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.
From health care to criminal justice, the failures of our nation's prohibition on marijuana can be seen in every corner of our society. Status quo isn’t working & states aren’t turning back. It’s time to legalize & regulate marijuana at the federal level. Read my @STATnews op/ed: https://t.co/q5ZHzYpRwz
— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) November 20, 2018
“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.
I didn't say it wasn't. I said he's not a fan of the pot industry, or legalization. I have spoken to him lots (incl last night at length). Have you?
— Kevin Sabet (@KevinSabet) November 20, 2018
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.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.
North Dakota Marijuana Activists Turn Hopes To 2020 Ballot Measure Following Legislative Defeat
Despite the narrow defeat on Wednesday of a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, activists in North Dakota say they are looking ahead to 2020, when they’ll try to push for broader cannabis legalization through a ballot measure.
The activist group Legalize ND stated their intentions to take the issue to voters in the upcoming general election in a Facebook post following the legislation’s failure.
“The legislature has proven they have 0 interest in reform, and that they are unwilling to live by their pledge to pass decriminalization as an alternative to full legalization,” the post said.
The legislation, supported by Gov. Doug Burgum (R), would have removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce or two mature plants. The current misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine would have been replaced with a non-criminal offense that carried a $200 fine. The bill also set new penalties for possession of paraphernalia including pipes, containers or growing tools as a non-criminal offense with a $100 fine.
Instead, members of the House voted the measure down 43-47, with four abstentions.
Activists with Legalize ND and Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who introduced the failed decriminalization bill, did not return calls from from Marijuana Moment seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the House approved separate legislation Monday that would add new conditions for which residents can use medical cannabis, increase the number of professionals who can recommend its use and expand the allowed methods of consumption. The House also voted to allow cancer patients to have higher amounts of medical marijuana.
North Dakota’s first medical cannabis dispensary is set to open next week in Fargo, the Associated Press reported. Acreage Holdings will open a facility called The Botanist in Bismark.
In 2018, North Dakota voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure, which would have set no limit on the amount of the drug that people could possess or cultivate. Two years earlier, voters approved a separate measure allowing medical cannabis in the state.
North Dakota officials hope to have dispensaries up and running in the state’s eight major cities by fall.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Marijuana Companies Urged Governor To Ban Cannabis Home Cultivation, Document Shows
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took marijuana reform supporters by pleasant surprise when he endorsed legalization last year after previously calling cannabis a “gateway drug” that should remain prohibited. But for advocates, there was at least one major disappointment in store when he got around to revealing the details of his plan: the proposal, unveiled as part of his budget last month, would ultimately include a ban on home cultivation of recreational marijuana.
Home growing—seen by many as a commonsense policy that ensures access to cannabis for individuals who can’t afford retail prices, live too far from a dispensary or just want to flex their green thumbs—has been a feature of almost all legal adult-use marijuana systems operating in the U.S., with the exception of Washington State’s. So what’s behind the New York governor’s opposition to letting adults cultivate their own crops?
It could be that Cuomo took a page from the commercial cannabis industry. Literally.
Roughly a month before the governor announced the details of his legalization proposal, a New York-based marijuana business association—led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers—sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office in the interest of offering “some thoughts on various issues associated with a transition from medical to adult-use.”
One of those thoughts centered on the businesses’ desire to prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana.
Politico first reported the existence of the document, created by New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), in December. This month, Marijuana Moment obtained the full 29-page memo through a state freedom of information law request.
There are some broad recommendations that most legalization supporters would take no issue with, such as encouraging individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry and leveraging partnerships to expand research into medical cannabis.
But a chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” makes very specific—and, in the eyes of advocates, misleading—arguments against allowing marijuana cultivation for personal use.
The group recognized that people want home cultivation because of “currently high prices of medical marijuana” or because they see it as an “individual civil liberty.” But according to NYMCIA, home cultivation “creates a significant public safety and black market risk.”
