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The Story Behind Rep. Joe Kennedy’s Pivot From Prohibitionist To Marijuana Legalization Advocate

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He was a self-admitted outlier among his Democratic colleagues in the House. But this week, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), a formerly avowed opponent of marijuana reform, announced that he now supports legalizing cannabis.

But what’s the inside story on how the young Democrat prepared to publicly announce his evolution on cannabis?

“Congressman Kennedy had thoughtful discussions with experts across the fields of health care, mental health, criminal justice and public safety,” Dan Black, Kennedy’s press secretary, told Marijuana Moment in an email. In addition to constituents, the congressman “engaged with advocacy groups on both sides of the issue, who offered him critical perspective.”

In announcing his newfound support for legalization in an op-ed published by the health news site STAT on Tuesday, the 38-year-old congressman acknowledged that he’s “remained skeptical” about ending prohibition and attributed that skepticism to his “ongoing work with the mental health and addiction communities.” But in addition to witnessing the harms of drug addiction, he has also come to realize the harms of criminalization when it comes to patients, veterans and communities of color.

“Over the past year, I’ve worked to rectify these perspectives,” Kennedy wrote in his op-ed. And to that end, national advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) helped him along the way, holding talks with the congressman and his staff and providing fact-based research demonstrating the benefits of legalization as well as the costs of the drug war.

Two DPA officials—Michael Collins, director of the group’s office of national affairs, and Jolene Forman, a staff attorney—gave Marijuana Moment an inside look at the calculated evolution of Kennedy’s policy position. It started, they said, with an email from one of the congressman’s staffers about six months ago.

“We were one of the groups that he reached out to,” Forman said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “His staffers were trying to understand the impacts of legalization, and when we write these laws as an advocacy organization, what kind of public health and criminal justice consequences we were taking into consideration because he has a very clear public health focus and he has a background as a prosecutor, so he’s focused on inequities in the criminal justice system.”

“We sent them a ton of information. We probably inundated them with information.”

After several conversations with staffers, DPA held direct talks with Kennedy—answered his questions, explained the inadequacies of simple decriminalization as opposed to broad legalization and discussed specific legislation like the Marijuana Justice Act that the congressman could have the chance to vote for in the next Congress.

Initially, Kennedy was hesitant, for several reasons, according to Forman: his family’s well-publicized history with substance use disorders, the “public health-related harms that he wanted to make sure weren’t exacerbated by legalization” and also racial disparities in arrests. The congressman “wanted to know why decriminalization wasn’t sufficient to addressing those disparities, so we really needed to demonstrate how decriminalization still leaves great disparities in marijuana enforcement and really doesn’t repair any of the past harms of unequal marijuana enforcement,” she said.

Black, from Kennedy’s office, said that “in the end what swayed him most was the fact that—despite stark differences of opinion on the benefits and harms of marijuana itself—nearly every person he spoke with agreed emphatically with the premise that federal marijuana policy is broken.”

“They also universally agreed that those failures are disproportionally impacting certain Americans over others—communities of color devastated by criminal justice inequities, those struggling with mental health left unprotected from addiction, or veterans left disadvantaged by our country’s bottleneck in medical research.”

Kennedy’s policy pivot could prove politically advantageous in the long-run. Though he hasn’t explicitly signaled any intention to run for higher office, he’s a young and ambitious lawmaker who some consider a viable future presidential candidate. Being out of step on cannabis—not just with his colleagues but also with 66 percent of the general public—could turn off reform-minded voters. To some, it’s no coincidence that Kennedy’s pro-legalization editorial ran on the same day that his home state of Massachusetts launched its legal adult-use marijuana market.

“He wants to, I assume, have a lengthy political career—have more of a national profile,” said Collins, who was formally named as DPA’s top staffer in Washington, D.C. this week after serving in the role in an interim capacity following the retirement of longtime director Bill Piper. “Has the policy on marijuana changed in the past two years? No. But the politics has, and it’s become unacceptable for Democrats to oppose legalization.”

“I think part of this is, as I said, Kennedy sees the writing on the wall on this issue and doesn’t want to continue to be on the wrong side of history, which is I think why he came out in such a prominent way,” he said.

Kennedy said as much in an interview with CBS Boston affiliate WBZ4 on Wednesday, noting that “states are moving forward on this and they’re not rolling it back.

“You’re seeing this in progressive states, you’re seeing this in conservative states, you’re seeing it from conservative legislators as well,” he said.

