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.
California Gov. Jerry Brown Keeps Saying Mean Things About Marijuana Consumers
During his two stints as California governor—between 1975 and 1983, and 2011 and next January, when he is termed out and may finally retire from almost 50 years of public life—Jerry Brown has become known for several character traits.
He is frugal, to the point of parsimony. He is attentive to issues that are way out there. He is concerned about climate change. And he cannot stop making negative, non-germane non sequiturs about marijuana, his state’s biggest cash crop.
In 2014, he suggested that neither California nor the United States could be a great economic power if marijuana was legalized, thanks to the shiftiness of “the potheads.”
“The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive,” he said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press. “I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
Giving his reasoning why he opposed marijuana legalization, he mused, “how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”
Now, in a New York Times profile published on Tuesday, while speaking on the subject of climate change, Brown reached deep into his pocket for a very off-topic cannabis-themed barb.
“We either do nothing and smoke marijuana because it’s legalized, or we put our shoulder to the plow and do everything we can,” he told the paper on a recent afternoon (one of 23 interviews he gave that same day, according to the Times). “I don’t know if I’m an optimist. I’m a realist.”
Links between recreational marijuana use and some vague “dumbing-down” of the populace are unfounded, and are reminiscent of the spurious, race-baiting tactics employed by former drug czar Harry Anslinger.
The source of Brown’s opprobrium towards marijuana is not immediately clear.
Before his election in 2010, Brown offered laconic yet incoherent reasoning for his adamant anti-legalization stance.
“You know, the number one drug on the street is marijuana. The cartels are increasingly taking over. This is a serious problem,” he told an interviewer with GQ.
(At the time, California had a thriving medical cannabis industry. Legalized marijuana was later found to compel drug-traffickers to exit trade in the drug and seek other forms of income.)
“I think it’s more prudent for California not to embrace a legalization strategy,” he added. “I don’t think fostering chemicals is a smart move.”
He declined to engage with the interviewer when asked if he’d support a policy of prohibiting alcohol.
Brown’s stance puts the 80-year-old at odds with most of his fellow California Democrats—chief among whom must be Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
After opposing marijuana legalization in 2010, Newsom quickly hopped on board the cannabis bandwagon following Colorado and Washington’s votes to end cannabis prohibition in 2012, and was the most prominent political backer of 2016’s Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California.
Newsom briefly mounted a bid for California governor a decade ago before he was boxed out by the better-funded and better-prepared elder statesman.
In recent years, Brown did eventually sign into law a package of bills that set up a regulated and taxed commercial cannabis industry in the state. But his outdated Reefer Madness views about people who consume marijuana seem to persist, if this week’s Times interview is any indication.
Photo courtesy of Bob Tilden.
Legalizing Psilocybin Could Be The Next Frontier In Drug Policy Reform After Marijuana
Drug policy reform isn’t likely to end with marijuana legalization—and if you’re wondering what the next step in the broader movement could be, it’s worth looking into psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
Earlier this month, state- and city-level campaigns to change psilocybin laws made small advancements. Organizers in Denver submitted two initiatives to decriminalize the psychedelic compound, which would appear on a citywide ballot in May 2019 if both or either receive enough signatures.
And in Oregon, a measure that would legalize psilocybin-assisted treatment entered the signature gathering stage. That measure would appear on a state ballot in 2020 if the effort succeeds.
“We’re excited to gather signatures in support of establishing a community-based service framework, in which licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, can blaze new trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards,” psychotherapist Tom Eckert, who is a chief petitioner for the measure, said in a press release.
Though there’s still a lot of work to do on the marijuana reform front—and advocates haven’t exactly joined arms with the psilocybin movement yet—the efforts share several parallels. For example, both cannabis and psilocybin are federally banned as Schedule I drugs, meaning the government considers them to have a high potential for abuse and to be medically useless.
Research disputes that position for both substances. While an admittedly larger body of research has demonstrated various therapeutic benefits of marijuana, several studies have found compelling evidence that psilocybin can provide relief for individuals suffering from conditions such as depression and addiction—and research is ongoing.
“To be clear, there’s no scientific basis for psilocybin’s continued inclusion on Schedule I,” Angela Bacca, a strategist for the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon, said. “It is imperative we change the law to match the reality and science because people are suffering who could otherwise benefit from this safe and uniquely effective service.”
Neither the Denver nor Oregon measures would create a legal retail system for psilocybin, as has been seen throughout the U.S. for marijuana. And in Denver, organizers submitted two separate decriminalization initiatives in order to test the waters, seeing if there’d be enough support to include cultivation in the language of their primary decriminalization measure.
If that initiative fails, the group Denver for Psilocybin will put their energy toward a similar initiative that simply decriminalizes low-level possession and personal use.
“It’s a natural right. It’s a human right,” Kevin Matthews, campaign director for Denver for Psilocybin, told Westword. “This one is our Hail Mary victory shot.”
Organizers in California recently attempted to get a psilocybin decriminalization initiative on the 2018 ballot, but that effort failed.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mädi.
Beto O’Rourke Slams Drug War And Police Killing Of Botham Jean At Dallas Event
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, spoke before an animated crowd at a Baptist church in Dallas on Friday, decrying the war on drugs and calling for the end of marijuana prohibition.
The candidate, who’s made a strong showing in his race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), also commented on the recent killing of an unarmed black man, Botham Jean, at the hands of a Texas police officer.
“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”
“How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change. Are you with me on this?”
The audience responded with a resounding standing ovation.
See O’Rourke’s marijuana and criminal justice comments roughly 31 minutes into his Facebook video below:
O’Rourke spent several minutes outlining how the drug war disproportionately impacts communities of color despite the fact that white people use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.
“It has kept people out of civic life in this country, it has kept them from their freedoms, it has kept them from democratic life in this country.”
Resolving racially discriminatory drug enforcement efforts starts with ending cannabis prohibition, O’Rourke said, noting that he co-sponsored congressional legislation that would do just that. But importantly, the second step is to expunge “the arrest records for anyone arrested for possession of marijuana so they can get on with their lives, live to their full potential, contribute to their maximum capacity.”
One of the congressman’s most salient points contrasted marijuana policies in Texas and fully legal states like California.
“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”
“Let’s lead the way on reforming our drug laws,” O’Rourke said. “Let’s end that war on drugs right now because it’s a war on people.”
Cruz has attempted to frame his opponent’s drug reform stance as dangerous, promoting misleading statements attributed to O’Rourke in campaign ads and arguing that he’d exacerbate the opioid epidemic if elected in November.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
Which message will ultimately more resonant with Texas voters is yet to be determined—but the race is looking close.
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Beto O’Rourke.