Two members of Congress who formerly opposed marijuana legalization each made the case that they are now more supportive of reform than the other during a Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Senate primary debate on Monday.
Incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) were pressed on what led them to change their positions on cannabis policy, and both defended their records and attempted to make the case that they were quicker out of the gate to embrace ending prohibition than their competitor was.
“I have supported legalization since it passed in Massachusetts,” Markey said, adding that “I voted to support legalization when it was on the ballot.” (Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) similarly stated, years after the fact, that she voted in favor of the 2016 legalization measure without having publicly endorsed it at the time.)
“I made it public after it passed, but it was something that I came out publicly in favor of before Congressman Kennedy did,” he said. “I believe that it is something that also I might add should be done in a way in which racial minorities for the first time should be able to fully participate in the business opportunities that marijuana is going to present in our state, and that we have to create a banking system that ensures that it’s not a cash business, but something that goes through a traditional banking system.”
Black and Brown communities have been unfairly criminalized by the War on Drugs. When we legalize cannabis at the federal level, it must be through programs that invest in the communities harmed most by these discriminatory policies. #MASen #SouthcoastDebate
— Ed Markey (@EdMarkey) June 8, 2020
The moderator turned to Kennedy and noted that marijuana reform advocates have been skeptical about his abrupt evolution on the issue in November 2018, when he went from staunch prohibitionist to endorsing adult-use legalization.
“The status quo doesn’t work,” the congressman said. “I’ve been honest about my reservations with this to come largely from my work with the mental behavioral health and addiction community, and experts there that have a concern, particularly for youth and adolescence and exposure to marijuana. But the status quo has failed, period. And it’s particularly failed for people of color.”
“The criminal justice aspects of this we’ve known for a long time. I supported the MORE Act that expunges criminal records, decriminalizes marijuana and actually makes the investments in communities of color,” he continued. “The difference here is that I’ve been clear about that position. Senator Markey back in 2013 said that he was actually against the decriminalization of marijuana because it would have trouble then quote ‘policing.'”
Kennedy’s criticism is curious considering that he suggested even more recently, in 2018, that cannabis shouldn’t be decriminalized because it would make it more difficult for police to search people’s vehicles.
“If you smelled [marijuana] in a car, you could search a car,” he said at the time. “When it became decriminalized, you couldn’t do that.”
The debate moderator did push back and noted that the congressman was against the policy at the same time as Markey.
“Yes, yes, but I’ve been clear about my position, and just so that we’re clear on this, I came out for the legalization of marijuana over a year ago, long before Senator Markey signed onto those bills,” he said, referencing a series of cannabis legalization bills the incumbent cosponsored just days after Kennedy announced he would be mounting a primary challenge against the senator.
Markey has made efforts to present himself as the more marijuana-reform-friendly candidate.
Beyond his relatively cosponsorships of bills to federal prohibition and address issues of social equity for communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, he also signed onto a letter urging Appropriations Committee leaders to allow cannabis businesses to access federal loan services in an upcoming annual spending bill and another asking for a policy change enabling the industry to access coronavirus relief programs.
Kennedy hasn’t been as vocal about the problems marijuana businesses face with respect to Small Business Administration restrictions, but he did lead a letter asking congressional leaders to fix a “glaring flaw” in a coronavirus relief program that disqualifies people for business loans due to past convictions, including those for simple cannabis possession.
Even so, Monday’s debate made it abundantly clear that the challenger is interested in shedding his former image as a holdout in the reform movement. In 2018, he openly acknowledged that his position in favor of prohibition could cost him votes.
“I’m not a huge fan of litmus tests, just because I think we’ve got a broad series of issues. You might agree with somebody on one thing. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify them on something else,” he said at the time. “That being said, that’s not for me to say. If somebody feels really passionately about an issue that’s for them to decide whether you’re in or you’re out. That’s their decision.”
At a debate over the weekend, Democratic Senate primary candidates in Texas engaged in a similar debate over marijuana, with both embracing legalization. Those candidates, who are competing in a runoff, are aiming to replace incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (D-TX), an adamant opponent to the policy change.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.