South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced that he was competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on April 14, 2019 and dropped out on March 1, 2020.
If elected, he would have been the first openly gay and youngest president, and he’s supportive of marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization.
While the candidate hadn’t spoken extensively about cannabis reform prior to officially announcing his presidential bid, nor did he act on any marijuana legislation during his time in the mayor’s office, he’s quickly evolved on the issue. Here’s a look at where Buttigieg stands on marijuana.
This piece was last updated on March 2, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
As mayor, Buttigieg does not appear to have signed legislation directly related to marijuana. He did, however, approve an ordinance in 2017 that prohibited businesses in the city from selling synthetic cannabinoids.
Thanks to the members of the new @NotInOurCmunity committee, we are raising awareness and accountability when it comes to “synthetic marijuana” and related harmful products. pic.twitter.com/FZNrBcKVap
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) May 14, 2018
“Getting less attention [than opioids] nationally is the issue of synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called synthetic marijuana,” he said in a press release commending the city council for approving the ordinance. “These products, sometimes available in convenience stores and gas stations, are much more dangerous than actual marijuana.”
Buttigieg has faced criticism over a report about racially disparate marijuana arrests in South Bend during his time as mayor. A campaign spokesperson said that “mayors don’t make the law related to drug possession.”
At a presidential debate, he was confronted about the enforcement data and said, “On my watch, drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average—and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana.” He added that there’s “no question” that systemic racial bias has been a factor in cannabis arrests.
Pete Buttigieg's campaign sends out a factcheck a little while after that exchange on drug decriminalization and drug arrest rates in South Bend. pic.twitter.com/Lw9091paqq
— Daniel Strauss (@DanielStrauss4) February 8, 2020
On CNN, the candidate said, “All of us are implicated in these problems, and I take responsibility for everything good, bad and indifferent that we did.”
“All of us are implicated in these problems, and I take responsibility for everything good, bad and indifferent that we did,” says former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg when asked about the city’s marijuana possession arrest rates for black residents https://t.co/ZdAuJ5g1x8 pic.twitter.com/xHn9keAP0B
— CNN (@CNN) February 9, 2020
He similarly acknowledged racial disparities in marijuana enforcement in South Bend during an event in Nevada.
Buttigieg responds to a question about the police department scandal in South Bend by acknowledging successful responses and also ongoing failures like failure to recruit Black cops *and* persistence of racial disparity in marijuana arrests. The latter was a focus in last debate pic.twitter.com/4LKUyS2jGQ
— Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) February 18, 2020
On The Campaign Trail
Like most of his opponents for the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg favors marijuana legalization—but he’s also one of the only candidates who’s backed broad drug decriminalization.
In July 2019, the mayor released a racial justice plan that included policies to legalize cannabis and remove criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.
Named after American hero Frederick Douglass, this plan demands we take aggressive steps toward fulfilling long-broken promises of true equality, including reforming broken systems, strengthening access to credit, and injecting capital into the Black community.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) July 11, 2019
“We will, on the federal level, eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions,” the plan states.
In a separate plan aimed at addressing mental health issues in the country, the candidate explicitly said he would pursue “decriminalizing all drug possession” during his first term in office if elected.
The plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
“Eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana, and expunge past convictions,” his campaign website states.
Buttigieg talked about his drug reform agenda during a visit to a dispensary in Las Vegas in October 2019, which Marijuana Moment attended.
During that trip, the former mayor told Marijuana Moment that doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should be able to recommend medical cannabis to military veterans. He also said that “legitimate medical use of cannabis should be covered” by health insurance.
To mark Veterans Day, Buttigieg released a plan calling for “legislation that will empower VA physicians to issue medical cannabis recommendations to augment a veterans’ broader treatment plan, in accordance with the laws of states where it is legal.”
He would also encourage VA to “conduct studies on the use of marijuana to treat pain.”
