The last remaining young Democrat in Congress to vocally oppose the legalization of marijuana has changed his mind.
“I believe legalization is our best chance to actually dedicate resources toward consumer safety, abuse prevention, and treatment for those who need it,” Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) wrote in an op-ed published on Tuesday. “It is our best chance to ensure that addiction is treated as a public health issue — not a criminal justice one.”
As a member of Congress, Kennedy, 38, not only opposed his home state of Massachusetts’s move to legalize marijuana, but has consistently voted against House amendments to shield state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, allow military veterans to access medical marijuana and protect children who use non-psychoactive cannabidiol extracts to treat severe seizure disorders.
Most other Democratic lawmakers—and a growing number of Republicans—are supporting policy changes like the ones Kennedy has opposed. And in the latest national Gallup poll, solidly two out of three Americans—including 75 percent of Democrats and even 53 percent of Republicans—now say it is time to legalize marijuana outright.
As such, Kennedy has been an outlier in his caucus when it comes to cannabis, something he admitted in an interview earlier this year.
“That’s a tough issue for me. I come at it a little bit differently, obviously, than the vast majority of my colleagues,” he said. “I hear their position. I really do. I’m in a state that voted for [legalization].”
In a separate interview he conceded that “the party is clearly moving in that legalization direction. It might already be there.”
Beyond any legitimate policy-based concerns underlying Kennedy’s shift, it would seem that opposing marijuana legalization has become a politically untenable position for a young lawmaker who many have floated as a potential future presidential candidate.
In the new op-ed, published on the health website STAT, Kennedy said that his longtime reluctance to embrace marijuana reform stems from his “ongoing work with the mental health and addiction communities.”
But now he says he realizes that “federal policy on marijuana is badly broken, benefiting neither the elderly man suffering from cancer whom marijuana may help nor the young woman prone to substance use disorder whom it may harm.”
Our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken — failing to benefit those the drug may help and protect those the drug may harm. It's time to legalize and regulate at the federal level.https://t.co/9QknhLLFYv
— Joe Kennedy (@joekennedy) November 20, 2018
So Kennedy is calling for the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a move commonly referred to as descheduling. In the op-ed, he cites racial disparities in prohibition enforcement, cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banks and jeopardized public housing opportunities for people who consume marijuana as reasons the policy change is needed.
“As long as marijuana remains regulated by the CSA, the federal government is barred from rectifying these failures or acting with any oversight authority as states move ahead with reform at record pace. So a broken, patchwork system flourishes in our country today with no federal guardrails — like the ones we have for alcohol and tobacco — to protect public health and safety and ensure equal justice.”
From health care to criminal justice, the failures of our nation's prohibition on marijuana can be seen in every corner of our society. Status quo isn’t working & states aren’t turning back. It’s time to legalize & regulate marijuana at the federal level. Read my @STATnews op/ed: https://t.co/q5ZHzYpRwz
— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) November 20, 2018
“Legalization would restore the federal government’s ability to regulate a powerful new industry thoroughly and thoughtfully,” he writes. “It would allow us to set packaging and advertising rules, so marketing can’t target kids. It would help set labeling requirements and quality standards, so consumers know exactly what they’re buying. It would ensure that we can dedicate funding to encourage safe use and spread awareness about the risks of impaired driving. And it would create tax revenue for research on mental health effects, safe prescription drugs, and a reliable roadside test.”
It remains to be seen whether Kennedy’s new position on cannabis will be matched with actions to cosponsor legislation to end federal prohibition.
“My concerns about the public health impact of marijuana remain. But it has become clear that prohibition has wholly failed to address them.”
Either way, his new op-ed is one of the clearest signals yet that the politics of marijuana have shifted. And it is sure to disappoint his relative and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who is a cofounder of prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and continues to be a leading voice against legalizing cannabis.
SAM released a statement saying that while the congressman’s op-ed “articulates an understandable frustration” about federal marijuana laws, the group’s leaders “do not agree” with his decision to back legalization.
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 20, 2018
The announcement of the younger Kennedy’s shift comes on the same day legal recreational marijuana sales began in his home state of Massachusetts, where voters overwhelmingly approved a cannabis legalization ballot measure despite his objections in 2016.
The congressman began to reconsider his position earlier this year, he indicated in an interview with WGBH radio.
“The federal government policy on this is incoherent, and the federal government needs to get far more coherent on this,” he said at the time, while stopping short of endorsing legalization. “For states that have put in place the proper safeguards and procedures, I’d be inclined to support those states.”
But he received criticism when, during a separate interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein suggested that marijuana should be kept illegal in order to make it easier for police to search people’s vehicles.
“If you smelled [marijuana] in a car, you could search a car,” he said. “When it became decriminalized, you couldn’t do that.”
Kennedy’s grandfather, former U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, criticized the hypocrisy underlying marijuana criminalization during a television interview 50 years ago.
This story has been updated to include reaction from prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Martin Grondin.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.