Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a member of Congress since 2013 and previously a Hawaii state legislator and Honolulu city councilmember, announced she was seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on January 11, 2019 and dropped out of the race on March 19, 2020.
In her formal campaign launch speech, she criticized a criminal justice system that “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.”
This piece was last updated on March 19, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race. It will continue to be updated on a rolling basis.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Gabbard has cosponsored a large number of cannabis-related bills during her time in Congress, and she was the lead sponsor of a measure to require the federal government to study the impact of state marijuana legalization, which she reintroduced in April 2019.
Also that month, the congresswoman introduced legislation that’s designed to end prohibition by federally descheduling marijuana.
“This is affecting those dealing with opioid addiction, this is affecting farmers, this is affecting small business owners, this affecting our veterans and those who are locked up in our broken criminal justice system because of this prohibition,” Gabbard said in an interview while discussing her bill. “That’s what my bill seeks to do: end prohibition very simply.”
Gabbard signed onto far-reaching legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and withhold federal funds from states that disproportionately enforce cannabis laws in 2018 and 2019.
She also cosponsored a bill filed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Judiciary Committee, that would similarly deschedule marijuana but would also institute a federal tax on cannabis sales with some funds being directed toward programs to repair the harms of the war on drugs.
“Millions of Americans have fallen victim to the failed War on Drugs, tearing families apart, disproportionately harming minority communities, and overcrowding an already strained prison system. Marijuana use is a personal choice and should not be a criminal act,” she said in a press release about the legislation. “For many years I have worked to end the marijuana prohibition and am proud to push this legislation forward that will begin to right the wrongs of the past, and invest in communities who have been most harmed.”
In July 2019, Gabbard introduced a wide-ranging hemp bill that calls on multiple federal agencies to issue guidelines and encourage federal research into the crop’s many potential uses, including to clean up nuclear contamination, treat conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder and incorporate it into public school lunches.
“The hemp industry is poised to grow rapidly, having a billion dollar impact on the U.S. economy and creating thousands of jobs,” she said in a press release. “Hemp-based materials have the potential to transform industries from health care to domestic manufacturing to affordable, sustainable housing construction, and more.”
Other bills she’s backed would shield medical and recreational marijuana states from federal interference, legalize industrial hemp, protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, provide tax fairness for the cannabis industry, address various aspects of the federal-state marijuana policy gap, remove roadblocks to research and exempt CBD from the CSA.
She was the lead Democratic cosponsor of another measure to federally deschedule marijuana.
Gabbard, who served in a medical unit in the Hawaii Army National Guard, has also cosponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at expanding access to medical cannabis for veterans. That includes one bill that would block the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from denying benefits to patients who use marijuana, another that would require the VA to survey patients and caregivers on cannabis use and a bill that would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for veterans.
She signed onto a House resolution meant to express the chamber’s sentiment that the drug war has failed and apologize to “individuals and communities that were victimized by this policy.” She also cosponsored a separate resolution calling on states to “address disparities in the cannabis marketplace participation and to address, reverse, and repair the most egregious effects of the war on drugs on communities of color, in particular to those who now hold criminal records for a substance that is now legal and regulated.”
Gabbard has also consistently voted to support marijuana amendments on the House floor. For example, she supported two measures to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference as well as a broader proposal to shield all state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use. She voted yes on three separate amendments to allow military veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from their Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. A measure to protect banks from being punished for working with marijuana businesses from businesses also got an aye from Gabbard. And she supported a proposal to shield people complying with state CBD medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement, as well as four separate amendments to protect state industrial hemp programs from interference.
On The Campaign Trail
“The fact that marijuana’s still a Schedule I drug is unacceptable in the harm that it is causing to the people of our country and to taxpayers as well,” Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in a March 2019 interview.
“Regardless of who [the Democratic presidential nominee] is, this is a major issue I’m putting at the forefront of my campaign and continuing the work that I’ve been doing in Congress to bring about this change,” she said. “It’s something I’ve continued to bring up in bigger cities as well as small towns in New Hampshire and Iowa and other states, and it’s an issue that is very exciting to voters who believe, as I do, that we’ve got to make this happen.”
The candidate touted legislation she introduced to deschedule cannabis, directing supporters to contribute to her campaign.
60% of voters support marijuana legalization—great to see Florida coming around! We just introduced a bill to end federal #marijuana prohibition because American citizens should not be made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana. Join us https://t.co/d4qbwO4Ip4#TULSI2020
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 8, 2019
In January 2020, Gabbard suggested that legalizing and regulating currently illicit drugs would help people suffering from addiction get into treatment and would be a superior policy compared to criminalizing these individuals.