If Congress fails to act on cannabis reform, Buttigieg said in February 2020 that he would board Air Force One and “fly it directly into the home district of a member who is standing in the way” in order to pressure them to heed the will of voters.
At a Democratic presidential debate in February 2020, the candidate was pressed on his drug decriminalization plan. He took issue with the use of the word “decriminalization” to describe his proposal and said he simply wants to “end the use of incarceration as a response” to possession cases.
While major drug policy reform groups define decriminalization as a policy where the penalty for simple possession does not include incarceration, at least for a first offense, Buttigieg has been reluctant to embrace the term.
“Possession should not be dealt with through incarceration,” he said in a post-debate interview, adding that some cases could be treated as misdemeanor offenses but that the “point is that we have learned through 40 years of a failed war on drugs that criminalizing addiction doesn’t work.”
Buttigieg was asked in February how he would exercise the authority in light of President Trump’s move to pardon or commute the sentences of a former Illinois governor, a former New York City police commissioner and a financier, among others.
This president uses his pardon power to reward friends and allies.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) February 19, 2020
“I would start with nonviolent drug offenders caught up in the racial disparities of the failed war on drugs,” Buttigieg replied. “I actually think presidential clemency power can be an important part of how we decarcerate a country that is shockingly over-incarcerated. If incarceration made a country safe we’d be the safest country in the world, but we’re not.”
Legalizing marijuana and ending incarceration for simple drug possession would be part of his proposal to reduce incarceration by 50 percent, which he pledged to do during a speech at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Convention in July.
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem,” the plan says.
The drug policy proposals are part of Buttigieg’s plan to reduce “incarceration in this country without an increase in crime.”
He expanded on his plan at the Iowa State Fair in August, stating that he would reduce the prison population “using clemency powers, working with states, ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, and when we legalize marijuana—which we ought to do—we ought to have expungements as well for people whose incarceration is doing more harm than the original offense did, creating a whole generation of kids who have experienced the incarceration of a parent, which is a devastating experience to have.”
During a campaign stop in South Dakota in May, the candidate discussed his support for legalizing marijuana, abolishing private prisons and ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
After the governor of Iowa vetoed a bill in June that would have expanded the state’s medical cannabis program, Buttigieg wrote that thousands of patients “are struggling thanks to a limited medical marijuana program that doesn’t meet their health care needs” and that the veto “will only prolong their suffering.”
Thousands of patients in Iowa are struggling thanks to a limited medical marijuana program that doesn’t meet their health care needs — the governor’s veto will only prolong their suffering.https://t.co/jUN52FjldW
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) June 8, 2019
Buttigieg told an Iowa radio station that he supports reform in part because “a lot of nonviolent drug offenses, where the way we responded to it, the incarceration, is actually doing more harm to society and costing us more than the offense itself did.”
In Council Bluffs, @okayhenderson asked Pete Buttigieg if he supports legalizing marijuana– he told Kay, “I would,” adding, “we’ve just hit the point as a country, where there are a lot of offenses …doing more harm to society and costing us more than the offense itself did.” pic.twitter.com/eqj0CYNgI2
— DJ Judd (@DJJudd) July 20, 2019
“When it comes to American drug policy,” he added, “I don’t think anyone can look at it and say it’s looking well, and when you add to that the racial disparities around the way it’s been applied, we clearly have to take a very deep redesign about the way we think about this and many other drugs.”
During an interview with The Des Moines Register’s editorial board, Buttigieg said that “while there continue to be all kinds of harms associated with drug possession and use, it’s also the case that we have created—in an effort to deal with what amounts to a public health problem—we have created an even bigger problem. A justice problem and its form of a health problem.”
A former White House drug czar from the 1980s reacted to his support for broad decriminalization and said that the candidate’s plan will encourage more substance misuse.
In January 2020, Buttigieg talked about his support for drug policy reform and also said that the country would “be much better off, frankly, with regular marijuana” compared to synthetic cannabinoids that are available on the marketplace.
