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Founder Of Anti-Marijuana Group Lobbies Biden To Nominate Him For White House Drug Czar

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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.”

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.

Youth Marijuana Use Remains Stable Amid Surge Of State-Level Legalization, Feds Report

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Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A House Floor Vote Next Week, Majority Leader Confirms

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A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators has been formally scheduled to receive a House floor vote on Monday, a calendar released by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) office confirms.

Marijuana Moment reported on the expected development earlier Friday after obtaining an email that was sent to stakeholders by a staffer for Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the bill’s sponsor, seeking letters of support for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act ahead of the anticipated vote.

The bill is now now officially listed on the majority leader’s agenda of legislation for Monday.

This will mark the first floor action on a cannabis reform bill this Congress. The standalone legislation cleared the House with bipartisan support in 2019, and its language was also included in two coronavirus relief packages that the chamber approved. The proposal did not advance in any form in the Senate under GOP control, however.

With Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and White House, industry stakeholders are optimistic that the legislation stands a solid chance of becoming law this year.

The SAFE Banking Act was reintroduced in the House last month, and it currently has 151 cosponsors—more than one-third of the chamber. Days later, it was refiled in the Senate, where Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are the chief sponsors.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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 legislation would ensure that financial institutions could take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators.

Because the bill will be taken up under the process known as suspension of the rules, it will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass—an achievable threshold given the level of support it got during the earlier 2019 vote. No floor amendments will be allowed under the procedure.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said in a tweet on Friday that he’ll “be voting for the SAFE Banking Act in the House” and that it’s “absurd that Marijuana business cannot fully access the US financial system.” He did not comment on the timing of a vote, however.

After it passed the House last Congress, advocates and stakeholders closely watched for any action to come out of the Senate Banking Committee, where it was referred after being transmitted to the chamber. But then-Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) did not hold a hearing on the proposal, despite talk of negotiations taking place regarding certain provisions.

Crapo said he opposed the reform proposal, but he signaled that he might be more amenable if it included certain provisions viewed as untenable to the industry, including a 2 percent THC potency limit on products in order for cannabis businesses to qualify to access financial services as well as blocking banking services for operators that sell high-potency vaping devices or edibles that could appeal to children.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who took the top seat in that panel after Democrats secured a majority in the Senate, told reporters in February that he’s “willing” to move the cannabis banking bill, “but with it needs to come sentencing reform.”

The current Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act has 32 cosponsors.

When legislative leaders announced that the SAFE Banking Act was getting a House vote in 2019,  there was pushback from some advocates who felt that Congress should have prioritized comprehensive reform to legalize marijuana and promote social equity, rather than start with a measure viewed as primarily friendly to industry interests.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original cosponsor of the bill, said last month that the plan is to pass the banking reform first this session because it “is a public safety crisis now,” and it’s “distinct—as we’ve heard from some of my colleagues—distinct from how they feel about comprehensive reform.”

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers are simultaneously preparing to introduce legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are in the process of crafting a legalization bill, and they’ve already met with advocates to get feedback on how best to approach the policy change.

Schumer said this week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Washington Senate Replaces Drug Decriminalization Bill With Revised Measure To Reinstate Penalties

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A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington State was gutted on the Senate floor on Thursday, with lawmakers approving a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they won’t vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has been without a law against drug possession since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck it down February, after ruling that a narrow portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to address the decision—which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and freed dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges—before the legislative session ends on April 25.

On the Senate floor on Thursday evening, a bill that originally would have left drug possession decriminalized was amended to instead make possession a gross misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine—a change that led its lead sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, on a 28–20–1 vote. It next proceeds to the House, where it’s scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action slated for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch the senators discuss the drug penalties legislation, around 1:01:33 into the video below: 

As amended, the Senate-passed bill represents a moderate reform to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires the prosecutors divert people for first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of further diversions with a prosecutor’s approval.

“I think that this striking amendment will help move us forward as we continue negotiations in these final 10 days with the body across the way toward having a response that will provide services and treatment and help for people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), who brought the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant shift away from the drug war. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small, “personal use” amounts of drugs, instead routing people to evaluation and treatment services for substance use disorder.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 ultimately changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we are doing this, I’m glad there’ll be opportunities for diversion, but it needs to be not through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during floor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on there, but I will be voting no on this today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important that the legislature pass something before the session end, given the sweeping impact of February’s state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement issued after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that not passing a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will be confusing to Washingtonians and won’t provide equal justice across the state.”

Generally speaking, state drug laws are understood to preempt those of Washington’s cities and counties. With the state law against possession gone, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun doing so.

“The bill we passed today is not the final word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that keeps this important legislation moving so that we can do our duty as the representatives of the people of our whole state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated more openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $125 and no possibility of jail time.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 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.

