Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tossed her hat in the 2020 presidential ring on Tuesday, announcing that she’s forming an exploratory committee.
The senator, who has an A grade from NORML, has become one of the most vocal advocates for federal marijuana reform in Congress, co-sponsoring multiple pieces of legislation and frequently talking about the issue in speeches and on social media. However, she did not start off her political career supporting cannabis reform.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Gillibrand did not co-sponsor any cannabis-related bills during her time in the House from 2007 to 2009, although colleagues filed several. Also during that period she voted against a floor amendment to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.
However, she has evolved considerably on the issue in recent years and has signed her name onto several notable Senate cannabis bills. That includes the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and punish states that enforce marijuana laws disproportionately against people of color.
She also co-sponsored legislation designed to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference, make it easier to conduct research on cannabis and legalize industrial hemp. Another research-related bill she co-sponsored would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to study how marijuana can treat specific conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
During testimony at a Senate Judiciary Sub-Committee hearing in 2016, Gillibrand said that “I know some people are saying that we should wait until there’s more research before changing the laws, but the one thing blocking the research is the law.”
In April 2018, Gillibrand sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, requesting that he attend a meeting with some of her constituents who’ve been arrested for non-violent marijuana offenses.
“It is an American principle that, no matter the law, it should be applied equally to all people, regardless of their race or background,” she wrote. “Sadly, as you will hear from my constituents, for decades, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has not been pursued with equality.”
She also joined a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who sent a letter to Sessions, imploring him to update them on the status of applications to cultivate cannabis for federal research purposes.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
For the last five years, Gillibrand has made Twitter a central platform for her marijuana reform advocacy.
Cannabis can treat a variety of illnesses, incl MS, cancer, epilepsy & seizures. Wrong for patients & doctors to fear prosecution.#CARERSAct
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) March 10, 2015
But while she initially focused on medical cannabis, her views on the issue evolved and so did the tweets on her feed.
DOJ should investigate how pharma helped create the opioid crisis, not institute policies that take marijuana based medicines from patients and needlessly target non-violent minority youths.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) January 4, 2018
Gillibrand has routinely railed against the pharmaceutical industry, which she criticized for opposing cannabis legalization.
Big pharma keeps pushing back against legalizing medical marijuana because, in many cases, they want to continue to sell addictive drugs and dominate the market for drugs that address chronic pain. That's wrong.
It is time to rework our cannabis laws. https://t.co/g23trjnJcT
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 28, 2018
“To them, it’s competition for chronic pain, and that’s outrageous because we don’t have the crisis in people who take marijuana for chronic pain having overdose issues,” the senator said. “It’s not the same thing. It’s not as highly addictive as opioids are.”
She also criticized Sessions for rescinding Obama-era guidance that directed prosecutors to generally not interfere with state marijuana laws.
Attorney General Sessions' decision to restrict states’ ability to legalize and decriminalize marijuana is either willfully ignorant of the medical science or an act of greed on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. In either case, it's an attack on patients, and it's wrong. pic.twitter.com/Kiw8nOmPb7
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) January 4, 2018
Black and Latino New Yorkers are almost 10 times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana than their white neighbors – though usage rates are about the same.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) April 22, 2018
“Millions of Americans’ lives have been devastated because of our broken marijuana policies, especially in communities of color and low-income communities,” Gillibrand said in a press release. “Just one minor possession conviction could take away a lifetime of opportunities for jobs, education, and housing, tear families apart, and make people more vulnerable to serving time in jail or prison down the road.”
“The reality that my 14-year-old son would likely be treated very differently from one of his Black or Latino peers if he was caught with marijuana is shameful. Legalizing marijuana is a social justice issue and a moral issue that Congress needs to address to help fix decades of injustice caused by our nation’s failed drug policies.”
The Marijuana Justice Act takes steps to fix stark inequalities in our criminal justice system and protects patients who need medication. It’s a commonsense bill – and I’m proud to join @CoryBooker as a cosponsor. Americans have spoken and demanded change. It’s time to act. pic.twitter.com/1VfFbEipYJ
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) March 3, 2018
Gillibrand’s 2018 Senate reelection campaign used a marijuana petition as a list-building technique.
“Discriminatory drug policies are robbing people and families of job opportunities, time with their loved ones and their futures. In New York, black and Latino people are almost 10 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than their white neighbors – though usage rates are the same,” the sign-up page said. “We have to act now to fix this horrible injustice. It’s time to decriminalize and legalize marijuana so we can begin repairing the harm caused by the failed War on Drugs. Add your name right now to tell Congress: Decriminalize marijuana!”
Beyond Capitol Hill, the senator has worked to build support for legislation to legalize marijuana in her home state of New York. He office has issued numerous press releases about cannabis policy in recent years.
During a presidential campaign stop in Iowa, she answered a question about how she would help military veterans by saying it is important to “make sure they have access to medicines like medical marijuana.”
Gillibrand’s campaign website also discusses her support for reform, under the headline, “We need to fix our broken criminal justice system.”
“When low-income people and people of color face huge disparities in arrests, sentencing and incarceration compared to wealthy and white people for the same or lesser charges, it’s a clear and urgent sign that we need to rectify the injustices in our criminal justice system,” it says. “We have a mass incarceration crisis, and institutional racism pervades the way we enforce laws. To rectify this, we should legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge past records; reform our sentencing laws so that judges can have more flexibility when dealing with low-level, nonviolent drug offenses; change federal rules for our prisons; end cash bail; and invest resources in communities harmed by the racist war on drugs.”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Gillibrand doesn’t appear to have publicly discussed whether she has ever consumed marijuana, but she has repeatedly cited conversations with families and patients who’ve benefited from medical cannabis as a motivating factor behind her reform advocacy.
Marijuana Under A Gillibrand Presidency
It stands to reason that the senator would prioritize federal marijuana reform as president, especially in light of her co-sponsorship of the Marijuana Justice Act and the extent to which she has focused on the issue in public statements. It seems likely that she would continue that record if elected to the Oval Office.
Photo element courtesy of Gillibrand 2010.
Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana
Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.
The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.
Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.
The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.
Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.
Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.
He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.
One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”
“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.
Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency
Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.
At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.
That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.
Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.
Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.
Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.
Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.
In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.
The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”
In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”
Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:
Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”
“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”
Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.
“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”
Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.
“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”
Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.
“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.
Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”
USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.
“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”
The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.
“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.
A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”
“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.
While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”
USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.
The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.
While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.
The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.