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.
GOP Congressman Says Marijuana Shops Near Churches Is Evidence Of ‘Spiritual War’
A U.S. congressman said on Saturday that marijuana dispensaries operating on the same streets as churches is “evidence” of the “spiritual war our nation is entrenched in.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) made the comment in a video statement that was presented at an “In God We Trust Rally” organized by the non-profit Truth & Liberty Coalition.
After giving a brief history lesson on the origin of the official U.S. motto and decrying socialism, Lamborn said it was necessary to acknowledge religious strife in the country.
“We need to look no further than our own streets to see evidence of this conflict,” the congressman said. “Marijuana dispensaries are on the same streets as thriving churches.”
Despite representing one of the first states to legalize cannabis, Lamborn has actively worked against the will of Colorado voters who approved the measure in 2012.
For example, he applauded then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year after he rescinded Obama-era guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, stating that “legalizing marijuana has been bad for the state of Colorado” and Sessions was “upholding the law and recognizing the serious and proven harms associated with marijuana.”
Every other member of Congress from Colorado signed a bipartisan letter opposing the move.
More recently, Lamborn voted against a spending bill amendment that would prohibit the Justice Department from using funds to enforce prohibition in legal states.
The most that the congressman has said he’s willing to do in terms of cannabis reform is rescheduling the plant to facilitate research into its therapeutic potential. “I’m not sure I could support going beyond that,” he said.
During his video address over the weekend, which was highlighted by Right Wing Watch, Lamborn said evidence of a religious war also includes “abortion clinics” near “pregnancy centers” and legislators attempting to “impose radical gender theory on young students while parents in godly homes teach their children the virtue of marriage.”
“It is easy to despair in the face of ignorance and evil, but today we gather to declare where our trust lies. Our trust lies in god,” he said. “Colorado needs the grace of god more than ever.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Truth & Liberty Coalition.
Former White House Drug Czar Offers Marijuana Legalization Advice To Mexico
A former top White House drug official told Mexican officials last week that they will need “robust regulations” in place when the country implements a legal marijuana system.
Gil Kerlikowske, who served as the director of the the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, made the comments during a panel hosted by the Mexican Senate as part of a series of cannabis conversations lawmakers are holding as the country prepares to enact legalization.
He also acknowledged that state-level legalization in the U.S. has reduced the “appetite” for drugs that are trafficked illegally across the border.
The official’s participation is particularly noteworthy given that he previously said that the word “legalization” was not even in his vocabulary, nor in Obama’s. But according to translated reports of his speech, Kerlikowske, who also served as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, now seems decidedly familiar with the concept and offered detailed advice for Mexican lawmakers as they prepare to legalize.
“Tax collection is important because income is used for health and to enforce the law,” he said. “In other words, the marijuana consumer is paying the regulation in taxes, so this is a dynamic and emerging market.”
“I think that frankly, although the taxation can be prohibitive for some people and for some producers, I would say that you still have to have a very robust regulation,” the former drug czar added.
A punto de comenzar la última conferencia del ciclo ‘Rumbo a la regulación del cannabis’, organizado por las comisiones de Justicia, Salud, Estudios Legislativos, Segunda, y Seguridad Pública del @senadomexicano. 🌱 pic.twitter.com/RJxmkieurN
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
Kerlikowske stressed that measures must be taken to ensure that young people don’t have access to marijuana and that policymakers should “do everything possible to eliminate the black market.”
“I believe that governments want to do things slowly—particularly because there is still research being carried out about marijuana and use and the problems it causes in brain formation or decision-making,” he said, adding that alcohol and cannabis shouldn’t be viewed as “benign” products.
He also said that regulating marijuana should involve enforcing labeling and packaging standards so that consumers are fully informed and that steps should be taken to prevent smoking in public.
Sobre permitir fumar cannabis en lugares públicos, Gil Kerlikowske dice que es un tema que se necesita resolver en EU, ya que en lugares como en Seattle el olor es particularmente fuerte. ❔💨❔
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
The event was the last in a five-part “Heading for the Regulation of Cannabis” series that the Senate put together as the chamber’s ruling MORENA party readies legislation to legalize marijuana.
After deeming the prohibition of cannabis possession and cultivation for personal use unconstitutional last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court set a deadline of October 2019 for lawmakers to codify marijuana legalization policy.
Earlier this month, Sen. Julio Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party filed a bill that would provide for a legal cannabis market for adults by amending federal drug laws.
While legalization is imminent in Mexico, however, Kerlikowske said that he does not believe that the U.S. will legalize within the next two years, stating that the “problem is that medicinal cannabis products have not passed all the tests of the [Food and Drug Administration].”
No creo que en los próximos dos años el Congreso de EU legalice a nivel federal el uso de la marihuana medicinal🌱🔬🧪. El problema es que los productos cannábicos medicinales no han pasados todas las pruebas de la @US_FDA como los demás medicamentos: Gil Kerlikowske 🇺🇸
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Three Federal Agencies Take Public Comments On Cannabis Topics
Three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—are now accepting comments from the public on cannabis-related topics such as hemp pesticides and the legal classification of marijuana globally.
