Mckayla Wilkes is running a primary challenge to unseat the second highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House, and part of her strategy involves contrasting her bold drug policy reform platform with that of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who said recently he believes that consuming marijuana “leads to the use of harder, very harmful drugs.”
The candidate spoke to Marijuana Moment in a phone interview about how she has experienced the harms of drug criminalization firsthand, having been arrested for cannabis possession during her time in college. It cost her jobs and contributed to why her agenda goes beyond legalizing cannabis and also includes expunging past convictions.
She’s also calling for decriminalizing possession of all drugs to ensure that addiction is treated as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Compare that to Hoyer, who just last week told a constituent that he opposes marijuana legalization based on the widely disputed gateway drug theory. While the incumbent congressman supports medical cannabis, he remains out of step with the majority of voters in his party at a time when almost all Democratic presidential candidates are backing broad legalization.
The following interview with Wilkes has been lightly edited for clarity. Meanwhile, Hoyer’s office hasn’t responded to Marijuana Moment’s request for an interview.
Marijuana Moment: Can you tell me generally about your drug reform platform?
Mckayla Wilkes: I absolutely think that marijuana should be federally legal. I also think that we should have the right to grow our own plants. I also support expunging the records of those who are incarcerated for marijuana and those who have marijuana-related charges on their records, as well as investing in communities that the war on drugs has destroyed.
I also support the decriminalization of possession of all drugs in addition to marijuana—psychedelics as well.
MM: You’ve stressed the need to couple legalization with expungements. Why do you feel it’s important?
MW: I think that expungement is important, especially if we’re going to talk about federally legalizing marijuana. Because if it is in fact legal, there should be no reason for it to stay on your record. A lot of the time, it also hinders job acquirement. I also think that jobs should not be able to require drug tests for marijuana. I just think that would be completely absurd, and that has to go hand-in-hand with legalizing it on the federal level.
I chose to incorporate expungement into my policy not only because of my experiences with marijuana but also I believe marijuana is safer than opioids, especially in my district where the opioid crisis is very much real. Maryland has the seventh highest rate of mortality due to drug overdose, according to the CDC.
.@LeaderHoyer, in the year 2019, continues to push the myth that marijuana should remain illegal because it is a "gateway drug."
✔️Expunge the records.
✔️Invest in communities that the War on Drugs has destroyed. https://t.co/iYQHgqa86n
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) August 27, 2019
MM: Do you see cannabis as part of the solution to the opioid crisis as an offramp from drugs like heroin?
MW: Of course, most definitely. That’s something that I’ve thought about. It’s something I believe to be true as well.
MM: You’ve been candid about your experience facing a marijuana possession arrest. Can you walk me through what happened?
MW: I think I was about 21 or 22 years old. I was coming from a family member’s house. We had finished smoking. I drove in my car to go home from my cousin’s house a little bit later and I was pulled over by the police. One of my headlights were out or something like that. The officer pulled me over and claimed that he smelled an odor and he asked me if I had anything in the car.
Of course I was honest. I told him that I did in fact have marijuana in the car. He assured me that I wouldn’t be in trouble as long as I was honest, as long as I showed him where it was. I showed where it was and gave it to him and I explained that I had class the next morning because I was a college student. He told me to get out of the car, he searched me, he asked if that’s all I had. I was honest with him like he asked me to be and he arrested me, put in my handcuffs and told me I was being detained for possession of marijuana.
I'm not a typical candidate. I was really nervous to talk about my criminal record, especially so early in the campaign. But I want to be honest about who I am and use my experiences to fight for an end to the criminalization of poverty nationwide. #Mckayla2020 #AVoteForUs pic.twitter.com/onP9W9eqjF
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) May 3, 2019
MM: How did that make you feel?
MW: I made me feel like I was a criminal and that was one of the first instances that I had with a police officer that made me not trust the police because here I am, clearly I’m not a bad person, I’m telling him I have class tomorrow and even showed him my books.
