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.
Top IRS Official Says Marijuana Banking Reform Would Help Feds ‘Get Paid’
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would like to get paid—and it’d help if the marijuana industry had access to banks like companies in other legal markets, an official with the federal department said. She also talked about unique issues related to federal tax deductions for cannabis businesses.
At an event hosted by UCLA’s Annual Tax Controversy Institute on Thursday, IRS’s Cassidy Collins talked about the “special type of collection challenge” that the agency faces when it comes to working with cannabis businesses while the product remains federally illegal.
While IRS isn’t taking a stand on federal marijuana policy, Collins said that the status quo leaves many cannabis businesses operating on a cash-only basis, creating complications for the agency, in part by making it harder for banks to “pay us.”
“The reason why [the marijuana industry is] cash intensive is twofold,” she said. “Number one, a lot of customers don’t want a paper trail showing that they’re buying marijuana, and number two, the hesitancy of banks to allow marijuana businesses to even bank with them.”
Of course, the reason why many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients is because the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.
“There’s been a number of legislative bills that have been introduced—and I am definitely not expressing any opinion personally or on behalf of the IRS about any pending or proposed legislation,” Collins, who is a senior counsel in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel, said. “But it is interesting to note that, if the law changed so that the marijuana businesses could have banks, that would make the IRS’s job to collect [taxes] a lot easier. As part of collection, we want the money. That’s our end goal there.”
A major part of what makes cannabis businesses unique is that they don’t qualify for traditional tax credits under an IRS code known as 280E. That policy “prohibits them from claiming deductions for business expenses because they’re technically being involved in drug trafficking,” Collins explained at the event, from which small excerpts of her comments were reported by Bloomberg.
There are some options available to lessen the burden on marijuana firms, however. At the end of the day, “IRS will work with marijuana companies because, again, we want to get paid,” Collins said.
One of the ways the agency works with marijuana business operators is to have them visit designated IRS “tax assistance centers” that accept cash payments in excess of $50,000. But the official warned businesses to “be prepared to be there for a little while” as the center checks—and double checks—the amount of cash being submitted.
“Revenue officers will assist the marijuana companies in paying us,” she said.
IRS officials could also help cannabis firms by having officials accompany them “to the bank in order to try to help the taxpayer secure a cashier’s payment to pay the IRS, as well as using money orders,” she said, adding that “our revenue officers are are wanting to work with the marijuana companies to help assist them to pay us.”
“When the revenue officers are there in person with the taxpayer, that could potentially help increase the likelihood that the bank will cooperate and help the taxpayer transition into a cashier’s check,” she continued. “And that has been a trend since this first became legal [at the state level], that more and more banks are allowing cannabis companies to bank with them.”
In a report published earlier this year, congressional researchers examined tax policies and restrictions for the marijuana industry—and how those could change if any number of federal reform bills are enacted.
IRS, for its part, said last month that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
As it stands, banks and credit unions are operating under 2014 guidance from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that lays out reporting requirements for those that choose to service the marijuana industry.
Leaders in both chambers of Congress are working on legalization bills to end federal marijuana prohibition. But stakeholders are hopeful that, in the interim, legislators will enact modest marijuana banking reform. Legislation to protect financial institutions from being penalized for working with cannabis businesses passed the House for the fifth time last month.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a Marijuana Moment op-ed this month that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications.
IRS separately hosted a forum in August dedicated to tax policy for marijuana businesses and cryptocurrency.
Earlier this year, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress that the agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.
Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2019 that he’d like to see Congress approve legislation resolving the cannabis banking issue and he pointed to the fact that IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to deposit taxes from those businesses as an example of the problem.
IRS released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry last year, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
The update appears to be responsive to a Treasury Department internal watchdog report that was released earlier in the year. The department’s inspector general for tax administration had criticized IRS for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws. And it directed the agency to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”
Luxembourg Set To Become First European Country To Legalize Marijuana Following Government Recommendation
Luxembourg is poised to become the first European country to legalize marijuana, with key government agencies putting forward a plan to allow the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use.
The ministers of justice and homeland security on Friday unveiled the proposal, which will still require a vote in the Parliament but is expected to pass. It’s part of a broader package of reform measures the agencies are recommending.
Under the marijuana measure, adults 18 and older could grow up to four plants. However, under the non-commercial model that is being proposed, possessing more than three grams in public would still be a civil offense, carrying a fine of €25-500 ($29-581). Currently, the maximum fine for possession is €2,500 ($2,908).
In terms of access, adults would be able to buy and trade cannabis seeds for their home garden.
Justice Minister Sam Tamson said the government felt it “had to act” and characterized the home cultivation policy change as a first step, The Guardian reported.