The industry organization listed five claims to support that argument:
1. Home grow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.
2. Home grow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.
3. Home grow will undermine the state’s harm reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.
4. Home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and and labeled correctly.
5. Home grow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.
Per that last point, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that New York state would miss out on some sales tax revenue if residents decided to grow their own plants. But the other side of that dilemma is that it’d likely mean missed profits for cannabis businesses, including those affiliated with NYMCIA.
“From our perspective, it’s really hard to see any real reason—other than individual and corporate greed—to be against home cultivation at this point,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “There’s not a lot of rational concerns when it comes to allowing a limited amount of plants for an individual to grow at home.”
Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also pushed back against NYMCIA’s claim that a home grow option would make eliminating the illicit market “impossible.”
It’s the “fallacy of ‘The Fallacy of Home Grow,'” as she put it. It would make more sense to attribute difficulties reducing illicit market sales to state tax rates on retail cannabis, she said in a phone interview.
“It’s really disingenuous to try to say that it would not be possible to eliminate the illicit market if we allow for home grow. That certainly hasn’t been the experience of other states that allow home grow.”
Moreover, NYMCIA’s position is not consistent with that of other marijuana industry groups such as the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which argues that allowing home growing can actually benefit businesses.
“NCIA does not oppose limited home cultivation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the group, said in an email. “In fact, it can act as an incubator for people to develop skills which can be used in the legal cannabis industry, which benefits businesses as well as individuals looking to enter the market. Much like home brewing has helped spur interest the craft beer market, limited home cannabis cultivation can do the same in legal states.”
Who is involved in NYMCIA and why do they want to ban home cultivation?
Marijuana companies Columbia Care, Etain, PharmaCann, The Botanist and Acreage NY, Vireo Health and MedMen were all listed as members of NYMCIA in the memo to Cuomo’s office. (MedMen later acquired PharmaCann, and more recently, NYMCIA urged MedMen to leave the association amid a controversy over racist remarks allegedly made by the company’s executives).
(A separate controversy previously enveloped Columbia Care, which owns dispensaries and grow facilities in multiple states, after its Massachusetts-based subsidiary, Patriot Care, was discovered to be advocating against letting certain people with past drug convictions work in the legal cannabis industry).
Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm that Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner joined as a board member, declined to comment for this story through a public relations firm that represents the company.
A MedMen spokesperson said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that it “respects the right of those who choose to cultivate cannabis for their personal use,” but did not respond to specific questions about the company’s involvement in drafting the policy statement that urged New York officials to continue prohibiting such activity.
Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, told Marijuana Moment that the document “was our industry association’s first go at formulating some broad policy positions” prior to meeting with the governor’s office and that the company’s “position on home grow is far more nuanced than a simple approve/oppose.”
“Those policy points you have are sound, but our positions have evolved (and will continue to do so) as we’ve had a chance to socialize these concepts” with other stakeholders, Unruh said. He argued that New York has superior quality control standards in place for medical cannabis and that while the company recognizes “the nature and value of civil liberty” of home cultivation, allowing it would pose public health risks.
But ultimately, “Our position is this: We support the governor’s homegrow proposal,” he wrote in an email.
While recommending that lawmakers ban personal cultivation of recreational marijuana, Cuomo did include a home grow option for medical cannabis patients in his budget plan.
(Full disclosure: Several members of the companies involved in NYMCIA support Marijuana Moment through monthly Patreon pledges, or have in the past.)
Cannabis reform advocates aren’t buying NYMCIA’s claims.
It is quite obvious that NYMCIA’s affiliates have a financial stake in the shape of whatever marijuana law eventually emerges from the New York legislature. And their opposition to a home grow option is a point of concern for advocacy groups.
“[T]o advocate against home cultivation given all we know about how it works in practice from the industry side really just is kind of despicable and illustrates their greed, that they’re willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the slightest increase in their profits,” NORML’s Altieri said.
The association’s recommendation also runs counter to what Marijuana Moment was previously told by the vice president of corporate communications for Vireo Health, Albe Zakes.