A high school student here in Newton, Iowa asks Buttigieg about drugs in school.
He comments on synthetic marijuana: "It's basically rat poison sprayed onto grass. You'd be much better off, frankly, with regular marijuana than this stuff."
— Dan Merica (@merica) January 15, 2020
Buttigieg said that he would be open to forming a strategic partnership with Mexico and send in American troops to deal with drug cartels if American lives were at risk and the country solicited that assistance.
“By the way, a lot of this is a question of the demand side on the United States. Part of what we do is make drug trafficking less profitable by walking away from the failed war on drugs here in the United States,” he said. “That is a policy that we know through experience hasn’t worked. We have got to do our part here at home, and partner with countries abroad.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
Prior to his official campaign announcement, Buttigieg seldom discussed cannabis issues.
“I think even in Indiana, criminal justice reform, including marijuana [legalization]. We’re probably there,” he told Indianapolis Monthly in November 2018. “Maybe not a 70 percent majority, but a majority.”
“I really think a state-wide campaign in Indiana would do well, especially on the criminal justice stuff,” he added. “To find common cause between the younger, Libertarian right that’s not so sure about the Republican party as an institution. And a more traditional, progressive coalition. I think you can get there on drugs. I think you can get there on a lot of things related to criminal justice.”
“The safe, regulated, and legal sale of marijuana is an idea whose time has come for the United States, as evidenced by voters demanding legalization in states across the country,” he told The Boston Globe.
Buttigieg also said that he believes voters in his home state of Indiana, which doesn’t even yet have a comprehensive medical cannabis law, are ready to legalize marijuana.
During an interview on the radio program The Breakfast Club one month before formally announcing his presidential bid, Buttigieg brought up criminal justice reform and stressed the importance of supporting individuals who are released from prison for non-violent drug offenses as the country moves toward ending the war on drugs.
“We know the war on drugs is important, right?” he said. “What are we going to do about—if we decide that it actually doesn’t make sense to incarcerated for unbelievably long amounts of time for non-violent drug offenses, what are we going to do for the people we already did that to?”
“Are they going to have an experience that’s not so different from the experience of the end of slavery that says, ‘OK, I took off your chains so I’m sure things are going to go great for you,’” he said. “Are we going to do the same thing to people coming out of incarceration and say, ‘OK, that’s over. Good luck.’ Or are we going to have some intention around lifting them up and empowering them to contribute and thrive in our communities and our society?”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Some of Buttigieg’s most extensive public comments about marijuana are related to his own personal experience with cannabis and law enforcement and, specifically, how it’s shed light on the concept of white privilege.
During an interview at South By Southwest, the mayor talked about how he was caught with a joint while a student at Harvard University.
“I was standing outside my dorm. I was on my way home from a party or something,” he said. “I ran into a friend and he had an acquaintance with him, and we were chatting, and at some point I noticed that she was smoking a joint. And just out of curiosity—there was like a little bit left—I was like ‘Oh, is that…’ And she handed it to me.”
“At exactly, precisely this instant, a police car drives by—university police—and I thought, well, that’s gotta go over the shoulder,” he said.
The officer apparently berated Buttigieg, swearing at him and calling Harvard students arrogant.
Earlier today, in @TexasTribune discussion at @sxsw, @anamariecox asked me about when I first started to become aware of my white male privilege. I told a quick story about getting caught with a joint in college. #SXSW pic.twitter.com/RKX81jdJoM
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) March 10, 2019
“And then my hands are on the back of his trunk and he’s going through my pockets to see if I’ve got anything more on me,” he said. “He yells a few more obscenities, and just as I’m getting read to take a ride with him, he drives off. And that was it. It’s a funny story I can tell about my college days.”
But there was also an unfunny lesson to be learned, which has informed Buttigieg’s position on cannabis reform.
