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Stateside Podcast: Michigan's medical marijuana bribery scheme

Michigan Capitol building in Lansing on a summer day.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
The Michigan Capitol building in Lansing.

On Wednesday, two men were sentenced for paying bribes to Rick Johnson while he served as the chair of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. On today’s podcast, Mark Totten, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, joined us to talk more about the case.

What was Johnson charged with?

Johnson pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, including commercial sex services, while administering the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. He was sentenced to 55 months in prison.

How extensive were these bribes?

The Western District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office reported that Johnson received at least $110,000 in bribes, which ranged from cash payments to commercial sex.

“There was a very, you know, deliberate scheme to try to conceal it, the use of multiple losses to launder the money, burner phones, code names — a whole attempt to try to conceal this from the eyes of law enforcement and from the eyes of the public,” Totten said.

Totten’s office also determined that Johnson was at the center of these bribes, with Johnson often demanding money and using his position to increase his personal wealth.

Did the newness of medical marijuana’s regulatory body create more opportunities for corruption?

Totten noted that many people have described this emerging market as a “possible green gold rush.” With Michigan’s marijuana industry generating billions of dollars last year, it’s a lucrative market. Considering how much money is in the industry, and the relatively short time period in which the industry has been regulated, there are opportunities for corruption.

While the newness of this regulatory body may have left more doors open for corruption, Totten also said that public corruption can happen anywhere, in any industry.

Are these public corruption cases within the marijuana industry present in other states?

Totten asserted that this type of bribery could happen anywhere.

“I don't know that there was anything unique here. I think you had some defendants in this case that came into this position intent on using it to pad their own pockets,” Totten said. “And honestly, it was really quite a brazen enterprise.”

Is the investigation ongoing?

Yes. However, at this time, Totten said his office cannot comment on whether or not other individuals will be sentenced.

Why is public corruption such a serious crime?

“In our system, power finally resides in the people. And anyone who wields that power as a public official has to do so as a steward in the interests of the people they represent,” Totten said. “When an appointed or elected official uses their power to serve their own interests, it attacks the rule of law itself, which is why we take these types of cases so seriously.”

How does Johnson’s 55-month sentence compare to other bribery offenses?

Totten stated that the national sentencing average for bribery offenses in 2022 was 23 months. In 2020, it was 15 months — making Johnson’s sentence a very steep one.

Totten noted that he, along with the federal judge on this case, “understands that perhaps the most important aspect of the punishment here is general deterrence, that we send a message to officeholders and appointed officials that this kind of crime will not be tolerated.”

“I hope lawmakers, policymakers are paying attention to what's happened here,” Totten said.


  • Mark Totten, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.