“I think we need to look at the model in Portugal where there has been decriminalization and in some cases legalization and regulation so we treat substance abuse and addiction as a health care issue,” she said in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity the next month.
This came months after Gabbard first indicated she’s supportive of decriminalizing possession of currently illegal substances like heroin and cocaine.
During a campaign stop in Iowa, she said, “Stop throwing people in prison for smoking a joint and instead go after those like Purdue Pharma who are proliferating their opioids on our streets and taking people’s lives.”
“Our archaic marijuana policies—based on stigma and outdated myths—have been used to wage a failed war on drugs,” she said in an interview with Cannabis Now. “The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has exhausted our law enforcement resources, burdened our criminal justice system, decimated communities, fractured families, and turned everyday Americans into criminals. Over-criminalization and mass incarceration have become the new norm.”
During a televised town hall event, Gabbard declined to rule out pushing for broader decriminalization legislation to extend to drugs besides marijuana.
“The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel,” the congresswoman said in a tweet in March 2019. “I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountable.”
The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel. I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountablehttps://t.co/V4e5ypvyKq
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 21, 2019
She also discussed hemp, writing that the crop “played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products.”
Hemp played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products. Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers. It’s time to bring it back!https://t.co/rzeDH6O0Gn
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) April 11, 2019
“Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers,” she said. “It’s time to bring it back!”
Gabbard sought donations with a marijuana-themed campaign email blast on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20. Supporters were given options to contribute $4.20, $14.20, $42.00 and $420.00.
“The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments—underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana,” she said in a tweet that included an accompanying video.
The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments —underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana. pic.twitter.com/SzuRNQIeNQ
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) May 30, 2019
Gabbard said her legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition would protect veterans from being “penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.”
These veterans should not be penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.
This must be corrected immediately by the VA, and Congress must pass my bipartisan Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. (2/2)
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) June 6, 2019
“As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform,” Gabbard said.
As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform. I’ll crack down on the overreaching intel agencies and big tech monopolies who threaten our civil liberties and free speech pic.twitter.com/jzsETuCawI
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) July 9, 2019
During a Democratic presidential debate in July 2019, Gabbard took a hit at fellow contender Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over her record as a prosecutor who enforced marijana prohibition and once opposed legalization while later joking about her own cannabis consumption.
Gabbard said during a post-debate interview that she is “deeply concerned about this record,” referring to the senator’s prosecutorial history. “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
At another debate, the candidate said it’s “important that we set the record straight and correct the racial injustices that exist in a very institutional way in our country, beginning with things that have to do with our criminal justice system—predominantly, the failed war on drugs that has been continuing to be waged in this country, has disproportionately impacted people of color and people in poverty.”
We must correct the institutional racial injustices in our country that disproportionately impact people of color & people in poverty. As president I will end the failed war on drugs & end the money bail system to correct injustices of the past – TULSI2020 #TulsiGabbard pic.twitter.com/Etbvbrnhpw
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) November 21, 2019
“Marijuana use is a personal choice, not a criminal act,” the congresswoman said in a campaign video.
At the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in September 2019, Gabbard also discussed her plan to end the drug war and legalize marijuana. She also talked about these policies at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and New England Council’s Politics and Eggs breakfast.
Ahead of NORML’s congressional lobbying day event that month, Gabbard spoke to advocates about the need for reform.
Today, I met with activists, small business owners, and organizers from across the country who are working to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, dispelling myths and stigma with facts, data, and their own personal experience. pic.twitter.com/XqXWa9JTLQ
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) September 11, 2019
“More than half the states across America have legalized/decriminalized marijuana in some form,” she said. “It’s time for Congress to catch up.”
She also participated in a “Rethinking Marijuana Roundtable” in New Hampshire in February 2020.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) February 1, 2020
At another event in the state that month, the candidate spoke about the failure and harms of the war on drugs.
Gabbard also said she supports allowing interstate commerce for cannabis and social consumption sites.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
After then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era Justice Department guidance on cannabis enforcement priorities in early 2018, she posted an extensive thread about why the move “will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart.
