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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

Biden Says Marijuana Might Be A Gateway Drug

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Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) said on Saturday that he’s not sure if marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the use of other, more dangerous substances.

“The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” the 2020 presidential candidate claimed at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

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Politics

Vote To Federally Legalize Marijuana Planned In Congress

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A key congressional committee plans to hold a historic vote on a bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana next week, two sources with knowledge of the soon-to-be-announced action said.

The legislation, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and set aside funding to begin repairing the damage of the war on drugs, which has been disproportionately waged against communities of color.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

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Politics

Where Presidential Candidate Deval Patrick Stands On Marijuana

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) announced on November 14, 2019, that he is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

The latecomer to the race does not have an especially reform-friendly record on drug policy issues compared to many of his rival contenders, and questions remain about where he stands on legalization for adult-use—or even medical use for that matter.

During his time as governor, he voiced opposition to a marijuana decriminalization proposal and raised concerns about a medical cannabis legalization measure. After voters approved that latter initiative, he said he wished the state didn’t have the program, and his administration faced criticism over its implementation.

That said, Patrick, who also served as the U.S. assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, does not appear to have expressed hostility to marijuana reform in recent years and during his time in office did take action in support of modest proposals such as resentencing for people with non-violent drug convictions. Here’s where the former governor stands on cannabis:

Legislation And Policy Actions

Patrick’s administration said that despite a marijuana decriminalization policy going into effect following the passage of a 2008 ballot initiative, law enforcement should be able to continue to search people suspected of possession. However, his office declined to approve a request from prosecutors to delay the implementation of the voter-approved policy change.

After the decriminalization proposal passed, Patrick directed the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) to develop an implementation plan.

“Our office will continue to work collaboratively with EOPSS and the district attorneys and law enforcement agencies on implementation,” a spokesperson said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

The then-governor said he would work to toughen up enforcement of fines levied against people possessing marijuana.

“The bottom line is the governor believes that if people are fined they should pay the fines,” a spokesperson for his administration said.

Following the passage of a 2012 medical cannabis initiative in Massachusetts, Patrick said simply that the “voters have voted,” and pledged that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the law.

But there were some complications that arose during his administration’s medical marijuana licensing approval process.

In February 2014, Patrick contradicted the state health department, which had recently announced that 20 business licenses had been accepted.

“No licenses have been given. No provisional licenses have been given. What we have is a multi-step process of screening out applicants,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of where we are. There was a balance struck here about trying to let the public in through transparency to the process even though the process was unfinished.”

When reports emerged that certain medical cannabis applicants had apparently provided false or misleading information in their application forms, Patrick said “[n]o good dead goes unpunished.”

“Rather than wait till the end when all that vetting and screening had been done, we’re going to do that first cut from 100 [applicants] down to 20, and we’re going to tell everybody,”

The next month, he dismissed requests for a review of the licensing process by applicants who the health department had rejected.

“I don’t think we gain anything by starting over,” he said. “We are in the middle of a process. Nobody has a license, no one is going to get a license until we meet the standards of the application process.”

Patrick was also criticized for failing to follow up with patient advocates who urged him to effectively implement the program.

“It appears the governor wants to skip out of office without addressing medical marijuana because he doesn’t want to talk about it and he doesn’t want to deal with it,” Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Matthew Allen said in 2014.

Patrick’s successor, Gov. Charlie Baker (R), overhauled the his predecessor’s medical cannabis licensing process to create “a more streamlined, efficient, and transparent process that allows the Commonwealth to maintain the highest standards of both public safety and accessibility.”

Despite opposing marijuana decriminalization and expressing concerns about medical cannabis legalization, the governor did sign several drug policy reform bills during his time in office.

Patrick signed legislation in 2012 that reduced mandatory minimum sentences for people with non-violent drug convictions. He’d introduced a package of bills that included a call for the repeal of such mandatory minimums the previous year, earning praise from reform advocates.

“We need an effective and accountable re-entry program for those leaving the criminal justice system,” Patrick said in a statement. “Combining probation and parole, and requiring supervision after release, takes the best practices from other states to assure both public safety and cost savings.”

Another piece of legislation the then-governor proposed was to reduce the scope of “drug-free school zones,” where people charged with drug crimes would face mandatory minimum sentences. He recommended reducing the size of these zones from within 1,000 feet of a school to 100 feet.

Patrick signed off on a bill in 2014 to expand access to drug treatment.

“This bill creates some new rules and new tools for us to use together to turn to our brothers and sisters who are dealing with these illnesses and addiction and help them help themselves,” he said.

