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.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.