Veterans suffering from invisible wounds like Post-Traumatic Stress and chronic pain, or with addiction to opioids, deserve our commitment to researching every possible treatment to help them, and Sessions is failing them.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Sessions’ actions to protect the bottom lines of the for-profit private prison industry, and Big Pharma whose opioids and drugs flourish in part due to the marijuana prohibition, while trampling on states' rights and turning everyday Americans into criminals is an injustice.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
States with medical marijuana have seen a correlating drop in opioid-related deaths. Sessions' decision will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart. We need criminal justice reform that reduces recidivism and the share of people that we lock up.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Later in the year, she turned her attention on Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) after he vetoed legislation that would have made opioid misuse a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. Gabbard has repeatedly touted research demonstrating that legal access to cannabis can reduce opioid overdoses and prescriptions, potentially mitigating a national drug crisis.
Gov Ige vetoed the bill saying people need to go thru bureaucratic red-tape & apply for approval from HI Dept of Health instead – knowing DOH won't approve because they don't think there's evidence that medical marijuana can effectively help those suffering from opioid addiction.
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) July 12, 2018
“With such a stark increase in prescription opioid use and dependence, heroin and synthetic drug overdose, and emergency room visits over the last decade, we must allow legal access to medical marijuana to help prevent opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths,” Gabbard said in a press release. “Understanding that people’s lives are at stake, I urge Governor Ige to reconsider and sign this legislation into law now.”
She also talked about the relationship between marijuana laws and opioid overdoses on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
“There are states that have legalized, whether it’s just medical or full legalization, there has proven to be a direct correlation to a drastic reduction in opioid-related deaths in those states where people have access,” she said. “If we know this, and every one of the leaders in this country are so concerned about this opioid epidemic, why hasn’t this been brought forward?”
As the opioid addiction epidemic continues to spread across the country, states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen addiction rates drop and opioid abuse deaths decrease by over 20%. 1/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
I’m calling on @HHSGov to allow medical marijuana to serve as an alternative pain management treatment to opioids to help curb the ongoing opioid epidemic. 2/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
In a 2017 interview with SFGate, the congresswoman discussed legislation she cosponsored to remove marijuana from the CSA, saying that current federal cannabis policies “have turned everyday Americans into criminals, torn families apart, and wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate people for nonviolent marijuana charges.”
“The reality is, whether or not any individual chooses to consume cannabis is irrelevant. The important question is, should we really be sending people to jail and turning them into criminals for using a substance that is far less dangerous and harmful than alcohol? The answer is no. The fiscal and social impacts of our current policy, are having devastating effects on individuals and our communities and are only perpetuating the problem.”
Touting her Marijuana Data Collection Act on the House floor, Gabbard said “federal policies should be based on actual science and fact, not misplaced stigma and outdated myths.”
“For decades, bad data and misinformation have fueled the failed War on Drugs that’s wasted billions of taxpayer dollars incarcerating Americans for non-violent marijuana charges,” she said. “Our outdated marijuana policies have turned everyday Americans into criminals, strained our criminal justice system, cost taxpayers tremendously, and torn families apart—all for a substance that’s proven to be far less harmful and dangerous than alcohol.”
Prior to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized industrial hemp, the congresswoman spoke out in support of allowing farmers to cultivate the crop.
Hemp is an incredibly versatile and environmentally restorative crop that has great potential – to make things like clothing, paper, houses and more. We must eliminate the obstacles blocking farmers and innovators from pursuing these opportunities.https://t.co/vrSjce36Um
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) October 14, 2018
“Our nation should empower our local farmers by allowing them to grow, cultivate and research industrial hemp that will create opportunity and strengthen our economy,” she said in a press release. “The DEA must honor and uphold the Congressional intent of federal legislation that allows states, like Hawai‘i, to establish programs to research the benefits, cultivation, and market of industrial hemp.”
She also tweeted that one answer to plastic trash pollution of the ocean is to use more “biodegradable materials like hemp.”
Seeing trash in the ocean when I was out surfing as a kid was one of my first motivations to get into public service. What's happening in our oceans is devastating. One answer to plastic pollution is biodegradable materials like hemp. https://t.co/sXreSK1EnJ
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) February 9, 2019
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in an interview that she has not personally tried marijuana.
“I don’t smoke marijuana. I never have,” she said. “But I believe firmly in every person’s freedom to make their own choices, and that people should not be thrown in jail and incarcerated or made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana whether it be for medicinal and non-medicinal purposes.”
In January 2020, she again said “I’ve never done drugs in my life, and I don’t drink.”