“A lot of people probably had the exact same experience, and would not have been believed, and would have been a lot worse than yelled at, and would not have slept in their own beds that night—and maybe would have been derailed in their college career because of it,” he said. “It’s one of many reasons why I think we have to end the war on drugs and move towards the legalization of marijuana.”
He also said that the odds of him facing more serious, lifelong consequences over the joint would be much greater if he wasn’t white.
“Think about that: That’s a funny story to me,” he said. “That can be a funny story to me. And if I were not white, the odds of that having been something that would have derailed my life are exponentially higher. So that’s one of many moments when I learned a thing or two about privilege.”
Separately, Buttigieg addressed how many times he has consumed cannabis in his book: “not many, but more than zero.”
That being said, he’s clearly abstaining on the campaign trail. He didn’t buy any marijuana during his trip to the Las Vegas dispensary, and he even declined a hit of an imaginary joint that was “passed” to him during an interview.
Marijuana Under A Buttigieg Presidency
Despite lacking a legislative history on cannabis reform, Buttigieg has grown increasingly comfortable identifying problems in federal drug policy and laying out specific solutions throughout his campaign. He’s made clear that his administration would support legalization if elected, and he’s gone further than many other candidates by backing broader drug decriminalization. His perspective on drug reform is also informed by an understanding of how these issues relate to mental health and racial justice.
CBD Company’s Appeal Could Let Marijuana And Psychedelics Companies Trademark Businesses Pre-Legalization
As it stands, you can’t trademark a product that’s not currently legal under federal law—like marijuana or psychedelics. But a CBD beverage company is appealing that rule, and it could have wide-ranging implications for burgeoning industries surrounding potentially soon-to-be-legal substances.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) says that companies cannot secure trademarks for products that aren’t lawful for commerce, even if they’re simply submitting “intent to use” applications that could take years to process while a pending policy change works its way through Congress or federal agencies.
“While applicant may be anticipating that CBD-based beverages will be made lawful at the federal level within the time frame for filing an allegation of use, that anticipation does not make this application registrable,” USPTO wrote in explaining its decision to deny a registration to Joy Tea, which markets hemp-derived CBD drinks. “The lawfulness of the goods is determined at the time the application is filed and not what may or may not be lawful at the federal level years from now.”
Joy Tea is appealing the rejection with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
While hemp and its derivatives like CBD were legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, USPTO denied its trademark request because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently have regulations in place that allow for the lawful marketing of cannabinoids in food items or dietary supplements.
While the federal food regulator has said it’s working on rules to allow for the marketing of CBD-infused products, USPTO says that for now, “FDA intentions, public opinion in favor of legalization of cannabis, and anticipation of change in the current law have no bearing on the prosecution of a trademark application.”
But Larry Sandell, an intellectual property attorney at Mei & Mark LLP who is representing Joy Tea, told Marijuana Moment that it’s improper to deny his client a trademark registration in the meantime.
“The general idea as to why [companies submit intent to use applications]—outside the cannabis space—is if you’re marketing a new product, and you’re starting to lay the groundwork, it would be terrible if somebody could just swoop it up and beat you to the trademark office and steal it out from under you,” he said.
Traditional pharmaceutical companies that are interested in selling products that aren’t currently approved by FDA have this option—but CBD businesses are barred.
“There’s no real logical basis for the split,” Sandell said.
But USPTO said the comparison is “misleading because pharmaceuticals are not per se unlawful.”
Joy Tea “has not argued or demonstrated that it is seeking or has sought FDA approval for the sale of its CBD-based beverages,” the agency said. “Applicant’s goods are not merely ‘unapproved’ but are actually ‘unlawful.'”
To resolve the issue, Joy Tea, is seeking an appeal.
“At base, this Appeal seeks to overturn, or at least narrow, this per se rule,” the company’s filing states. “No statute or applicable regulation supports disqualifying an applicant’s bona fide intent that stems from a belief—especially an objectively reasonable belief—that its intended future commerce will be legal future commerce,”
It further argues that “market movement in cannabis-related stocks evinces that—notwithstanding the current law—many people anticipate changes in federal law toward cannabis legalization in the immediate future and have been willing to invest in this belief.”
