The second highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote on Monday that he remains wary of supporting the legalization of marijuana because he believes it is a gateway to “harder, very harmful drugs.”
In the letter from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), which was shared with Marijuana Moment by a constituent of the congressman, the top Democrat cited his record of embracing more modest cannabis reform proposals but stopped short of pledging to back adult-use legalization.
“I support the legalization of medical marijuana, as I am aware that it does have an ameliorating effect on pain and other circumstances that may be useful for patients,” he said, adding that he voted in favor of an amendment to protect medical cannabis states from federal interference. Hoyer more recently cast a vote for a measure that extends that protection to all legal marijuana states, though his letter does not mention it.
He also said he was in favor of Maryland’s decision to decriminalize marijuana possession in 2014, “as I do believe that there are too many non-violent offenders suffering in prison from a criminal conviction over possession.”
When Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (D) first floated the idea of legalizing drugs as a means to curb drug-related violence and other issues related to prohibition in the late 1980s, Hoyer wrote that he was was “initially amenable” to cannabis legalization.
But in the decades since, he’s backpedalled—apparently so much so that he’s offering an argument against legalization in 2019 that even staunch prohibitionists have begun to distance themselves from.
“I still have concerns on this after speaking to people who deal with drug abuse and rehabilitation issues and particularly after learning of the drug’s harmful consequences as a threshold drug that leads to the use of harder, very harmful drugs,” Hoyer wrote, using alternative language to describe the widely criticized gateway drug theory.
Evidence doesn’t bear out the gateway theory, as it ignores the fact that marijuana is the most widely used illicit substance and would therefore logically be one of the first drugs that a person uses in many cases. It also conflates causation with correlation, as the same principle could be used to argue that any commonly used drug like nicotine or alcohol leads people to use substances like heroin or cocaine.
What’s more, a growing body of research has demonstrated that for some people, cannabis serves as an offramp, used as an alternative to addictive prescription medications and illicit drugs.
“Rep. Hoyer is showing himself to be a relic of a bygone era who is far out of touch with the majority of Americans on marijuana policy,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Marijuana legalization and regulation has been proven, in the real world not in Hoyer’s imaginary one, to lead to a decrease in youth use and to help people struggling with opioid addiction.”
“By sticking to the long debunked myth of marijuana as a gateway drug, Hoyer is denying actual science and failing his constituents by advancing talking points straight from the Reefer Madness era,” Altieri said. “It is time he joined the rest of us on the right side of history or for his district to find new representation.”
After Marijuana Moment originally published this story, Mckayla Wilkes, who is running against Hoyer in a primary challenge for his congressional seat, criticized the incumbent in a tweet in which she stated her support for legalizing cannabis and expunging past convictions.
.@LeaderHoyer, in the year 2019, continues to push the myth that marijuana should remain illegal because it is a "gateway drug."
✔️Expunge the records.
✔️Invest in communities that the War on Drugs has destroyed. https://t.co/iYQHgqa86n
— Mckayla Wilkes for Congress (@MeetMckayla) August 27, 2019
Hoyer made similar remarks last year, acknowledging that voters are largely in favor of legalization and that it “probably makes sense” but stating that he’s “not so sure that it’s not a gateway drug to using other drugs.”
Robert Capecchi, the constituent who wrote to Hoyer about legalization, told Marijuana Moment that he while he doesn’t dislike the congressman and voted for him, “it’s incredibly disappointing to see opposition to cannabis policy reform—beyond accommodating medical cannabis laws—based on the debunked ‘gate-way theory,’ especially from one of the most senior members of Democratic Leadership.”
“I sincerely hope that Rep. Hoyer and other members of the House Democratic Leadership team take a page from their Judiciary Chair and start taking the need to reform our failed federal marijuana laws with the seriousness it deserves,” Capecchi wrote, referencing legislation Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced last month to federally deschedule cannabis.
Other Democratic leaders in Congress such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) are also on board with reform plans, with the pair having introduced companion bills to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act in May.
“This is not about use; people use and will continue to use cannabis regardless of federal law,” Capecchi said. “It’s about safety, it’s about equity, it’s about compassion, and it’s about responsible regulation and accurate education.”
At a time when numerous cannabis legalization bills are being filed and a majority of Democratic presidential candidates are vocally supporting broad reform, it’s unusual to see a party leader openly peddle what most consider an outdated and inaccurate theory, even if that position is couched in less familiar language (i.e. “threshold” versus “gateway”).
But it’s not entirely unheard of, as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, similarly subscribes to the gateway drug theory and didn’t shy away from saying so during an appearance on C-SPAN last year.
Read Hoyer’s letter below:
August 26, 2019
Dear Mr. Capecchi,
Thank you for your letter regarding the legalization of marijuana. I appreciate your taking the time to make me aware of your concerns on this important matter.
I support the legalization of medical marijuana, as I am aware that it does have an ameliorating effect on pain and other circumstances that may be useful for patients. In the past, I have voted for an amendment in the Commerce Justice and Science appropriations bill that would prevent the Federal Government from impeding on Maryland’s ability to implement its medical marijuana laws. I also supported the decision made by Governor O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly in 2014 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Maryland as I do believe that there are too many non-violent offenders suffering in prison from a criminal conviction over possession.
As you may know, I was initially amenable to the idea of the legalization of marijuana when Kurt Schmoke was Mayor of Baltimore and advocating for drug decriminalization. However, in the 30 years since, I still have concerns on this after speaking to people who deal with drug abuse and rehabilitation issues and particularly after learning of the drug’s harmful consequences as a threshold drug that leads to the use of harder, very harmful drugs.
Should legislation regarding the legalization of marijuana come before the full House of Representatives, please be assured that I will keep your thoughts in mind.
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me. I encourage you to visit my website at www.hoyer.house.gov. While there, you can sign up for the Hoyer Herald, access my voting record, and get information about important public issues. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.
With kindest regards, I am
Steny H. Hoyer
This story was updated to include comment from Wilkes.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say
New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.
“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”
— Brian Thompson (@brian4NY) November 18, 2019
“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.
The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”
“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”
I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.
Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.
As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 18, 2019
“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.
BREAKING: New Jersey State Senate abandons push to legalize marijuana during 'lame duck' session.
The marijuana industry outspent SAM 86-1 in this effort.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/MPtI2fNIzx
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 18, 2019
While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.
It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.
During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.
Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:
This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.
Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash
As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals
One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.
The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”
Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below:
Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.
Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.
Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.
Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.
He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.
Marijuana should be legal nationwide. It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist. https://t.co/0Uhl17MW98
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) November 18, 2019
“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.
Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.
Get with the program, @JoeBiden.
Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.
The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It's past time we end this senseless prohibition.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 18, 2019
“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”
“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.
The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.
There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.
But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.