Of all the measures currently in play this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both chambers of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it remains unclear how the House will receive the Senate-passed bill, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they won’t vote for legislation that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it’s not certain they’ll be able to muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would need to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would iron out differences in the two versions of the bills.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court’s decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, that would have ended criminal penalties for personal use amounts of drugs and instead routed people to evaluation and treatment. It would have also significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure failed to proceed further after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, stemmed from an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters pivoted to a push through the legislature after pressing pause on their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.

Advocates for reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

In her comments on the Senate floor, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that the Blake decision presents a chance for lawmakers to finally begin to address those racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court did provide us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing in regards to the war on drugs, and to really think critically of the impact that this has had very, very specifically on Brown and Black families.”

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be understated,” Dhingra continued. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mom who is bringing up her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job because of their criminal history, cannot find housing, cannot seek recovery, it comes down to the manner in which we have been enforcing our drug laws.”

Rep. Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House measure, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil infraction, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called the Blake decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with interested parties, so it’s not as well thought-out a proposal as it would be otherwise. It has to be an interim measure.”

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to shift.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls down. We’re getting to that place in drug policy where it’s a tipping point.”

Oregon voters ended prohibition of low-level drug possession at the ballot during last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers have also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.

California Bill To Legalize Possession Of Psychedelics Clears Second Senate Committee

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Biden’s Already On Board With Federal Marijuana Legalization Even If He Doesn’t Use That Word, Booker Says

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Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says that President Joe Biden is already where he needs to be to get a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition enacted into law—even if he personally opposes legalization. Confusion about the president’s position comes down to semantics, the senator indicated.

Booker said in a recent interview that Biden’s stance in favor of “decriminalization” will be enough to advance the reform legislation he’s working on with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).

That reason being, he said, is that what the reform proposal would accomplish at the federal level is effectively decriminalizing marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances and letting states set their own policies—something Biden does supports.

“I have a great partner” in the president, Booker said in an interview on the podcast Hell & High Water that was published on Wednesday. “He believes in decriminalization—and as I said to him the first time we talked about it was, ‘well, my bill is no different. I think states should be allowed to do what they want.'”

“I think it should be legalized, but what we need to do at the federal level is de-list marijuana. And as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states that right now are not able to do a lot of things, to give way for what I want to achieve,” Booker said. “His policy position on marijuana—he may say, ‘I’m not for legalization, I’m for decriminalization’—as a federal official, that’s where I’m trying to get.”

In other words, the senator isn’t especially concerned that Biden would be an obstacle if Congress passes the legalization bill he’s planning to introduce, as long as it’s made clear that there’s no mandate for all states to set up tax-and-regulate marijuana markets if they don’t want to.

Booker also said he would like for people to stop playing a video clip of him calling out Biden’s opposition to legalization during a presidential primary debate in 2019, as the interview host did in the new podcast interview. At the time, the senator jokingly accused his fellow candidate of being “high” when he articulated his opposition to legalization days earlier.

“That is a little clip I’m hoping at some point stops being played,” he said. “But yes, indeed, I accused Joe Biden of being high.”

While the text of the pending legalization legislation has yet to be introduced, it’s expected to incorporate key provisions from past reform bills such as Booker’s own Marijuana Justice Act (MJA) that could create incentives for states to adopt legalization. For example, the MJA called for the withholding of certain federal funds to states where cannabis criminalization is enforced out in a racially disproportionate way.

That would go a bridge further than simple decriminalization, so it remains to be seen if Biden would be amendable to that kind of broader reform.

In any case, Booker’s point about the decriminalization/legalization distinction when it comes to federal policy was also made by Schumer in a recent press conference. The majority leader, who’s said that Congress will move forward with legalization regardless of the president’s position, said last month that “I support decriminalization at the federal level, and we’ll be introducing legislation with a few of my colleagues shortly.”

Asked to clarify whether he supports legalization, Schumer replied, “decriminalization, legalization,” implying that the two terms are used interchangeably.

“At the federal level, you call it ‘decriminalization’ because that lets the states legalize,” he said. But in general, advocates draw a distinction between the terms, with decriminalization usually being used to describe state or local policies that simply remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession while fines or other penalties could still be levied, which is distinct from outright legalization.

Schumer also said this week that the legalization bill they’re working on will be brought to the floor of his chamber “soon.”

He, Wyden and Booker formally started their reform efforts by holding a meeting earlier this year with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups to gain feedback on the best approach to the reform.

Schumer made a point last month to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.

Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.

He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Now that Democrats have the majority in both chambers, as well as the White House, there’s a sense of optimism among advocates that comprehensive reform is achievable in this Congress.

But with respect to the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that Biden’s position on adult-use legalization “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the policy.

69 Percent Of Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana—An All-Time High, Quinnipiac Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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