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 York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.