On Tuesday night, Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts will deliver the official Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address.
Some observers see the young Kennedy, 37, as a rising political star. But he is starkly out of step with his party — and a majority of U.S. voters — on a key issue now emerging at the forefront of mainstream American politics: Marijuana.
Kennedy’s Anti-Marijuana Voting Record
In 2015, Kennedy was one of just ten House Democrats to vote against a measure to protect medical cannabis patients and providers who are following state laws from being prosecuted by the federal government. He was one of just 24 Democrats to vote the same day against a broader measure blocking the Justice Department from interfering with all state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use.
Here’s a list of 67 Republicans who are more progressive on marijuana than Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who Dems picked to respond to Trump’s State of the Union.
In 2015, Kennedy voted to let the DEA arrest medical cannabis patients and providers. These GOP members voted to protect. pic.twitter.com/7vES29UTgk
— Tom Angell 🌳📰 (@tomangell) January 28, 2018
Going further than just refusing to block federal anti-marijuana enforcement in legal states, Kennedy voted three times against amendments to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis — just one of five Democrats to oppose the measure in 2016. Fifty-seven Republicans voted for it that year.
Kennedy even opposed a very limited proposal to protect children who use non-psychoactive cannabidiol extracts to treat severe seizure disorders from being targeted by the DEA. That amendment was supported by 118 Republicans.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) gave Kennedy a D on its congressional scorecard.
Kennedy Is Out Of Step With Voters On Cannabis
Polling now shows that a growing majority of Americans supports legalizing marijuana, and medical cannabis enjoys supermajorty support, as does the notion of letting states end prohibition without federal interference.
This is especially true among Democrats. Gallup found last year that 72 percent of Democrats back broad legalization, and a Quinnipiac University survey this month showed that 95 percent of the party’s voters support medical cannabis.
The latter poll also showed that just 12 percent of Democrats want the federal government to interfere with state marijuana laws in line with Kennedy’s voting record.
Support for marijuana law reform is even stronger among the young people to whom Democrats are presumably trying to appeal by placing the youthful member of one of America’s most prominent political dynasties front and center with the State of the Union response.
The Quinnipiac survey found that 79 percent of American voters aged 18 to 34 back legalization. Only 17 percent in that demographic agree with Kennedy that the federal government should enforce cannabis prohibition in states that have opted to modernize their laws.
Kennedy Silent On Defending His State From Jeff Sessions
After U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved this month to rescind Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference, congressional pushback was swift and strong, particularly among Democrats.
Kennedy was nowhere to be seen, however, even though voters in his home state of Massachusetts have strongly approved a string of marijuana-related ballot measures in recent years.
In 2008, 63 percent of Bay State voters approved a cannabis decriminalization measure. Four years later, 63 percent voted to legalize medical marijuana. And in 2016, 54 percent opted to go even further by legalizing marijuana for adult use — a measure that Kennedy campaigned against.
“At a time when Massachusetts is facing a crippling addiction crisis, increasing access to yet another controlled substance undermines the families, individuals, communities, law enforcement officials and health care workers on the front lines of this epidemic every single day,” he said a few weeks before the most recent Massachusetts ballot vote.
“I don’t think marijuana should be legalized,” Kennedy said in a separate interview. “If we’re going to say marijuana is a medicine, it needs to be treated like a medicine and regulated like a medicine. But when we look at full-on legalization, the potential danger that marijuana poses particularly to adolescents—I’m not convinced.”
He also co-hosted a fundraiser for the failed campaign to defeat the state legalization measure.
Now, because of the Trump administration’s cannabis reversal, Kennedy’s constituents are at increased risk of being arrested by the DEA and sent to federal prison, especially because the state’s U.S. attorney has delivered more concerning marijuana enforcement comments than prosecutors from other states have.
But instead of joining Democratic colleagues — and a significant number of Republicans — in pushing back on the federal marijuana attack, Kennedy’s voting record suggests he supports the move.