The news of Kennedy’s pro-legalization transformation took many advocates off guard. After all, he’s consistently voted against marijuana legislation—even bipartisan amendments like one to allow veterans to access medical cannabis or shield children and families who use non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) extracts from federal enforcement. The announcement also sent waves through the prohibitionist community.

Kevin Sabet, president of the nation’s leading anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana—which was co-founded by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a relative of the current congressman—didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment. But in a statement released Tuesday, he said he “spoke with Rep. Kennedy about this matter recently” and that the congressman isn’t a fan of “the profit-hungry marijuana industry.” In a tweet, Sabet said he talked to Kennedy “at length” Monday night ahead of the announcement and reiterated that the congressman “no fan” of commercial legalization.

But Sabet’s last-minute chat wasn’t enough to ward off the legalization endorsement. While the congressman said he remains concerned about “the public health impact of marijuana,” he also said that legalization “would restore the federal government’s ability to regulate a powerful new industry thoroughly and thoughtfully.”

“Legalization is not a cure-all. Risks remain and regulatory vigilance is required. Criminal justice inequities will persist until adequate state-level reforms are sought nationwide. But legalization would guide states choosing to move forward with strong and clear national standards meant to ensure that all Americans are protected fully and equally.”

While Black said his boss “is not endorsing any specific piece of legislation” at this time, he’s “waiting to see what proposals emerge in the new Democratic House.” With major committee chairs already talking about holding votes on cannabis-related legislation, Kennedy will likely soon have the opportunity to make good on his call for reform—and actually vote for it.

Anti-Marijuana Rep. Joe Kennedy Now Supports Legalization

Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.

During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.

“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”

Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”

“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.

The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.

Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.

As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.

She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.

In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”

“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.

There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

Musician John Legend Endorses Drug Decriminalization Ballot Measure In Oregon

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad

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A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.

In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.

“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”

“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.

Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.

His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”

But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.

The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.

In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.

Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.

In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.

New York Will Legalize Marijuana ‘Soon’ To Aid Economic Recovery From COVID, Governor Cuomo Says

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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South Dakota Voters Back Marijuana Legalization And Medical Cannabis Ballot Measures, Poll Finds

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Voters in South Dakota are poised to approve two separate ballot measures next month that would legalize marijuana and allow patients to access medical cannabis.

The initiative to allow adults to possess, grow and purchase marijuana leads among likely voters by a margin of 51 percent to 44 percent, with five percent undecided, according to the survey released over the weekend by Argus Leader Media and KELO-TV.

The medical cannabis item got 74 percent support in the poll, with 23 percent in opposition and 3 percent undecided.

When it comes to recreational legalization, voters are divided on the issue across demographic lines. Fifty-seven percent of those under age 50 back the ballot measure, while it is narrowly opposed by older voters. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents support the reform, but Republicans are against it, 61 percent to 34 percent. Men are on board, 56 percent to 40 percent, but women are divided with 47 percent in support and 47 percent opposed.

Via KELO-TV.

The separate medical cannabis ballot measure, on the other hand, enjoys supermajority backing among every surveyed group. In fact, it had a greater margin of support than any other item or entity in the entire poll, which also asked voters about the presidential election, other races on the ballot and approval of officials including the governor and U.S. vice president.

Via KELO-TV.

The poll, which was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy from October 19 to 21, involved 625 voters and has a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points.

A separate survey released last month by marijuana opponents found that about 60 percent of South Dakota voters support the broader recreational legalization proposal and more than 70 percent back the narrower medical cannabis initiative.

Under the adult-use constitutional amendment, people 21 and older could possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana, and they would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants.

The separate medical cannabis legalization measure that voters will decide on would make a statutory change to allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions to possess and purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from a licensed dispensary.

Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who previously vetoed a hemp bill, appeared in a new ad this month urging voters to reject the cannabis legalization ballot measure, saying, “I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot.”

Meanwhile, the pro-legalization campaign released its own spot featuring a retired police officer who says “our harsh marijuana laws aren’t working.”

“In 2018, 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in South Dakota. That’s one in 10 arrests,” the former officer said in the TV advertisement, referencing a report that South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws published last month. “Each arrest costs $4,000. It doesn’t make us any safer. We’re wasting law enforcement time and resources that should be fighting serious crimes. So I’m voting ‘yes’ on A and 26.”

The data from that report also shows that—as is the case across the country—marijuana enforcement has had a disparate impact on people of color, despite comparable rates of consumption among white people.

Meanwhile, other recent polls in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana and New Jersey also show voters poised to approve cannabis ballot measures next month.

New York Will Legalize Marijuana ‘Soon’ To Aid Economic Recovery From COVID, Governor Cuomo Says

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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