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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

Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.

At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.

Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.

The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”

He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.

“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”

Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:

“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.

“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”

Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.

Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.

“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”

“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”

Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.

After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”

“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”

Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.

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Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota

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A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.

Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.

“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.

The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.

Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.

Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.

“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”

Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.

It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.

“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.

California Lawmakers Use Cryptocurrency To Buy Marijuana From Dispensary

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches

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With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.

In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”

The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.

Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.

Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.

While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.

Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.

“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”

“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”

Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”

The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.

House Marijuana Banking Vote Officially Scheduled For Next Week, Leadership Announces

Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.

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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