In a notice published in the Federal Register last month, FDA said that it is seeking input on potential changes to the status of marijuana under international treaties.
EPA invited comments on applications for pesticides to be used on hemp, which comes months after the crop was federally legalized.
Meanwhile, people have the chance to share their perspective on a proposal DEA released last week that calls for the cultivation of more than three million grams of cannabis for research purposes next year. That 3.2 million gram quota would be 30 percent higher than this year’s. At the same time, DEA said its quota for prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone would be decreased next year by more than 50 percent.
The comment period opened last week, and 25 people have weighed in at this point. Submissions received so far are primarily focused on DEA’s proposed reduction opioid production, with several chronic pain patients arguing that they will be negatively impacted. People can send comments on the cannabis and other drug quotas through October 15.
FDA initially made its request for input on cannabis’s global treaty status in March, but it was closed because an expected United Nations (UN) vote on a proposal to remove marijuana from the most strictly regulated category was postponed.
Last month, FDA said it was reopening the comment period until September 30, in anticipation that the UN will make a decision on the possible changes in the coming months. So far, a total of about 3,000 comments have been received, including those posted since August 29. The vast majority voice support for legalization, with many sharing personal anecdotes about the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“Please lift the ban and prohibition of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t ruining the lives of countless Americans… America’s drug laws are doing that all by themselves via mass incarceration,” Zach Fowler wrote.
“I am 30 years old and suffer from a progressive neurologically condition that leaves me in constant debilitating pain along with a host of other symptoms. Without cannabis, I could not function enough to work for even care for my children,” Amanda Wood-Devore said. “Cannabis calms my pain, eases corresponding anxiety, and helps my constant nausea and vomiting.”
Alex Rol said that the “current marijuana laws are more destructive than protective.”
“We have seen extensive reports that cannabis can be used for medical purposes and many find its effects increase the ease of life,” he said. “While I understand the concern of those less familiar with cannabis on its legalization it simply isn’t right to incarcerate people for possession of a generally harmless substance.”
“I agree with the [World Health Organization] that cannabis should be removed from the Schedule 1 classification,” Michael Ochipa wrote, referring to a recommendation WHO released in February urging the rescheduling of marijuana and descheduling of CBD.
“Most of the research to date indicates that cannabis has a very positive risk/reward profile,” he wrote. “Side effects are lower, and medicinal benefits are greater than many over the counter drugs. It can also be grown easily at home making it more economical.”
Though it’s not clear how much stock FDA will put into personal stories of individuals who’ve benefited from marijuana in shaping the Trump administration’s position on scheduling changes, the volume of comments and consistency of support for legalization is significant. While there has been a focus on the medical potential of cannabis, several others emphasized the consequences of prohibition, particularly for communities of color.
If the United Nations does decide to adopt WHO’s recommendations, it wouldn’t mean that member nations would be free to legalize marijuana without technically violating the treaties. However, even under its current strict status, Canada and Uruguay have moved forward with legalization models, with Mexico expected to follow suit as early as next month.
Over at EPA, there hasn’t been quite as much interest from the public in submitting comments on pesticides applications for hemp. The agency announced last month that it was accepting input on 10 existing applications and said it hoped “this transparent and public process will bring hemp farmers and researchers increased regulatory clarity in time for next growing season.”
EPA said it’s not required to take public comment on the applications but is doing so “because of the potential significant interest from the public in these initial applications and in furtherance of being completely transparent about these applications.”
There may be significant interest from the public on hemp legalization generally, particularly among stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting federal regulations to unlock the crop’s potential, but that isn’t being reflected on the Federal Register notice page yet when it comes to pesticides. Only five people have commented on the proposal.
One person noted that the 10 pesticides under review contain almost the same ingredients and said “it really limits the ability of producers to manage pests and diseases.”
“I highly recommend expanding the list of compounds available to producers to increase the ability to suppress pests and diseases,” the anonymous commenter wrote. “There are many more bio-pesticides on the market that are safe for humans that specifically target agricultural pests.”
Another individual who said he and his partner are making a transition from growing cannabis in California to hemp in North Carolina wrote in support of the proposed pesticides.
“We have used the products under discussion with great effectiveness, especially the biological controls,” the person said. “Because hemp can be so susceptible to mold, fungus, and pests, it is imperative to have these tools to ensure a healthy and plentiful product.”
Finally, there was one comment in opposition to allowing any pesticides on hemp because, they wrote, “IT WILL JUST TURN IT IN TO POISON.”
EPA’s public comment closes on September 23. The agency did not say when decisions would be made about the applications, but it did state that it planned to give hemp farmers approval to use the tools before the 2020 planting season.
The fact that three separate federal agencies are now accepting comments on separate cannabis issues is another sign that the public has more opportunity than ever before to influence the government’s position on marijuana policy.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.