.@TulsiGabbard yesterday on supporting legalizing marijuana
“I've never done drugs in my life, and I don't drink. That's my choice, but I don't believe that if someone else makes different choices in their lives that they should be penalized and punished and made a criminal of.” pic.twitter.com/laWiuCpb5b
— Beatrice-Elizabeth Peterson (@MissBeaE) January 5, 2020
“That’s my choice, but I don’t believe that if someone else makes different choices in their lives that they should be penalized and punished and made a criminal of,” the congresswoman said.
Marijuana Under A Gabbard Presidency
Gabbard’s cosponsorship of a long list of cannabis reform bills and continual focus on the issue in public statements and social media posts indicate she would be an especially marijuana-friendly president if she were to earn the Democratic nomination and win the 2020 election.
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
Pennsylvania Senators Will Consider DUI Protections For Medical Marijuana Patients At Hearing
A Pennsylvania Senate committee is set to take up a bill next week that would protect medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted under the state’s “zero tolerance” DUI laws.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), would amend state statute to require proof of active impairment before a registered patient can be prosecuted for driving under the influence. The current lack of specific protections for the state’s roughly 368,000 patients puts them in legal jeopardy when on the road, supporters say.
The #PASenate Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on 9/21 with a focus on my #SB167, which would remove DUI penalties for legal medicinal cannabis use. @SenLangerholc @PASenateGOP Details ⤵️https://t.co/cSd2Cpdky9 pic.twitter.com/av3mxvAuCk
— Senator Bartolotta (@senbartolotta) September 16, 2021
Bartolotta first introduced an earlier version of the bill in June 2020. She said at the time that the state needs to “ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Months after the standalone reform legislation was introduced, the Pennsylvania House approved a separate amendment that would enact the policy change.
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with the first dispensaries in the state opening in 2018. But the state’s zero-tolerance DUI law still doesn’t reflect those changes. Because it criminalizes the presence of any THC or its metabolites in a driver’s blood—which can be detected for weeks after a person’s last use—the law puts virtually all medical marijuana patients at risk, even if it’s been days since their last use and they show no signs of impairment.
Bartolotta’s bill would require officers to prove a registered patient was actually impaired on the road.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.
“Unimpaired patients currently face the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for using medicinal marijuana that has no bearing on their ability to drive a vehicle,” the senator wrote in a cosponsorship memo late last year. “Given the very serious consequences of a DUI conviction, my legislation will provide critical protections for medicinal cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
Outside of this bill, Pennsylvania lawmakers have continued to pursue adult-use legalization in the state. Earlier this year, two legislators circulated a memo to build support for a comprehensive reform bill they plan to introduce, for example.
A bipartisan Senate duo is also in the process of crafting legislation to legalize cannabis across the commonwealth. They announced some details of the proposal earlier this year, but the bill has yet to be formally introduced.
Outside the legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
Wolf, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, previously led a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on legalization. He’s credited that effort with helping to move the governor toward embracing comprehensive reform. The lieutenant governor even festooned his Capitol office with marijuana-themed decor in contravention of a state law passed by the GOP-led legislature.
Fetterman has also been actively involved in encouraging the governor to exercise his clemency power for cannabis cases while the legislature moves to advance reform.
In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marks his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses that’s being run by the Board of Pardons.
Overall, legalization is popular among Pennsylvania voters, with 58 percent of residents saying they favor ending cannabis prohibition in a survey released in April.
Another poll released in May found that a majority of voters in the state also support decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
80 Top Law Enforcement Officials, Including A Biden Nominee, Urge SCOTUS To Hear Safe Injection Drug Case
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—have filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up a case on the legality of establishing a safe injection facility where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
The nonprofit organization Safehouse was set to launch a safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration, and it filed a petition with the nation’s highest court last month to hear the case. Now the group of law enforcement officials associated with Fair and Just Prosecution are calling on the Supreme Court to act in an amicus brief.
“Amici have an interest in this litigation because overdose prevention sites (OPSs) are among the harm reduction and public health interventions that have proven effective in preventing fatal overdoses and diverting people from unnecessary and counterproductive interactions with the justice system,” they wrote. “Amici, many of whom are currently or were previously responsible for enforcing the nation’s drug laws, also believe that the Controlled Substances Act cannot be construed to prohibit operation of a facility designed to address the most acute aspects of this public health emergency.”
“As law enforcement and criminal justice leaders, amici’s objective is to maintain public safety; saving lives and promoting health is as central to that mission as preventing and prosecuting crime.”
Read the full brief: https://t.co/e4Sv6oba4b
— Fair and Just Prosecution (@fjp_org) September 17, 2021
If the court agrees to hear the dispute, advocates will be looking toward the Biden Justice Department and whether it will continue the federal government’s opposition to allowing supervised injection facilities. It would be a precedent-setting case that could steer policy for years to come, meaning Safehouse is taking a significant risk by pursuing the appeal of its loss in a lower court before the majority of conservative justices.