Asked about the memo following the initial Politico report that only vaguely described the document, Zakes wrote in an email that “our CEO and COO assured me that we’ve never lobbied against home grow and in fact support home grow as part of larger legislation, as long as it is regulated and controlled in a responsible manner, the same way medical or recreational markets would be, in order to protect consumers.”
(Vireo CEO Aaron Hoffnung signed an Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure form for NYMCIA last year as one of the association’s directors.)
Marijuana Moment sent a follow-up request for comment after obtaining the policy statement through the public records request, but Zakes said the he was unable to reach the company’s executives and so Vireo would have to decline the opportunity for further comment.
Advocates question whether NYMCIA leveraged its influence for the right reasons.
Is the worry really that a home cultivation policy would sustain an illicit market or complicate law enforcement activities in New York? Are concerns about the public health impact genuine? Or is it that cannabis businesses want the entire market to themselves?
“We need to make sure that we have a check on the potential greed of the industry that we can already see in these early stages based on this advocacy document,” Altieri said. “We need to make sure that the market in New York not only begins to address all the harms caused by the war on cannabis but also is oriented toward the consumer and not large industry interests.”
“Banning home cultivation benefits no one but corporations and large industry groups.”
Despite Cuomo including the home grow ban in his proposal, it seems that advocates may get more time to voice their concerns about the policy. Some leading lawmakers such as Senate President Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) are increasingly doubtful that marijuana reform will make it into the final state budget, meaning that negotiations on separate legalization legislation could end up resulting in a law that allows consumers to grow their own cannabis.
Marijuana Moment reached out to NYMCIA itself, Cuomo’s office, Etain and Columbia Care for comment, but representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries by the time of publication.
Read the full NYMCIA policy statement, including the section on home cultivation, below:
New York Medical Cannabis I… by on Scribd
Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state on Thursday.
The legislation, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess, purchase and gift up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants (three of which could be mature), cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in a 10-9 vote.
A governor-appointed commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Possession and home cultivation would be legal 60 days after the bill passes, and the first retail licenses would be issued in November 2020.
The bill also provides for the expungement of prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses that were made legal.
This is the first time that the committee has advanced such legislation, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Last year, the panel rejected a similar proposal, but the full House voted to overturn that recommendation and then it passed an amended version of the bill that excluded commercial sales. It later died before making its way to the Senate, however.
While some committee members expressed reservations about the health impacts of marijuana and raised doubts about revenue from legal sales, others like Rep. Will Pearson (D) said such concerns are overblown and that the time to legalize “was yesterday—beyond yesterday.”
Pearson adds health effects of marijuana should not be related to alcohol, but rather compared with coffee and sugar.
Also says NH is behind curve. “The time to do this was yesterday – beyond yesterday.” #nhpolitics
— Ethan DeWitt (@edewittNH) February 21, 2019
“We applaud the committee for recognizing that marijuana prohibition is an outdated and increasingly unpopular policy that has failed to accomplish its public health and safety objectives,” Matt Simon, New England political director at MPP, said in a press release. “It’s time for New Hampshire to adopt a more sensible system in which cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older and regulated in order to protect consumers and the public.”
“We are very pleased that the committee tasked with overseeing criminal justice and public safety has recommended the passage of this legislation,” he said. “Passage of this bill would be terrible news for illicit drug dealers and good news for proponents of smarter, more effective drug policies.”
Gov. Chris Sununu (R) opposes legalizing cannabis, but House Speaker Steve Shurtleff has said he believes there are enough votes in his chamber, and perhaps also in the Senate, to override a potential veto.
Meanwhile, marijuana legislation is moving through legislatures all across the U.S.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
We followed more than 900 pieces of cannabis legislation in 2018. Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
During the last week alone, a Vermont Senate committee approved a bill to allow cannabis sales, the West Virginia House passed a piece of marijuana banking legislation and a Missouri House committee cleared a bill to provide for the expungement of certain marijuana convictions. On Wednesday, North Dakota’s House narrowly rejected cannabis decriminalization legislation.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.