He didn’t care about any of that and I ended up being detained for about 12 to 13 hours in a cell with about 12 to 15 other women. Some of us were on the floor. There was one toilet inside of the cell, where if you had to use the bathroom, you had to use the bathroom in front of everyone else. That’s pretty much what they did to me. I went to court for it. They didn’t convict me of it. They put the case on what’s called a Stet docket on the condition that I completed a drug rehabilitation program for people who did drugs.
I felt completely out of place because to me it’s not a drug, it’s natural.
Have I been arrested for marijuana possession? Yes.
Am I ashamed of that? No.
I am tired of privileged politicians admitting they smoked & faced no consequences, then turning around and explaining why they think it should still be illegal.
END THE PROHIBITION.#PERIODT
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) August 28, 2019
It was just absurd to me, and it’s something I still have to answer for to this day. I’m a government contractor so if I go to a new job and I have a security clearance to make, they always ask me about this. It’s another reason I support the expungement of records because of instances like that. I’ve been turned down for jobs for this reason, which shouldn’t be the case.
MM: When you talk to voters about your drug policy proposals, what kind of reaction do you get?
MW: I get a lot of positive feedback, even from people who have never smoked marijuana a day in their life. People are agreeing, like why is this illegal?
I haven’t met one person who doesn’t support legalizing marijuana—besides Steny Hoyer. To me, it’s no surprise. I mean he takes a lot of money from Big Pharma and you think about the impact that the legalization of marijuana will have on the opiate industry and the pharmaceutical industry, of course he’s not going to support that.
If you look at all of the things that marijuana does, it’s extraordinary. There’s evidence of it treating nausea, anxiety, depression—so many other things. I myself suffer from insomnia and can’t really sleep and I would much rather smoke a joint to go to sleep than to take any kind of medication. I have a lot of friends that have died from prescription drug abuse. It’s something that needs to be taken seriously. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.
And quite frankly, I’m disappointed in the majority leader for calling it a gateway drug, which is an absolute lie.
MM: How much do you think Hoyer’s opposition to legalization will impact his campaign?
MW: I think it’s going to impact his campaign quite negatively. I was actually surprised that he was bold enough to actually say that, but that just goes to show how safe he feels. He’s bold in the fact that he feels secure that his seat is safe, that he won’t be in jeopardy of losing it, that he won’t be in jeopardy of being primaried.
[Legalization is] something that even people who support Hoyer would see and look at him differently. There’s so many people who agree with the federal legalization of marijuana. If you look at the war on drugs and you look at how many people are incarcerated for this—people are still incarcerated for the possession of marijuana while it’s being spoken about being legalized. That is a huge issue. Why are we still on the wrong history when it comes to this?
MM: Any thoughts on former Vice President Joe Biden and the role his opposition to broad reform will play out in the Democratic presidential primary?
MW: Oh, Joe. I don’t know if Joe Biden is purposefully trying to throw out the race or he actually believes in the crap that he says. Sometimes I have to think to myself, “wow did he really say that? Did he mean that?”
That’s pretty much my stance on Joe Biden. It’s Joe being Joe. I don’t support him, I’m Bernie all the way.
MM: Speaking of Sanders, what do you make of him recently stating that he’s not yet willing to embrace decriminalizing possession of all drugs, as you’re advocating for?
MW: I’m not really sure where Bernie Sanders is coming from with that. I will say that’s one thing that’s disappointing, but I’m hoping he will lean more left on that issue.
I think it’s important to decriminalize possession of all drugs because we have to look at substance abuse aside from marijuana. When you see people come into the criminal justice system and you see that they have multiple offenses of drug possession, whether it be heroin or prescription drugs or crack cocaine or PCP, prison is not going to rehabilitate them. These are instances where people need help. You can lock someone up who is addicted to cocaine, you can put him in jail for five years, but if they don’t get the treatment they need, they’re going to go get high again.
A lot of time that causes overdose as well because you spent this whole time not doing what you usually do and you get out and just want to chase that high. It goes to the fact that we need rehabilitation versus exploiting these people who have these issues, and that’s why the decriminalization of all drugs has to come into legislation and needs to be enacted because it’s going to help our communities and help people. We have to tackle that as well.
