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.