“Failing to address the loss of life resulting from drug overdoses—and criminalizing a community-based public health organization working to save lives—will further erode trust in the justice system,” the new brief states. “If there were ever a time to demonstrate that our government values the dignity of human life, that time is now.”
While President Joe Biden hasn’t weighed in directly on safe consumption sites, there’s been a theme within his administration of embracing the general concept of harm reduction for drugs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), for example, said that “promoting harm-reduction efforts” is a first-year priority. In an overview of its objectives, the office said it intends to expand “access to evidence-based treatment,” enhance “evidence-based harm reduction efforts” and promote “access to recovery support services.”
These goals theoretically align with those of Safehouse, which wants to give people with substance use disorders a facility where medical professionals can intervene in the event of an overdose and provide people with the resources to seek recovery.
Among the signatories on the amicus brief are a former deputy assistant attorney general under Obama, district attorneys of Baltimore, Cook County, Dallas County, Los Angeles County, Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco County and Seattle and the former attorneys general of Ohio, Vermont and Virginia.
But one signatory who especially stands out is Rachael Rollins, the district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts who is Biden’s nominee for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts.
“As an elected prosecutor, I have a responsibility to protect every member of my community, which requires moving away from criminal justice responses to substance use disorder,” Rollins said in a press release. “Instead, we must embrace proven public health strategies as potential solutions. Lives depend on it.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said the drug war “has taken too many lives already, and criminalization has only exacerbated this devastating toll.” He added: “We need a new way forward that allows communities to address the overdose crisis with harm reduction approaches proven to save lives and improve community safety.”
“Our nation’s failed war on drugs has taken too many lives…and criminalization has only exacerbated this devastating toll. We need a new way forward that allows communities to address the overdose crisis with harm reduction approaches proven to save lives." –@DA_LarryKrasner
— Fair and Just Prosecution (@fjp_org) September 17, 2021
Fair and Justice Prosecution, the group that coordinated the amicus brief, also organized a tour of Portugal for 20 top prosecutors in 2019 so they could learn about the successful implementation of the country’s drug decriminalization law.
Safehouse won a battle in a federal district court in 2019 to proceed with the facilities. But in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the decision, ruling that permitting such facilities would violate a 1980s-era federal statute that bars organizations from running operations “for the purpose of unlawfully… using controlled substances.” That law was passed while Biden served in the Senate and helped push punitive drug policies that have had lasting consequences.
“As current and former criminal justice leaders, amici have seen first-hand how the classic ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug control—with its almost exclusive focus on aggressive criminal law enforcement—has exacerbated the overdose epidemic,” the pro-reform prosecutors and cops wrote in the new brief. “This experience confirms that no jurisdiction can arrest its way out of this public health problem. Fatal overdoses are a symptom of substance use disorder, a medical condition requiring a medical response.”
“Distorting federal drug laws to prohibit an [overdose prevention site] or to prosecute its sponsors would further undermine trust in the justice system and faith in the fair and sensible application of our drug laws. Interpreting federal criminal law to bar empirically validated harm reduction measures would make no one safer; it would only impede cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
In its original petition to the Supreme Court in the current safe injection site case, Safehouse argued that the justices should “grant review to determine whether” federal statute really does prohibit “non-commercial, non-profit social service agencies…from establishing an overdose-prevention site that includes medically supervised consumption.”
“This question is a matter of life or death for thousands of Philadelphians and many thousands more throughout the country,” it said. “Tragically, while respondents have been pursuing this declaratory judgment against Safehouse, more than 3,200 people died in Philadelphia of drug overdoses—many of which could have been prevented if medical care had been immediately available through supervised consumption services.”
Safehouse also pointed out that Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the organization’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.
The organization put the gravity of the case in no uncertain terms, painting a picture of how its proposed facility can save lives.
“When breathing stops, even a brief delay while waiting for medical help to arrive may result in an otherwise preventable overdose death or irreversible injury,” the petition says. “As a result, every second counts when responding to an opioid overdose; as more time elapses, the greater the risk of serious injury and death. Ensuring proximity to medical care and opioid reversal agents like the drug Naloxone at the time of consumption is therefore a critical component of efforts to prevent fatal opioid overdose.”
“Intervention by this Court is warranted to make clear that the federal law does not criminalize this essential public health and medical intervention designed to save lives from preventable overdose death,” it continues.