Fingers crossed that Bernie will see the light on that issue.
MM: You mentioned psychedelics earlier. Is that another issue you’re exploring?
MW: It’s something I’m interested in. I’m still doing a little bit of research. I have talked to a few people about how it’s proven to help people who suffer from PTSD and it’s something that I think we should invest in researching. I think that administered under the right care with the right dosage could be helpful versus just shoving prescription pills down our throats every chance they get.
Support Grows For Marijuana Legalization Bill In Colombia
Colombia’s legislature will soon take up a bill to legalize and regulate the production and consumption of marijuana for adults.
The legislation, which is being filed by Sen. Gustavo Bolivar of the opposition Colombia Humana party, seeks to end prohibition as a means of curtailing crime and supporting a public health-focused approach to drug policy.
Bolivar, an author who has written several books centered on drug trafficking, has characterized the bill as being about “regularization, not legalization,” but it would provide for legal sales to adults with restrictions similar to those imposed for tobacco and alcohol. There would be penalties for selling to underage individuals and smoking wouldn’t be permitted in public spaces.
The senator pointed to Uruguay, Canada and states in the U.S. as regulatory models for legalization.
“It has been proven that crime levels are lowered and public health is improved,” he said, according to Colombia Reports.
Sen. Alberto Castilla Salazar of the leftist Polo Democrático party said that his coalition supports the reform measure.
Colombia debe superar el prohibicionismo y romper los vínculos de los grupos ilegales con el control del Cannabis, para que sea el Estado quien regule, defina las formas y entienda el consumo como problema de salud pública. Como @PoloDemocratico respaldamos está iniciativa. pic.twitter.com/YBDHqojENJ
— Alberto Castilla Salazar (@CastillaSenador) September 17, 2019
“Colombia must overcome prohibitionism and break the ties of illegal groups with the control of cannabis, so that it is the State that regulates, defines the forms and understands consumption as a public health problem,” he said on Tuesday.
Sen. Julián Gallo Cubillos of the FARC party said his coalition supports the legislation and that it represents “a new way to fight the scourge of drug trafficking.”
— Senado Colombia (@SenadoGovCo) September 18, 2019
The proposal has also garnered the support of former President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been an outspoken advocate for ending the war on drugs. His Liberal party could make or break the legislation depending on where members fall.
While left and center-left lawmakers seem largely united around legalizing marijuana, the issue will likely face resistance from President Ivan Duque, who last year signed a decree banning low-level possession of cannabis and cocaine despite court rulings that such activity is permissible.
As Colombia Reports noted, however, Duque’s far-right Democratic Center party is in the minority.
“We’ll have to see how many senators are left to former president Juan Manuel Santos and see how public opinion receives the idea that marijuana can be consumed in public spaces,” Sen. Paloma Valencia, a member of the president’s party, said.
If the country does opt to pursue a regulated cannabis program, it will join Mexico, where lawmakers are readying legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use following a Supreme Court ruling establishing that a ban on possession and cultivation for personal use is unconstitutional.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Marijuana Offenses Would No Longer Get Immigrants Deported Under New Congressional Bill
The fourth highest-ranking Democrat in the House introduced a bill on Wednesday designed to protect immigrants from being deported or denied entry into the U.S. over low-level marijuana offenses.
Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) filed the Removing Marijuana from Deportable Offenses Act, which stipulates that “any offenses involving the use, possession, or distribution of marijuana shall not be considered as grounds of inadmissibility.”
It would further allow immigrants who’ve been denied a visa or deported due to cannabis offenses to reapply or have their visa reissued.
In a press release, Luján said that the legislation is necessary in order to combat what he described as the “despicable” weaponization of marijuana against immigrant communities by the Trump administration. According to Human Rights Watch, 34,000 immigrants were deported from 2007 to 2012 for cannabis possession.
Minor marijuana use should not be grounds for deportation – it’s a wasteful use of resources and separates families. It's time to end these injustices. pic.twitter.com/G6y6EzbA1z
— Ben Ray Luján (@repbenraylujan) September 18, 2019
“The federal government should not be wasting resources to wreak havoc on immigrant families when there are children held in border camps that are desperate for legal services, hygiene products, and basic humanitarian care,” he said. “Providing care for these children and families should be where the Trump administration devotes its funding – not working as a deportation force.”