If the appeal succeeds and companies are prospectively able to trademark products that aren’t currently legal under federal law, that would have a significant impact on businesses entering the space.
If it fails, however, that would mean that the status quote prevails, putting these companies “in a terrible spot,” Sandell said.
It would mean, for example, that a company could preempt another company that plans to sell a cannabis product by taking their business name and using it for a legal, unrelated purpose.
Should Joy Tea’s current effort fail, Sandell said they will appeal to a federal circuit court. They’re expecting a response to the initial briefing by mid-summer.
Read the text of the appeal on the CBD trademark below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Could ‘Absolutely’ Pass Full Legislature If GOP Senate Allows A Vote, Sponsor Says
A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota is set for a House floor vote this week, and the sponsor of the legislation is optimistic that it could pass the full legislature—if only the GOP-controlled Senate would just allow a vote on it.
This measure—filed by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers—has moved through a dozen committees since February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
Despite being advanced through 12 House panels, there have been lingering doubts about its prospects in the Senate. But Winkler said in an interview on Sunday that, if Republican leadership in the chamber give it a vote, “it absolutely could pass.”
“Support for legalizing cannabis for recreational or personal use, making sure that we have a safe, regulated marketplace, that we are expunging criminal records for people who’ve been unfairly targeted for law enforcement reasons for cannabis in the past, making sure that we’re creating a marketplace that reflects Minnesota’s values—all those things are our priorities in this bill, and they are priorities for Minnesotans of all political persuasions,” Winkler said.
Pressed on whether the legislation could advance through the Republican-led Senate if it advances through the House, the leader said it “absolutely could pass,” citing public polling on the issue and the fact that South Dakota voters approved a legalization initiative last year.
“It cuts across both parties,” Winkler said. “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t pass both houses if the vote can come up in the Senate.”
But one provision of the legalization bill that the leader isn’t willing to cede on concerns expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions.
Convictions for non-violent cannabis offenses push people into a cycle of poverty that cuts them off from housing and jobs.
That’s why expunging existing cannabis offenses is a non-negotiable piece of our legalization bill. This is an economic and criminal justice issue.
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) May 10, 2021
He said in a tweet on Monday that “expunging existing cannabis offenses is a non-negotiable piece of our legalization bill,” and that “is an economic and criminal justice issue.”
While Republican support remains an open question in either chamber, it is the case that the proposal has earned the support of several GOP members as its moved through an extensive committee process.
That’s despite the fact that Republicans have generally signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.
But a GOP member of the House Taxes Committee, which approved the broader legalization bill last week, indicated that he felt an amendment he introduced and that was adopted could bolster Republican support.
That revision from Rep. Pat Garofolo (R) directs remaining cannabis revenue to a tax relief account after implementation costs are covered and substance misuse treatment and prevention programs are funded.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
Before the Taxes Committee, the bill passed the Health Finance and Policy Committee, Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, Education Finance Committee, State Government Finance and Elections Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
The litany of committees the bill has gone through makes it perhaps the most thoroughly vetted legalization measure to move through a state legislature—and it means that a solid portion of the House has already had the chance to review, propose amendments to and vote on the legislation it as it advances to the floor, presumably increasing its chances of passage in the chamber.
The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the legislation, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.
The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Head Of Top Federal Drug Agency Says It’s Time To Consider Decriminalization
The head of a top federal drug agency is criticizing the ongoing policy of criminalizing people for drug use and is suggesting that the government should instead consider a policy of decriminalization.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), penned an essay for the journal Health Affairs that’s titled “Addiction Should Be Treated, Not Penalized.” It lays out the case against incarcerating people over low-level drug offenses and looking at the issue as a public health matter.
