’t Have To Ask What a Whistle Blower Is
It’s sad that the world needs whistle blowers, but it’s even sadder that they seldom make a difference.
John Elias could face harsh repercussions for telling the truth about the Trump administration’s DOJ. That isn’t the way it should be. We should celebrate him for bringing corruption to light.
It’s clear that as long as anti-science politicians run government agencies, we’ll always need whistle blowers. But there also places in the private sector, such as in Big Tobacco companies, where whistle blowers can do a world of good.
So: “What is a whistle blower in the cannabis space?” Hopefully soon, workers who turn in their bosses for embezzlement will answer that question. It’d be better if they did, rather than government lawyers who shine a lot on powerful men trying to kneecap a medical industry.