“I’m proud to be fighting for this legislation to hold President Trump accountable and defend our immigrant communities from senseless and hateful policies,” he said.
The legislation is identical to a companion bill that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced in June.
“This Administration’s efforts to use marijuana possession as a tool for deportation is misguided and does not make our communities safer,” Booker said. “Limited law enforcement resources should not be wasted on deporting people for something two of the last three presidents have admitted to doing.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that immigrants are ineligible for citizenship if they use marijuana or engage in cannabis-related activities, including employment in a state-legal cannabis business, because such activity is not consistent with “good moral character.”
So far, the House version has 21 cosponsors, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lou Correa (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
Dozens of states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana use & possession, but the Trump administration is using minor marijuana use to deport immigrant families.
— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) September 18, 2019
“We’re the closest that we have ever been to ending marijuana prohibition across the United States; it’s vital that individuals and communities that continue to bear the brunt of prohibition do not get left behind—that includes noncitizens,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, said. “Marijuana has been one of the leading causes for deportation, destroying the lives of countless individuals and families over a substance that is now the center of an industry bringing in billions in profits.”
FWD.us President Todd Schulte called the proposal “commonsense legislation that will help keep families together and ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted on cruelly deporting individuals with low-level offenses.”
“The status quo of marijuana criminalization is irrational and discriminatory towards tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding aspiring Americans who pose no safety risk to the United States,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “Public opinion and policy surrounding cannabis are rapidly shifting, which is why we must ensure that those who strive to achieve the American Dream are treated with dignity.”
Also this week, Luján became of cosponsor of separate far-reaching legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and divert funds toward programs to begin repairing the damage of the war on drugs.
Read the text of Luján’s marijuana and immigration bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Key Congressional Chair Says Marijuana Banking Vote Will Happen Over Groups’ Objections
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said marijuana banking legislation will advance to the House floor despite the fact that some major advocacy groups are calling for a delay until more comprehensive cannabis reform is first passed.
The congresswoman, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Wednesday that she appreciates the concerns outlined by groups including the ACLU and Center for American Progress, which released a letter on Tuesday stating that they were worried that passing the banking bill would undermine broader reform efforts.
The problem, she said, is that Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) hasn’t yet advanced the more wide-ranging legalization legislation those groups favor, leaving House leadership in a bind as they plan out the floor calendar.
“I know that leadership is in support of the Judiciary moving as fast as they possibly can with the bill that would deal with those civil rights issues,” she said. “We just can’t get from Judiciary exactly when they are going to do that.”
“And so what’s going to happen is Mr. Perlmutter’s bill that gives safe harbor to the banks is going to move, and whenever Judiciary gets that bill done, then it’s going to move too with the same kind of support that Mr. Perlmutter’s bill is going to get,” she said, referring to the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO).
“We’ve been working on it for six years—the banks are reticent to deal with the cannabis industry. The states are moving forward very quickly to authorize and support cannabis. All this cash is piling up. And so something has to be done to give safe harbor to the banks.”
Perlmutter’s bill was approved by Waters’s House Financial Services Committee with a strong bipartisan vote in March, and certain advocates expected the full chamber to take it up before the summer recess. While that didn’t pan out, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) informed the Democratic Caucus last week that a floor vote would be held by the end of the month, his staff confirmed to Marijuana Moment.
That announcement came one day after Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his panel would vote on cannabis banking reform, though he declined to provide a timeline beyond saying that he wants to get it done by the end of the year.
Hoyer’s announcement took some advocates by unpleasant surprise, as they were under the impression that something like Nadler’s Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—which addresses social equity and restorative justice—would get a vote before the House worked to pass what’s viewed as a largely industry-friendly banking bill.
“I just think it’s a matter of timing. I think the Judiciary bill, whenever it’s ready, it’s going to move as quickly as they get it ready, and it will be supported,” Waters said.
