Marijuana is becoming a key focus in one of the most heated Democratic congressional primaries in the country, the result of which could have far-reaching implications for legalization legislation on Capitol Hill.
On September 1, voters in Massachusetts’s first congressional district will decide between current Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse (D). The mayor is making the case that, when it comes to drug policy, he has the vision and drive to move the country forward in a way that his opponent, who chairs a committee that has thus far declined to act on a pending legalization bill, cannot or will not.
And while this race itself could have lasting impacts on drug policy on its own, the primary is reflective of a recent trend that has seen progressive champions of reform sweep in to replace longtime incumbents who have been unwilling to actively advance the issue.
Morse is in favor of legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing other currently illicit drugs and investing in harm reduction programs to treat substance misuse as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
I was the 1st Mayor in 2016 to support the legalization of recreational marijuana in MA. It is a necessary step to begin dismantling the war on drugs and in Holyoke, we have worked to ensure those communities harmed by prohibition can build wealth in the new emerging industry.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) April 20, 2020
The incumbent congressman, meanwhile, is interested in promoting restorative justice and ending the drug war, according to campaign staff—but his legislative record doesn’t necessarily reflect that position. And he’s made dismissive comments about cannabis in the past.
Neal has also passed up the chance to cosponsor far-reaching marijuana legislation and has faced criticism from advocates for not advancing a comprehensive cannabis bill—the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—that he has jurisdiction over as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“I think it underscores his inability to grasp the challenges of our time and the urgency of this moment on this issue,” Morse told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview last week. “He’s still stuck in the 80s—on cannabis and so many other issues.”
The mayor also criticized his opponent’s relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, which he said is “thwarting the growth of the cannabis industry.”
“It’s no surprise that Congressman Neal again is doing the work of his special interest and corporate donors,” Morse said.
Neal declined an opportunity for an interview, but campaign spokesperson Kate Norton did talk to Marijuana Moment. She pushed back on the notion that the congressman is against legalization or the MORE Act specifically. In fact, she pointed out, the congressman helped draft some of the tax provisions of the legislation.
“Congressman Neal looks forward to working with Congressman Nadler on the MORE Act,” she said, referring to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who is the lead sponsor of the bill. “He has been particularly interested in the restorative justice measures, designed specifically to achieve equity across the industry and mitigate the impacts of a historically racist war on drugs.”
While he may not be especially proactive on the issue, Neal has consistently voted in favor of spending bill amendments to prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in all legal cannabis states and medical marijuana states specifically.
That’s in addition to “yes” votes on measures to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors recommend cannabis to veterans, legalize industrial hemp and provide banking services to the marijuana industry.
But it remains the case that Neal, who has served in Congress for 31 years, has yet to cosponsor the MORE Act. And it’s sat in his panel for about eight months since being approved by Nadler’s Judiciary Committee. But according to sources who spoke with Marijuana Moment recently, there’s a move to get the bill on the House floor for a vote in September, so the pressure might be dialed up for the chairman to decide whether to hold a markup in his committee or waive jurisdiction in order to clear the bill’s path forward.
While Nadler previously told Marijuana Moment that he’s “carrying on conversations” with various committees about waiving jurisdiction, the Neal spokesperson said the congressman has not been approached with that request.
Morse said that it’s unacceptable “to have a member of Congress in the Democratic Party in leadership in 2020 that isn’t an advocate for the legalization of cannabis.” And the mayor made clear that he would be a proactive advocate for the MORE Act if he’s elected.
He also weighed in on the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee vote this week, which saw an amendment to adopt legalization as a party plank soundly defeated despite the issue’s overwhelming popularity among Democratic voters.
This decision makes no sense to anyone under 50. https://t.co/9XbABMKQrp
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 28, 2020
“This decision makes no sense to anyone under 50,” he tweeted, adding that “even Boomers favor legalizing marijuana.”
In 2016, I was the first mayor in MA to publicly support legalization of marijuana and in Washington I'll lead on this issue by fighting to undo the harm inflicted on millions of people by the criminalization of marijuana.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 28, 2020
The mayor’s criticism of Neal’s donations from the pharmaceutical industry is both political and personal. Morse’s brother passed earlier this year from an opioid overdose, and it’s helped to shape his understanding of the need for policies that focus on harm reduction. His campaign recently released a video ad about the experience.
This was a tough one. Earlier this year, we lost my brother after a long struggle with opioid addiction.
Doug was a good man, but he fell through the cracks of our cruel health care system.
— Alex Morse (@AlexBMorse) July 22, 2020
“Our family knows firsthand the impact of the opioid epidemic and that what we find at our local pharmacy is much more dangerous than anything we would ever find at our local dispensary,” he said. “[Neal] seems incapable of grasping the moment we’re in and how much has changed over the last 30 years.”
Morse pointed specifically to Neal’s past comments describing cannabis as a “gateway drug” and his opposition to the state’s 2016 legalization ballot measure as an example of the congressman’s “out-of-date perspective.”
“We just don’t have a health care system that values mental health or substance use disorder. And medical marijuana and marijuana in general for so many folks actually helps people get off of opiates and other substances,” he said. “It’s the opioid manufacturers and prescription pills and products that doctors are prescribing that is the biggest gateway to more dangerous substances. I think it’s important that Democrats in leadership and Democrats in general and elected officials in general actually understand that.”
To combat the opioid epidemic, the country needs to invest in harm reduction programs, Morse said. And when he was elected mayor at age 22 in 2011, he quickly got to work to enact those changes, working with the board of health to open a needle exchange program in the town. The City Council sued his administration for opening it without legislative approval—but after years of litigation, a court ultimately ruled in Morse’s favor.
“In addition to needle exchange programs, I’m also an advocate for safe injection facilities, legalizing those here in the state and also nationally and replicating the successes of other countries that have implemented harm reduction programs similarly,” he said. “I think we need to invest in treatments and policies that actually lift up communities, not further criminalize them.”
Asked whether he felt drugs beyond cannabis should be decriminalized, Morse said “yes.”
“Policing and prosecution and criminalization doesn’t add value to the current crisis we’re in as a country,” he said. “Legalization, decriminalization is really the only pathway forward to address the ills and the fallbacks of substances in our country. I think we need to just completely shift the paradigm as to how we address possession and use altogether.”
Neal’s campaign page on opioids issues lacks proposals to enact these types of decriminalization and harm reduction programs and instead talks about legislation he’s worked on to increase health professionals’ access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, screening an HBO documentary on the drug crisis to raise public awareness, increasing enforcement against fentanyl traffickers and urging the Trump administration to provide funding to address the problem.
Should Morse prevail in his primary challenge, it would mark yet another example of a candidate running on a progressive agenda beating out a longtime Democratic incumbent in races that could have significant impacts for drug policy.
He would join the ranks of freshmen members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who shook up the status quo with their 2018 primary victories and have both pushed for cannabis reform. And earlier this month, progressive educator Jamaal Bowman, another advocate for comprehensive cannabis legalization, won his primary against longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).
Read Morse’s cannabis policy platform below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.