Safehouse argued that the appeals court’s interpretation of the law “eviscerates the intended boundaries of the statute and would criminalize the operation of legitimate businesses, charities, families, and good Samaritans that serve and reside with those suffering from addiction.”
If the Supreme Court were to take up the case and rule in favor of Safehouse, it could embolden advocates and lawmakers across the country to pursue the harm reduction policy.
The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.
At the same time that Safehouse is turning to the Supreme Court, it also announced recently that it will be returning the the federal district court that gave it an initial 2019 victory in support of establishing a safe injection facility before it was overturned in the appeals court.
The organization is making the unique argument that the federal government’s decision to block it from providing the service violates religious freedom by subjecting participants “to criminal penalties for exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs that they have an obligation to do everything possible to preserve life and to provide shelter and care to the vulnerable, including those suffering from addiction.”
In 2018, a congressional subcommittee approved legislation to specifically prohibit Washington D.C. from using local tax dollars to help open safe consumption facilities. But that provision was not enacted and has not been reintroduced since.
A 2020 study found that people “who reported using supervised injection facilities on an at least weekly basis had a reduced risk of dying compared to those who reported less than weekly or no use of this health service.”
Read the amicus brief from the prosecutors on the Safehouse safe injection site case below:
Photo courtesy of Jernej Furman.
Former GOP Congressman Who Actually Supported Marijuana Reform Enters The Cannabis Industry
Lately it’s come to seem as if most of the former politicians who’ve entered the marijuana industry were unhelpful or downright hostile to legalization when they were in office. But on Friday, a cannabis company announced an addition to its board who disrupts that narrative: a former Republican congressman who has a consistent legislative record of cosponsoring and voting for marijuana reform measures.
The multi-state cannabis businesses Red White & Bloom Brands Inc. (RWB) is bringing on former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) to help it navigate the complicated regulatory space, drawing on his experience in Congress as the company works to expand.
Costello certainly isn’t the only Republican lawmaker who’s made the transition from Capitol Hill to the cannabis market. But he is a rare example of a politician who actually embraced enacting marijuana policy changes while he was in power before standing to profit from the industry. The congressman cosponsored a variety of bills—including ones to shield states that legalize cannabis from federal interference—and supported several reform amendments.
“I’m looking forward to utilizing my 15+ years of service in government, the legal profession, and my familiarity with cannabis policy to be a strategic resource for RWB as it positions itself as a true market leading house of brands in the permitted U.S. marketplace,” Costello said in a press release.
This breaks with a trend that has increasingly frustrated advocates, where it seems the people most inclined to benefit from legalization are those who stood in the way in Congress. The best-known example of that is former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who’s faced criticism from activists over his anti-legalization record while in office before joining the board of marijuana company Acreage Holdings.
While Costello left Congress in 2019 prior to the historic House vote on a standalone bill to federally deschedule cannabis, there are plenty of examples of him supporting more modest reform proposals during his congressional tenure.
He was a cosponsor of legislation to protect state marijuana markets from federal intervention, promote cannabis research, support military veterans’ access to medical marijuana, protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses and legalize industrial hemp.
The congressman also voted in favor of floor amendments to shield all state marijuana programs from Justice Department intervention, allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical cannabis and end hemp prohibition.
In that respect, he was a rare GOP lawmaker. While the issue is increasingly bipartisan among the public, that hasn’t been reflected in Congress. And now Costello is in a position to leverage his legislative experience to advance a marijuana business’s interests.
It’s an exception to the trend.
For example, Tom Price, the former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) head under President Donald Trump, is serving as a member of the board of directors for a medical marijuana business in Georgia after he refused to take action to reclassify cannabis under federal law when he had the power to do so. Price consistently voted against marijuana reform measures while serving in Congress.
Former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), who also has a long track record of opposing marijuana legalization efforts, joined a Canadian cannabis company’s board in 2019.
Earlier this month, a New York-based lobbying firm that’s headed by a former Republican U.S. senator announced that it is launching a practice focused on serving cannabis businesses. That former senator, Alfonse D’Amato, racked up a record of supporting the war on drugs while in office.
There is at least one other former GOP congressman who entered the cannabis space with a legislative record supporting marijuana reform. Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who championed cannabis reform while in Congress, became an advisory board member for a marijuana company after being voted out of office in 2018.
Separately, President Joe Biden’s pick to head up federal drug policy worked for a major marijuana business last year, according to his financial disclosure reports.
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