Perlmutter echoed that point in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Wednesday.
“We’ve had this passed [out of committee] for six months and certainly support all of what they’re trying to do,” he said, referring to his banking bill and the groups’ call for comprehensive reform. “But we’ve got to get these things moving.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, and I think we’re going to be successful.”
The congressman also said he agreed with Waters about the need for Judiciary to act.
“I think they’re prepared to set a markup and move it, and I’m a cosponsor of that bill. But I want to get this one going,” he said. “This sort of breaks the ice for everything else. That’s been what we’ve talked about for a long time, and this one we’ve been working on a long time.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a close ally of the Trump administration, had sharp words for groups urging a delay on a marijuana banking vote, stating that it’s “deeply disappointing that instead of adding to the coalition of the marijuana reform movement, we continue to find new and destructive ways to divide the coalition.”
“It is unfortunate that some of the most left-wing elements of our pro-marijuana reform coalition are now making demands beyond freedom,” he said. “The way we attract folks on the libertarian and right to our movement is to embrace freedom and to show it’s both popular and helpful to people in their lives.”
But while the congressman went on to say that calls for social equity and reparations “fatally divide the movement,” he’s also a cosponsor of Nadler’s MORE Act that includes such provisions.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment that while he shares the groups’ frustration over inaction on broader reform, he’s going to support the banking bill when it comes to the floor because he has “a lot of constituents who would benefit greatly if we made reform in banking.”
“It’s just hard to look them in the eye and say I’m not going to support legislation that would help you immediately so you can help patients, help people who need it,” he said. “I’m inclined this one to support if it came up for a vote, but I understand the sentiment. I’m frustrated too.”
Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that while he similarly understands where groups like ACLU are coming from, the banking bill isn’t entirely about bolstering the industry and would also serve disadvantaged communities.
“SAFE banking would open bank financing sources to cannabis companies allowing approved social equity applicants to enter the market without accepting predatory terms from private investors just to open their doors,” he said. “Many entrepreneurs of color are looking to start their businesses immediately and become the success stories that will spur further support and investment in our communities.”
“While I understand and respect the position of our allies in advocacy, current social equity applicants should not be held hostage until we can enact legislation unlikely to pass under the current administration,” he said. “Doing so would give the multi-state operators even more of a head start which will widen the ownership gap in the cannabis industry.”
But Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director of the U.S. Program for Human Rights Watch, which also signed the Tuesday letter to House leaders, took a different view.
“Civil and human rights groups, criminal justice and drug policy advocates, faith leaders, and doctors have all called for the repeal of the US’s racialized marijuana enforcement and start repairing harms done to communities for decades,” she told Marijuana Moment. “For House Leadership to prioritize a bill that would advance banking rights over human rights is a travesty.”
Asked whether she had a message for the groups requesting a delay on the banking legislation, Waters said, “I don’t, except to say that the Democratic Caucus supports ensuring that minorities and others who have been disadvantaged, who’ve been unfairly incarcerated by those marijuana laws, must be supported in ways that will help them to benefit from this new industry.”
“We’re all waiting for the bill. We’re desperately waiting for that bill,” she said. “As soon as this gets ready, we’re all going to get forcefully behind it.”
Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that Waters is “one of the most effective champions of cannabis reform, from successfully moving the SAFE Banking Act swiftly out of committee earlier this year to being one of the original lead sponsors of the MORE Act.”
“After a successful vote on the banking bill, it will be time for cannabis advocates and the industry to unite behind the MORE Act to ensure passage this Congress,” he said.
“We are encouraged by the comments from Chairwoman Waters,” Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, said. “While both industry and advocacy groups are seeking more substantial reforms, the banking issue is something that can be addressed immediately on a bipartisan basis. This is a move that should be cheered, as it will greatly enhance public safety and protect workers in states that have made the rational choice to end prohibition and regulate the sale of cannabis.”
Aaron Houston contributed reporting from Capitol Hill for this story.
This story has been updated to include comments from Perlmutter, Gaetz, Swalwell, Cannabis Trade Federation and Human Rights Watch.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.