Kennedy’s Anti-Marijuana Family Ties Put Political Future At Risk
The congressman is related to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who co-founded leading anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is perhaps the simplest explanation for his tendency to vote against cannabis measures in contravention of the views of his constituents and party colleagues.
The younger Kennedy’s name has sometimes been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, but with likely contenders like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders staking out bold positions in favor of marijuana law reform that are much more in line with where Democratic primary voters are on the issue, it is likely that his opposition to all things cannabis would prove to be a political liability should he run.
Polling to date consistently suggests that President Trump’s anti-marijuana move is a political liability — particularly in light of his repeated campaign promises to the contrary about respecting state laws — if only Democrats would make a concerted effort to shine a spotlight on it.
For now, however, Democratic leaders appear to be leaving a ripe political issue on the table by putting an ardent cannabis opponent on a prominent pedestal for the State of the Union response.
Photo courtesy of Martin Grondin.
Hawaii Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Joint Committee Hearing
Two Hawaii Senate committees approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in a joint hearing on Tuesday.
The vote comes two weeks after the full House passed the amended legislation, which makes possession of three grams or less of cannabis a civil offense instead of a crime punishable by jail time. As approved by that full chamber, a first the offense was punishable by a $200 fine under the bill, but the Senate committees lowered it to $30 instead.
While the quantity of marijuana is significantly less than in other states have decriminalized, the development was welcomed by reform advocates in the state.
“[W]e embrace the move from criminalization that the bill still represents, and particularly applaud the provisions to dismiss pending charges and expunge convictions related to cannabis offenses,” the reform organization Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said in written testimony. “While we support full-scale legalization of adult use cannabis, this bill then also begins to reverse the brutal impact of the decades’ long, needless criminalization of this substance.”
The Senate Committee on Judiciary adopted the House recommendation without objection and advanced the bill. The Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs didn’t immediately have a quorum during the joint hearing, so that panel didn’t formally take its vote until later in the day.
Besides decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession, the legislation would provide for the expungement of prior convictions cocerning three grams or less.
It would also establish a marijuana evaluation task force to “examine other states’ laws, penalties, and outcomes pertaining to marijuana use, other than marijuana use for medical purposes, and make recommendations on amending marijuana use penalties and outcomes in the State.”
Advocates are cautiously optimistic that Gov. David Ige (D) will sign the bill if it arrives on his desk. While he’s expressed concerns about adult-use legalization, he put his name on decriminalization legislation as a state senator in 2013.
On that note, a separate legalization proposal that advanced further than similar legislation has ever gone in Hawaii after it was approved by a Senate committee last month did not receive consideration in another panel before the deadline to proceed through the legislative process, which effectively killed the bill.
Elsewhere, New Mexico lawmakers sent a more wide-ranging decriminalization bill to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) over the weekend. The pro-legalization governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
First Congressional Marijuana Vote Of 2019 Officially Scheduled For Next Week
A bipartisan bill designed to protect banks that service the marijuana industry from being penalized by federal regulators will get a vote in a key congressional committee next week.
The legislation, which was discussed during the first cannabis-related hearing of the 116th Congress last month, will go before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday.
Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) Denny Heck (D-WA), Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Warren Davidson (R-OH) are the chief sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. It was formally filed earlier this month, and currently has 138 cosponsors—more than a quarter of the House.
After no action for 6 years, #SAFEBanking has received its first hearing and will see its first vote next week. Glad to have the support of 138+ cosponsors as we work to address the #cannabis banking issue and get cash off our streets. https://t.co/jylk1udqVQ
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) March 19, 2019
“For six years, Congress has failed to act on the issue of cannabis banking, putting thousands of employees, businesses and communities at risk,” Perlmutter said in a statement emailed to Marijuana Moment. “However, the issue is finally receiving the attention it deserves with the first-ever congressional hearing and now a scheduled committee vote.”
‘Among the cosponsors is the chair of the committee herself, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who spoke about addressing banking issues in the cannabis industry shortly before assuming the position. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA), have also signed onto the legislation—demonstrating its support among powerful Democratic leaders of the House.
