A bill to federally legalize marijuana and implement restorative justice policies gained a notable cosponsor on Wednesday: Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), who only recently backed cannabis reform after being a long-time opponent.
The congressman signed on to the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, raising the total number of cosponsors to 67. The legislation, which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last year, is soon expected to be taken up in another panel, Energy and Commerce, that Kennedy sits on.
This latest action stands in stark contrast to the congressman’s previous record. Not only did Kennedy unsuccessfully campaign against legalization in his home state of Massachusetts, he voted against modest bipartisan House measures such as an amendment allowing veterans to access medical cannabis and another shielding children and families who use CBD from federal enforcement.
He also received criticism in 2018 when he suggested to Vox’s Ezra Klein that marijuana should remain criminalized so that it’d be easier for law enforcement 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.”
But after acknowledging the political untenability his anti-legalization stance at a time when a growing majority of the public has embraced reform, Kennedy made a significant pivot last year, announcing that he believes legalization is “our best chance to actually dedicate resources toward consumer safety, abuse prevention, and treatment for those who need it.”
The year prior, the congressman recognized that he was out of step with his party, noting that it’s “a tough issue for me” and that “I come at it a little bit differently, obviously, than the vast majority of my colleagues.”
But in the months after Kennedy said he had a change of heart on the issue, he declined to sign onto specific legislation to end federal prohibition, instead choosing to cosponsor bills that would offer marijuana banking protections, require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to research into cannabis and direct federal agencies to study the impact of state-level legalization.
Kennedy’s MORE Act cosponsorship signals that the congressman is prepared to match his newfound marijuana rhetoric with legislative action.
Of course, politics could remain a factor in his decision to back the legislation. Besides the fact that the bill may well be marked up in a committee he’s member of in the coming weeks, which would force him to take a position, Kennedy is also currently running a primary challenge to unseat a Democratic senator who has already cosponsored several legalization bills, including the Senate version of the MORE Act.
And while Kennedy did vote for a floor amendment last year that would have provided protections for all state cannabis programs against federal intervention, the incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) could have played up the congressman’s lack of proactive cosponsorships for descheduling legislation, making the case that he isn’t doing enough for a state that has an adult-use marijuana market.
In any case, this new development is sure to disappoint the congressman’s relative, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who is a cofounder of prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and continues to be a leading voice against legalization. Patrick’s wife, Amy Kennedy, is running for Congress this year as well, raising fresh questions about which direction family members will take on the increasingly popular issue of marijuana reform.
SAM President Kevin Sabet argued in November that Joe Kennedy is “not a fan” of legalization, even after he announced his policy pivot.
Whether Kennedy does personally oppose legalization or not, he’s now officially on the record in favor of making the fundamental policy change and will likely soon get the chance to vote for it in committee.
Photo courtesy of Congressman Joe Kennedy III.