👉🏻élaboration du projet de loi usage privé du #cannabis : jusqu’à 4 plantes à domicile & décorrectionnalisation <3g
👉🏻renforcement de la prévention & de l’accompagnement
👉🏻⬆️des moyens de la police
👉🏻élaboration d’un projet de production/vente #Luxembourg pic.twitter.com/8yre0Udt8J
— Sam Tanson (@SamTanson) October 22, 2021
“The idea is that a consumer is not in an illegal situation if he consumes cannabis and that we don’t support the whole illegal chain from production to transportation to selling where there is a lot of misery attached,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to get more and more away from the illegal black market.”
While limited in scope, the reform would make Luxembourg the first country in Europe to legalize the production and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Cannabis has been widely decriminalized in certain countries in the continent, but it has remained criminalized by statute.
Government sources in Luxembourg told The Guardian that plans are in the works to develop a program where the state regulates the production and distribution of marijuana. Tamson said they are working to resolve “international constraints” before taking that step, however, referring to United Nations treaty obligations that multiple U.S. states and other countries like Canada and Uruguay have openly flouted.
The measures include:
🟢 Regulation of cannabis use and cultivation: adults will be able to legally cultivate up to four cannabis plants for their own use, provided the cultivation is happening at their place of residence.
— European Greens (@europeangreens) October 22, 2021
For now, the country is focusing on legalization within a home setting. Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in early 2022, and the ruling parties are friendly to the reform.
This has been a long time coming, as a coalition of major parties of Luxembourg agreed in 2018 to enact legislation allowing “the exemption from punishment or even legalization” of cannabis.
Meanwhile in the U.S., congressional lawmakers are working to advance legalization legislation. A key House committee recently approved a bill to end marijuana prohibition, and Senate leadership is finalizing a separate reform proposal.
In Mexico, a top Senator said this week that lawmakers could advance legislation to regulate marijuana in the coming weeks. The Supreme Court has already ruled that adults cannot be criminalized over possession or cultivation, but there’s currently no program in place to provide access.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New Bipartisan Marijuana Research Bill In Congress Would Let Scientists Study Dispensary Products
A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday to remove barriers to conducting research on marijuana, including by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.
The Medical Marijuana Research Act, filed by the unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would streamline the process for researchers to apply and get approved to study cannabis and set clear deadlines on federal agencies to act on their applications.
“Congress is hopelessly behind the American people on cannabis, and the quality of our research shows why that is an urgent problem,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “Despite the fact that 99 percent of Americans live in a state that has legalized some form of cannabis, federal law is still hamstringing researchers’ ability to study the full range of health benefits offered by cannabis, and to learn more about the products readily available to consumers.”
“It’s outrageous that we are outsourcing leadership in that research to Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and others. It’s time to change the system,” he said.
Late last year, the House approved an identical version of the cannabis science legislation. Days later, the Senate passed a similar bill but nothing ended up getting to the president’s desk by the end of the last Congress. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators refiled their marijuana research measure for the current 117th Congress.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are also advancing a separate strategy to open up dispensary cannabis to researchers. Large-scale infrastructure legislation that has passed both chambers in differing forms and which is pending final action contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
The new bill filed this week by Blumenauer and Harris, along with six other original cosponsors, would also make it easier for scientists to modify their research protocols without having to seek federal approval.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy 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.
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It would additionally mandate that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license more growers and make it so there would be no limit on the number of additional entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. It would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.
“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, including our laws that govern cannabis research,” Blumenauer said in remarks in the Congressional Record. “Because cannabis is a Schedule I substance, researchers must jump through hoops and comply with onerous requirements just to do basic research on the medical potential of the plant.”
The new legislation will “both streamline the often-duplicative licensure process for researchers seeking to conduct cannabis research and facilitate access to an increased supply of higher quality medical grade cannabis for research purposes,” he said, adding that expanded studies will help make sure “Americans have adequate access to potentially transformative medicines and treatments.”
For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.
There’s been bipartisan agreement that DEA has inhibited cannabis research by being slow to follow through on approving additional marijuana manufacturers beyond the Mississippi operation, despite earlier pledges to do so.
In May, the agency finally said it was ready to begin licensing new cannabis cultivators. Last week, DEA proposed a large increase in the amount of marijuana—and psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and mescaline—that it wants produced in the U.S. for research purposes next year.
Under the new House bill, the agency would be forced to start approving additional cultivation applications for study purposes within one year of the legislation’s enactment.
HHS and the attorney general would be required under the bill to create a process for marijuana manufacturers and distributors to supply researchers with cannabis from dispensaries. They would have one year after enactment to develop that procedure, and would have to start meeting to work on it within 60 days of the bill’s passage.
In general, the legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.
Read the full text of the new marijuana research bill below: