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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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California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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A top Rhode Island lawmaker says that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a bill to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if a special session is convened this fall.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) told The Public’s Radio that it’s “possible” that a special session will be held later in the year after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on competing reform proposals.

“It really depends if we can come to some kind of resolution of consensus on a couple of major bills,” he said, referring to cannabis and a handful of other issues. “If we can, we certainly would come back.” But if not, members will continue to discuss the proposals and prepare to take them up at the start of the next session in January.

“Unfairly, sometimes I have or the House gets blamed for stopping the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, when in reality there is no consensus,” he said. “If we can come to some closeness, in the several different proposals, then we’ll move some kind of legislation. But if not, it just needs more work—and it’s very workable, so it’s very much something that can happen, we just have to put the effort in and make it happen.”

Listen to the speaker discuss the marijuana legalization plan, about 1:00 into the audio  below: 

Shekarchi similarly told Marijuana Moment in an email earlier this week that he’s “not opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana,” but “there have been very divergent proposals offered by Representative Scott Slater, the Senate, the governor and various advocacy groups.”

“As I have done with other issues, my role will be to bring the parties together and see if we can reach a consensus,” he said. “I will be working on the issue this summer and fall, and if an agreement can be reached, it is possible that one piece of legislation will be brought before the legislature for future consideration. But there is a lot of work to be done to reach consensus.”

Shekarchi and other top lawmakers have previously said they will work this summer to try to reach a compromise on the differing provisions of the competing legalization plans.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) said earlier this month that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed a cannabis reform measure last month.

Shekarchi previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

A key disagreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office concerns who should have regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue during the recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way to go with respect to this.”

The House and Gov. Dan McKee (D), on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really didn’t come until late in the session.”

Asked whether he felt the legislature and governor could come to an agreement despite the differences, Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) said this month that “that’s what our goal is.”

“Obviously there’s some issues that different people have relative to different categories of licenses and things like that and how we’re rolling them out,” he said. “Are we going to limit them? what type of equity are you going to give to the different people in different communities so that they can get into the business? And social equity and things of that nature.”

McCaffrey was also asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”

“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”

The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state. .

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said this month that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. But it is the case that legalization has now gone in effect in in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I’m not in any hurry to legalize marijuana for the sake of legalizing it. I want to do it right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we’re the last state in the union to legalize it or we never legalize it, but I need to do it right.”

Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, Shekarchi said.

These latest comment come weeks after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from McCaffrey and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which was introduced in March. The governor also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.

A third Rhode Island legalization measure was later filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the measure last month.

The governor, for his part, told reporters that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”

“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.

The House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.

Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.

Meanwhile, the governor this month signed a historic bill to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

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Ohio lawmakers on Friday formally introduced a bill to legalize marijuana possession, production and sales—the first effort of its kind in the state legislature. This comes as activists are pursuing a separate ballot initiative that would effectively force the legislature to consider similar cannabis reforms.

Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D) filed the legislation, weeks after circulating a co-sponsorship memo to colleagues to build support for the measure.

The 180-page bill would legalize possession of up to five ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older and allow them to cultivate up to 12 plants for personal use. It also includes provisions to expunge prior convictions for possession and cultivation activities that are being made legal under the measure.

A 10 percent excise tax would be imposed on marijuana sales, with revenue first going toward the cost of implementation and then being divided among municipalities with at least one cannabis shop (15 percent), counties with at least one shop (15 percent), K-12 education (35 percent) and infrastructure (35 percent).

“It’s time to lead Ohio forward,” Weinstein said in a press release. “This is a big step for criminal justice reform, for our veterans, for economic opportunity, and for our individual liberties.”

The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for overseeing the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

Individual municipalities could restrict the type and number of marijuana that operate in their area. The bill specifically states that the state’s existing medical marijuana program would not be impacted by the establishment of an adult-use market.

“This bill is much needed in Ohio, and it’s time for Ohio to become a national leader in marijuana decriminalization and legalization,” Upchurch said. “This bill is more than just about legalization, it’s about economic and workforce development, it’s about decriminalization, and it’s about healthcare! The time is now, and I look forward to getting this done in a bipartisan fashion.”

Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is likely to oppose the effort given his record, but activists have effectively demonstrated through local initiatives that voters in the state broadly support enacting a cannabis policy change.

A newly formed organization called the the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) is also actively collecting signatures for a statewide ballot measure that would separately force lawmakers to consider taking up legalization legislation once a certain signature gathering threshold is met.

“I’m glad to see it! It’s added momentum toward legalization,” Weinstein told Marijuana Moment earlier this week of the ballot effort. “And hopefully a looming ballot initiative will add some incentive for my Republican colleagues to work with me on my bill.”

Meanwhile, 22 jurisdictions have adopted local statues so far that reduce the penalty for low-level cannabis possession from a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine to the “lowest penalty allowed by state law.” And activists are pursuing similar policy changes in dozens of cities this year.

Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia, told Marijuana Moment that local officials have so far certified decriminalization initiatives in five cities they were targeting this year: Laurelville, McArthur, Murray City, New Lexington and New Straitsville.

Ohio activists had hoped to place a cannabis legalization initiative on the statewide ballot last year, but that effort stalled as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting public health restrictions made signature gathering all but impossible.

Local advocates sought relief through the court system to make it so they could collect signatures electronically for 2020 ballot initiatives, but the lawsuit was repeatedly rejected—most recently by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled on Wednesday that the challenge was no longer relevant because last year’s election has passed and the case was therefore moot.

Read the text of the Ohio marijuana legalization bill below: 

Ohio marijuana legalization… by Marijuana Moment

GOP Senator Sponsoring Marijuana Banking Bill Proposes Controversial Welfare Restrictions For Cannabis Purchases

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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