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.
Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment
The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.
The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.
“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.
“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.
The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.
McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.
While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.
The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications
A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.
The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.
The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.
There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.
Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.
But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.
“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.
The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.
DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in 2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.
Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.
“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.
“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”
Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”
“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.
Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.
Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.
The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.
Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below:
Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections
A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.
The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.
Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.
The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.
There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.
Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.
And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.