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.