While it stops short of explicitly endorsing decriminalization, Volkow says that the current system leads to disproportionate enforcement against communities of color and can actually increase the risk of overdose deaths.
“Drug use continues to be penalized, despite the fact that punishment does not ameliorate substance use disorders or related problems,” she said. “Imprisonment, whether for drug or other offenses, actually leads to much higher risk of drug overdose upon release.”
“We have known for decades that addiction is a medical condition—a treatable brain disorder—not a character flaw or a form of social deviance,” Volkow continued in the essay, which was first published by Health Affairs late last month and republished on NIDA’s website on Friday. “Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting that position, drug addiction continues to be criminalized. The US must take a public health approach to drug addiction now, in the interest of both population well-being and health equity.”
In @Health_Affairs blog, Dr. Volkow makes the evidence-based case on how drug #criminalization disproportionately harms Black communities & exacerbates health disparities. A public health approach to #addiction is needed. https://t.co/6w1awINIRb pic.twitter.com/ty9GfrlWtg
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) April 27, 2021
The NIDA head pointed out how people of color have been “disproportionately harmed by decades of addressing drug use as a crime rather than as a matter of public health.” Citing disparities in how opioid criminalization has been enforced and laws punishing crack more harshly than powder cocaine, Volkow said these are examples of “racial discrimination that have long been associated with drug laws and their policing.”
What makes these admissions notable is the source from which they’re coming. While NIDA is known among advocates as a source of resistance to reforms such as ending marijuana prohibition, its director sides with them on the fundamental principle that substance misuse should not be criminalized.
“The damaging impacts of punishment for drug possession that disproportionately impact Black lives are wide ranging. Imprisonment leads to isolation, an exacerbating factor for drug misuse, addiction, and relapse,” the director said. “It also raises the risk of early death from a wide variety of causes.”
Volkow also said that beyond incarceration, merely being arrested for marijuana possession “can leave the individual with a criminal record that severely limits their future opportunities such as higher education and employment.” And that enforcement trend hurts black people more than white people despite comparable rates of consumption.
“This burden reinforces poverty by limiting upward mobility through impeded access to employment, housing, higher education, and eligibility to vote,” she said. “It also harms the health of the incarcerated, their non-incarcerated family members, and their communities.”
These statements ostensibly lend themselves to a harm reduction policy position in favor of decriminalization, but Volkow doesn’t specifically say that’s the route lawmakers should take. Instead, she says that research “is urgently needed to establish the effectiveness and impact of public health–based alternatives to criminalization, ranging from drug courts and other diversion programs to policies decriminalizing drug possession.”
To that end, NIDA is “redoubling its focus on vulnerabilities and progression of substance use and addiction in minority populations,” she said. “We are exploring research partnerships with state and local agencies and private health systems to develop ways to eliminate systemic barriers to addiction care.”
The agency is “also funding research on the effects of alternative models of regulating and decriminalizing drugs in parts of the world where such natural experiments are already occurring,” Volkow said, presumably referencing countries such as Portugal that have stopped criminalizing people over simple possession.
“People with substance use disorders need treatment, not punishment, and drug use disorders should be approached with a demand for high-quality care and with compassion for those affected,” she said. “With a will to achieve racial equity in delivering compassionate treatment and the ability to use science to guide us toward more equitable models of addressing addiction, I believe such a goal is achievable.”
While NIDA might not be widely considered a champion of progressive drug policy, its director has previously conceded that existing federal drug laws aren’t working.
In 2019, for example, she acknowledged that the Schedule I status of marijuana and other drugs makes it “very difficult” for researchers to study the benefits and risks of those substances.
“Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” Volkow said during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”
She also discussed the potential benefits and risks of cannabis at a congressional hearing last year.
NIDA is also one of the main agencies behind a new development in federally sanctioned marijuana research. After requesting public input last year on a standard THC unit for cannabis studies, it announced last week that it had reached a determination to set the standard at five milligrams of THC per dosage.