All of this sets the stage for a potentially game-changing vote, as Republican leadership during the last Congress consistently blocked marijuana-related bills from even being considered. With Democrats in control and leading lawmakers embracing the legislation, it stands a good chance of heading to the full House and then on to the Senate.
Resolving banking problems for marijuana companies was one of several legislative goals that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) outlined in a blueprint to end federal marijuana prohibition he sent to his party’s leaders last year.
“The banking issue is just one aspect of the failed policy of federal marijuana criminalization. In order to truly bring the marijuana industry out of the shadows, actions need to be taken by Congress to amend this, and many others, outdated and discriminatory practices,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said in a statement. “This will certainly not be the last hearing of this Congress to discuss marijuana prohibition and we expect a full hearing on prohibition to be scheduled in the months to come.”
There were several changes made to the banking bill since it was last introduced in the 115th Congress. For example, the legislation clarifies that protections are extended to financial institutions that work with ancillary cannabis business—not just those that directly sell marijuana or marijuana products.
“[P]roceeds from a transaction conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business shall not be considered as proceeds from an unlawful activity solely because the transaction was conducted by a cannabis-related legitimate business,” the bill states.
It also calls on the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council to implement “uniform guidance and examination procedures for depository institutions that provide financial services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
There have been widespread calls to tackle the banking problem, including from members of Congress and representatives of cannabis businesses. With this vote, it seems those calls are at least starting to be answered.
Meanwhile, Nadler has signaled that his Judiciary Committee may also take up broader marijuana legislation soon.
“With 97.7 percent of the U.S. population living in a state where voters have legalized some form of adult recreational, medical or limited-medical use of marijuana, congressional inaction is no longer an option,” Perlmutter said. “And with broad, bipartisan support in the House, I look forward to the SAFE Banking Act continuing to move forward in the Financial Services Committee and on the floor of the House.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Perlmutter and NORML.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Feds Ramp Up Calls For Research Into Marijuana Treatment For Chronic Pain
A federal health agency is seeking the public’s help in identifying studies that explore the potential benefits and harms of using marijuana instead of opioids for chronic pain treatment.
In three separate notices published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) said it is in the process of reviewing existing research on chronic pain—specifically alternatives to opioid-based painkillers—and requested “supplemental evidence and data submissions” from the public.
The agency provided guidelines for what exactly it was interested in learning. One notice called for studies on the “comparative effectiveness” of using non-opioid therapies, “including marijuana,” instead of opioids. The studies should explore differences in “outcomes related to pain, function, and quality of life.” The filing also includes a prompt for evidence about utilizing cannabis in tandem with opioids, including how the harms of the prescription pain medications vary for patients who also use marijuana.
In another notice, AHRQ, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said it wants help completing its review of non-invasive and non-pharmacologic chronic pain treatments such as exercise, mindfulness, acupuncture—and yes, medical marijuana. The request specified that the agency is interested in research on “any formulation” of cannabis.
Finally, a third notice included marijuana in a list of non-opioid pharmacologic treatment options that AHRQ is interested in exploring. The public is encouraged to submit studies and data on the risk of “overdose, misuse, dependence, withdrawals due to adverse events, and serious adverse events” for medical cannabis, as well as more conventional oral and topical treatments.
Altogether, the package of solicitations demonstrates that while marijuana remains a Schedule I drug (meaning the federal government does not recognize it as having medical value), there are federal agencies that are compelled by the prospect that cannabis effectively treats pain without the risks posed by opioids.
And there are any number of studies that AHRQ might want to take into consideration. For example, there are surveys that show patients often use marijuana as a substitute for opioid painkillers and other pharmaceuticals, as well as several comprehensive studies indicating that states with legal cannabis access experience lower opioid overdose rates and have fewer opioid prescriptions compared to non-legal states.
The deadline to submit studies and data for all of the new notices is April 18.
These are the latest in a series of notices that AHRQ and other federal agencies have published in recent months. Last year, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health hosted a workshop that specifically addressed barriers to cannabis research while the substance remains federally prohibited.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.