Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a cofounder of the nation’s leading marijuana prohibitionist group, is mounting a public campaign to convince President-elect Joe Biden to appoint him to lead a key federal drug policy agency.
Kennedy, who helped start Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM), authored an open letter to the Biden-Harris transition team making the case that he is the best person to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The letter decries cannabis legalization and the “dangers of today’s higher potency consumption options and a rapidly evolving for-profit industry” but points out that Kennedy agrees with Biden’s “position in support of marijuana decriminalization.”
“Like him I support expanded research and expungement as priorities,” the former congressman added.
In contrast with many potential nominees under serious consideration for administration posts who tend to avoid even commenting on their potential appointments when asked, Kennedy is taking the unusual approach of trying to publicly rally supporters and making the case that he should be nominated.
While Biden opposes adult-use cannabis legalization, regardless of the supermajority support for the policy change among Democrats, it’s possible that the former congressman’s reputation as a staunch prohibitionist associated with SAM could hamper his chances of being nominated. Activists have strongly pushed the former vice president to select cabinet officials who embrace progressive policies, and this pick could ruffle feathers.
That said, Kennedy, who worked during his time in Congress to pass legislation for parity in insurance coverage for mental health and drug addiction issues, has a litany of supporters backing his potential nomination to lead an agency that Biden himself championed the creation of during his time in the Senate. That includes the CEO of the American Psychological Association, a former U.S. Surgeon General and a former ONDCP head.
Prior to launching SAM, Kennedy voted in favor of a spending bill rider to protect state medical cannabis programs from federal intervention all seven times that it came up to the House floor while he was in office. But he did not proactively cosponsor any notable marijuana reform legislation.
Kennedy is pitching himself as the right selection for drug czar in part based on his personal experience with substance misuse issues, and he would represent a departure from former law enforcement-based ONDCP heads.
“I have no shame in saying it: I believe I could do better than anyone else,” he told STAT News, adding that he views the coronavirus pandemic as a “historic turning point for mental health and addiction.”
“There’s a major distinction between commercialization of a new big tobacco industry and decriminalizing marijuana and ensuring that people aren’t incarcerated because of it,” he told the news outlet.
To be sure, legalization advocates would not be encouraged by having a SAM co-founder leading the office given its historical role in lobbying against marijuana reform.
ONDCP has faced serious proposed budget cuts under the Trump administration, though Congress has refused to go along with the idea. That said, the agency was downgraded during the Obama administration from its former Cabinet-level status and in recent years has seem to command less influence in shaping the legalization debate than it once did.
That said, the drug czar’s office still plays a key role in facilitating drug policy across multiple departments and effectively sets the tone of the administrative position on these issues.
In a new action alert released this week, NORML is advocating for the abolition of the drug czar role entirely and is asking supporters to write to the incoming administration to end the office. But “at a minimum” Biden shouldn’t select Kennedy, a pre-written letter states.
“There is no place in the Biden administration for policy leaders who cling to these outdated viewpoints,” the group said. “It’s time to do as you promised and to move away from the failed drug war policies of the past. You promised to do so and we expect you to follow through on your pledge.”
Fmr Sen. @JoeBiden was one of 87 Senators in 1988 who voted to authorize the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (@ONDCP), a/k/a the Drug Czar’s office. Now it is time for the #Biden administration to abolish this agency.#AbolishONDCPhttps://t.co/AwnQAG4wxQ
— NORML (@NORML) December 15, 2020
Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “it’s really critical that, to the extent there is a drug czar, that they have a public health background, really understand the nuances of public health and what and what reality is like on the ground for people on the front lines.”
“This country is facing an unprecedented overdose crisis—and that being exacerbated by the pandemic and economic downturn,” he said. “We’ve had decades of a very punitive approach to drugs and we have a president-elect who has campaigned on promises to reorient drug policy away from punitive approaches such as arresting people who use drugs.”
He said the next ONDCP director should be a person who can appreciate the negative impacts of drug criminalization.
Another controversial component of a potential Kennedy nomination concerns his nonprofit, The Kennedy Forum, which is partly funded by pharmaceutical companies and addiction treatment centers that have a stake in decisions he would make as ONDCP director, according to Politico.
There are notable differences in how the Kennedy family more broadly has come to approach marijuana policy. Amy Kennedy, Patrick’s wife, for example, broke with SAM during her unsuccessful run for Congress this year by supporting rescheduling cannabis under federal law. The organization has maintained that the modest reform is “neither necessary nor desirable.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) also lost his run to unseat Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) after pivoting to a pro-legalization stance in 2018. He had formerly aligned himself with a staunchly prohibitionist position that included voting against even limited amendments to protect people using CBD medical cannabis from federal arrest.
Marijuana Moment reached out to SAM for comment on Patrick Kennedy’s bid for ONDCP director, but a representative declined to comment. A spokesperson for Kennedy’s office was not immediately available.
It’s not immediately clear whether the Biden transition team is taking Kennedy seriously as a potential ONDCP director nominee in light of his unorthodox public agitation campaign for the role. However, he’s not the only viable candidate in the run. Other prospective picks include former American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) Board President Kelly Clark and former Obama administration addiction policy official Westley Clark, among others.
ASAM has historically resisted marijuana reform efforts and aligned itself with prohibitionists, but it recently adopted a new policy position in favor of protecting people who use cannabis in compliance with state laws from being punished by the federal government.
Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.
The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.
“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”
I even had to rehang this one. 🙄 pic.twitter.com/NPuADtb1Lt
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.
It’s kinda flattering that they changed Pennsylvania law just for me. 🥺👉👈
Speaking of changing laws…
I’ll take them down when we get:
LEGAL WEED 🟩 FOR PA + EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW for LGBTQIA+ community in PA.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 20, 2020
“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.
“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”
🚨🚨 PENNSYLVANIA *AND* DNC IS BEING LAPPED ON LEGAL WEED BY THE DAKOTAS NOW
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”
It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.
Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”
Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.
Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill
Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.
The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.
It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.
Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.
The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.
Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.
In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.
The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.
A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.
Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.
Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.
Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.
Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman
Minnesota Governor Urges Lawmakers To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Budget Talks
The governor of Minnesota on Tuesday implored the legislature to look into legalizing marijuana as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether he is open to allowing sports betting in the state to generate tax revenue. He replied he wasn’t closing the door on that proposal, but said he is more interested in seeing lawmakers “take a look at recreational cannabis.”
Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization below:
“I will say this, I will certainly leave open that possibility. Our neighboring states have done both of those things,” Walz said of legalizing sports gambling and cannabis. “I obviously recognize that that’s not a 100 percent slam dunk for people, and they realize that there’s cost associated with both. But my message would be is, I don’t think this is the time for me to say I’m shutting the door on anything.”
The Minnesota governor did say in 2019, however, that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Earlier this month, the House majority leader said he would again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the reform, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said this month that “Senate Republicans remain the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.”
“Minnesota’s current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” she told The Center Square. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), for his part, said that while he would be “open to expanding medical use or hearing criminal justice reforms,” he doesn’t “believe fully legalized marijuana is right for the state.”
“Other states that have legalized marijuana are having issues with public safety,” he argued, “and we are concerned that we haven’t fully seen how this works with employment issues, education outcomes and mental health.”
Last month, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.