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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.

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Border Patrol Union Head Admits Legalizing Marijuana Forces Cartels Out Of The Market

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The head of the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged on Friday that states that legalize marijuana are disrupting cartel activity.

While National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd was attempting to downplay the impact of legalization, he seemed to inadvertently make a case for the regulation all illicit drugs by arguing that cartels move away from smuggling cannabis and on to other substances when states legalize.

Judd made the remarks during an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, where a caller said that “the states that have legalized marijuana have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”

“As far as drugs go, all we do is we enforce the laws. We don’t determine what those laws are,” Judd, who is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Friday, replied. “If Congress determines that marijuana is going to be legal, then we’re not going to seize marijuana.”

“But what I will tell you is when he points out that certain states have legalized marijuana, all the cartels do is they just transition to another drug that creates more profit,” he said. “Even if you legalize marijuana, it doesn’t mean that drugs are going to stop. They’re just going to go and start smuggling the opioids, the fentanyl.”

One potential solution that Judd didn’t raise would be to legalize those other drugs to continue to remove the profit motive for cartels. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a similar argument in December.

Federal data on Border Patrol drug seizures seems to substantiate the idea that cannabis legalization at the state level has reduced demand for the product from the illicit market. According to a 2018 report from the Cato Institute, these substantial declines are attributable to state-level cannabis reform efforts, which “has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”

Additionally, legalization seems to be helping to reduce federal marijuana trafficking prosecutions, with reports showing decreases of such cases year over year since states regulated markets have come online.

In his annual report last year, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts also noted reduced federal marijuana prosecutions—another indication that the market for illegally sourced marijuana is drying up as more adults consumers are able to buy the product in legal stores.

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Mike Bloomberg Attacks Marijuana Legalization In Controversial Resurfaced Recording

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Before Mike Bloomberg launched his 2020 Democratic presidential bid, he really wasn’t shy about his disdain for marijuana legalization.

The former New York City mayor has been widely criticized this week after a recording surfaced of him defending controversial stop-and-frisk practices and racially disparate marijuana arrests during a 2015 Aspen Institute speech. But while that short clip went viral on social media, the full audio recording from the event also features Bloomberg condemning cannabis legalization efforts at length.

Asked by an audience member about his thoughts on Colorado’s decision to end marijuana prohibition, Bloomberg said, “I think it is just a terrible, terrible idea.”

Some of the remarks from the talk were previously reported by The Aspen Times, such as when Bloomberg asserted that marijuana use is associated with reduced IQ among young people—something President Trump also said in a recently revealed secret recording.

“What are we going to say in 10 years when we see all these kids whose IQs are 5 and 10 points lower than they would have been?” Bloomberg told the Aspen audience. “Kids’ brains are being formed while they are teenagers.

But much of his anti-cannabis commentary from the talk has not been reported until now.

“If you’re my age, of course you smoked a joint in the 60s—but it was very different and just because we did doesn’t make it right,” the former mayor, who has previously acknowledged his own past marijuana consumption, said. “It was not easily accessible compared to today. Today it’s much stronger and potentially much more damaging.”

Listen to Bloomberg’s anti-marijuana remarks below: 

“We are making progress in reducing smoking. We are making progress in reducing obesity and diabetes. We are making progress in reducing automobile deaths and a variety of other things,” he said. But cannabis reform is going in “exactly in the other direction.”

Bloomberg also disparaged the idea that a regulated market can prevent youth from accessing cannabis, stating that “even if you have a law that says we’re not going to sell it to them, let’s get serious: if there’s more of it around, they’re going to get it.”

“I just can’t imagine why society is doing this,” he said. “I couldn’t feel more strongly about it, and my girlfriend says it’s no different than alcohol. It is different than alcohol. This is one of the stupider things that’s happening across our country.”

Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that the newly revealed remarks show just how much work Bloomberg has ahead of him if he intends to reform his image as a tough-on-crime, anti-cannabis candidate.

“Bloomberg and his wealthy friends may be able to sit around and joke about how he was able to smoke a joint in the 60’s and be just fine, but that is cold comfort to the over 440,000 Americans who were put in handcuffs for marijuana possession in New York City during his tenure as mayor,” Altieri said. “He is painfully ignorant and out of touch with sound public policy and basic scientific facts.”

“If he expects voters to treat him as anything other than an awful relic of a bygone drug war era he needs to correct himself on marijuana law reform issues immediately and somehow attempt to make amends for the countless lives he had a role in ruining,” he said. “Unfortunately, given the number of other candidates vying for the presidency who are leaps and bounds ahead of him on this, that still might be too little too late for his self-funded presidential aspirations.”

Bloomberg has been sharply rebuked this week over a different clip from the same 2015 recording where he defended the use of stop-and-frisk policing that disproportionately impacted communities of color.

An “unintended consequence” of targeting policing in those communities, he said, is that “people say, ‘oh my god, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities.’”

“Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in minority neighborhoods,” he said. “Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.”

Bloomberg has taken steps since launching his campaign to pivot away from his reputation as anti-reform, voicing support for decriminalizing cannabis possession and allowing states to set their own policies.

But he continues to oppose cannabis legalization, and his past comments haven’t been forgotten. A Denver-based reporter brought up the candidate’s 2019 statement that legalization is  “perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done” and asked whether that meant he felt Colorado voters were stupid for approving the policy change.

“Colorado has a right to do what they want to do,” he replied. “I would advise going slowly to any other state because it’s not clear, doctors aren’t sure whether or not it’s doing damage. But if a state wants to do it, and Colorado and Washington were the first two that did it, that’s up to the state.”

“But what I really object to is putting people in jail for marijuana,” he added. “That’s really dumb.”

Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden are the only two Democratic candidates in the 2020 race who oppose federally legalizing cannabis.

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Bipartisan Lawmakers Ask Colleagues To Cosponsor Medical Marijuana Research Bill For Veterans

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A bipartisan duo of lawmakers sent a letter to fellow members of the House this week, asking for additional cosponsors on a bill to promote research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans.

Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Clay Higgins (R-LA) cited a survey from the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) that showed 83 percent of its members support medical cannabis legalization and 90 percent are in favor of researching medical marijuana.

“Therefore, medical research into the safety and efficacy of cannabis usage for medical purposes is timely, necessary, and widely supported by the veteran community,” the lawmakers, who are the sponsors of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, wrote in the Wednesday letter.

That legislation currently has 102 cosponsors—representing nearly one-forth of the House’s membership. It would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct double-blind clinical trials on the safety and effectiveness of various forms of marijuana in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

“Congress made great progress in reforming our cannabis laws in 2019, proving that Americans are ready for change. Veterans deserve to be a part of this change and have their medical needs taken seriously by the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Correa told Marijuana Moment. “My bill puts veterans’ health front and center. With over 100 bipartisan co-sponsors, it’s time to move the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act and take care of our vets.”

After the bill’s introduction last year, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee On Health and the full panel held hearings on the issue, but it has not received a vote yet. During the subcommittee meeting, VA officials voiced opposition to the proposal, arguing that the scope of its research requirements is too large.

“As many veterans are currently using cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is important that clinicians be able to fully advise veterans on the potential impacts, harms, and benefits of cannabis use on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain,” the letter from Correa and Higgins states.

The bill would also “authorize a long-term observation study of participating veterans,” require the VA to “preserve all data collected or used and require the department to submit reports on the implementation of the legislation annually for five years.

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Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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