But in 2012, Patrick signed a bill prohibiting certain synthetic drugs called “bath salts.”

On The Campaign Trail

So far, Patrick has not made drug policy a center-stage issue in his campaign. However, his website says his agenda involves “making meaningful fixes to the big systems that consistently fail to meet modern needs.”

“This means a justice system that focuses less on warehousing people than on preparing them to re-enter responsible life,” the site says.

Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts

In 2007, a spokesperson for Patrick’s office said the governor would veto a proposed marijuana possession decriminalization bill. Patrick told the Associated Press that he had other priorities when asked whether he would sign the legislation.

He was listed as a supporter for a campaign that opposed the 2008 decriminalization ballot measure that voters later approved.

Several news reports from the time also noted that Patrick stood opposed to the modest proposal to remove criminal penalties for low-level cannabis possession.

Oddly, two years earlier, Patrick was asked about a decriminalization proposal during a debate and said that while he’s “very comfortable with the idea of legalizing marijuana,” he doesn’t “think it ought to be our priority.” He went on to say that he would veto a proposed decriminalization measure in the legislature.

Massachusetts voters also approved a 2012 medical cannabis initiative while Patrick was in office—in spite of the fact that he declined to endorse the measure.

Asked about the proposal during a radio interview with WBZ, the then-governor first cited an argument in support of legalization made by conservative author William F. Buckley Jr., who said regulating drug sales would remove a profit motive for illicit dealers. Yet he went on to say that “I’m not endorsing” the initiative.

“I’m not expressing a point of view and I’m not dodging, it’s just I’ve got so much else I’m working on,” he said.

The host asked if Patrick would implement the law if voters approved it and he said “that’s, I think, what we’re supposed to do.”

In September 2012, he said that he doesn’t “have a lot of enthusiasm for the medical marijuana” measure, which was set to go before voters two months later.

“I mean I have heard the views on both sides and I’m respectful of the views of both sides, and I don’t have a lot of energy around that,” he said. “I think California’s experience has been mixed, and I’m sympathetic to the folks who are in chronic pain and looking for some form of relief.”

“I really have to defer to the medical views about this and individuals will get a chance to vote on this,” Patrick said in April 2012. “I haven’t been paying much attention to it.”

While his administration struggled to implement the program after voters had approved it, Patrick said in August 2014 that “I wish frankly we didn’t have medical marijuana.”

Patrick doesn’t appear to have publicly weighed in during the Massachusetts campaign about legalizing marijuana for adult-use, which voters approved in 2016 after he had left office.

In 2012, Patrick said during a State of the State Address that Massachusetts should reevaluate how it treats people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

“In these cases, we have to deal with the fact that simply warehousing non-violent offenders is a costly policy failure,” he said. “Our spending on prisons has grown 30 percent in the past decade, much of that because of longer sentences for first-time and nonviolent drug offenders. We have moved, at massive public expense, from treatment for drug offenders to indiscriminate prison sentences, and gained nothing in public safety.”

“We need more education and job training, and certainly more drug treatment, in prisons and we need mandatory supervision after release,” he said. “And we must make non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole sooner.”

He also said that the “biggest problem is that our approach to public safety has been to warehouse people,” and that the “answer is new policies, not bigger warehouses.”

“We’ve been warehousing people for whom what they really need is treatment and not just time,” he said during a town hall event in 2009.

Patrick voiced support in 2006 for a bill that would legalize the over-the-counter sale of needles in order to prevent the spread of disease.

“Deval Patrick supports this legislation because he believes it will reduce dangerous diseases in our state,” a campaign spokesperson said. “Studies in other states have shown that programs such as these decrease the rates of disease infection without increasing drug use.”

Patrick later criticized then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for vetoing the legislation, stating that the official “put misguided ideology before leadership in public health.”

Personal Experience With Marijuana

Patrick said in 2012 that he has never “experienced marijuana myself” but that during his school years there “was probably enough around me that there was a second-hand, a contact-high.”

Marijuana Under A Patrick Presidency

It is difficult to assess how Patrick would approach federal marijuana policy if elected president, but his vocal opposition to decriminalization in Massachusetts and his administration’s troubled implementation of medical cannabis legalization is likely to give advocates pause. While his current position on legalizing marijuana for adult-use is unclear, given that drug policy reform has become a mainstream issue that candidates are routinely pressed on, it is likely the former governor will be asked to weigh in on the campaign trail.

But for the time being, it appears that Patrick would not make marijuana reform a priority and, in fact, might prove more resistant to policy changes such as descheduling that the majority of candidates now embrace.

Where Presidential Candidate Mark Sanford Stands On Marijuana

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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