Amid her campaign for Congress, the wife of one of the most prominent voices advocating for keeping marijuana illegal says that she supports federally reclassifying cannabis from its current restrictive status.
Amy Kennedy is one of the Democratic candidates for Congress seeking to unseat Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, after he flipped his party affiliation to Republican and pledged his “undying support” for President Trump.
Kennedy’s husband is Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island and a co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the nation’s leading cannabis prohibitionist group.
Current candidate Kennedy, like SAM, opposes broad marijuana legalization—but she also disagrees with the group’s platform on at least one key point. Kennedy wants marijuana removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, she recently told The Press of Atlantic City. That departs from SAM doctrine, which calls rescheduling “neither necessary nor desirable.”
As far as SAM is concerned, even modest rescheduling is still a step too far and “would do nothing to allow more cannabis-based medicines.”
In a statement provided to Marijuana Moment by a spokesman, SAM President Kevin Sabet, who cofounded the group with Patrick Kennedy, rejected the idea of any conflict.
“Ms. Kennedy’s position against marijuana commercialization and in favor of research is consistent with SAM’s and the American Medical Association,” Sabet said. “SAM has helped write legislation to create a new schedule for marijuana in order to encourage research while not legalizing, and we are working with a number of campaigns from both parties on smart marijuana policies.”
Kennedy’s campaign did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment on this story.
SAM policy calls for a near-total departure from existing medical cannabis programs implemented by the states. State-licensed cultivation, manufacturing and dispensaries would be replaced by federally authorized “non-psychoactive,” “non-smoked” and “yet-to-be-approved” components of marijuana, and not the plant itself.
Experts have indicated that providing a pathway for any such system would require additional research. But as long as marijuana remains in Schedule I, such studies will prove challenging, as scientists must go through numerous hoops to lawfully investigate the plant’s effects.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), acknowledged last year that the legal status of cannabis makes research “very difficult.”
For years, SAM has been insisting that Schedule I is not a barrier to cannabis research. But Sabet, the group’s president, serves on the the Board of Scientific Advisors for another group called Friends of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, a coalition of other anti-legalization health advocates and researchers that has argued in congressional submissions that cannabis’s Schedule I status does in fact impede studies.
Kennedy, the current congressional candidate, also backs decriminalizing marijuana possession as well as expunging prior cannabis convictions—positions backed to some degree by the organization her husband cofounded.
“First we should move to decriminalize, and then do the research and see where that takes us,” she said, according to The Press of Atlantic City. “I’m mostly worried about a for-profit industry [selling marijuana] without having done the research, and the impact it would have. We want to make sure our tax dollars don’t have to go back into our public health.”
SAM has called for treating marijuana possession as a “civil offense” but also says that people caught with it should be “subject to a mandatory health screening and marijuana-education program as appropriate.” The group also floats referring such individuals to treatment programs and says they “could even be monitored for 6-12 months in a probation program designed to prevent further drug use.”
It’s not clear if Kennedy wants to force cannabis consumers who encounter police to jump through all of those hoops, or if she supports having them simply cited and fined as is the case in many states with decriminalization policies.
SAM’s position on expungement is somewhat inconsistent. One part of its website broadly backs “expungement of any personal record regarding possession of small amounts of marijuana” but another recommends states adopt a more restrictive approach providing only for “automatic expungement for first-time offenders who complete treatment or education program without further violations within one year.”
When it comes to medical cannabis, rather than the total repeal-and-replace of existing and popular medical cannabis programs backed by SAM, Kennedy said she supports having health insurance providers cover the often-steep cost of medical marijuana—provided, of course, medical research supports the idea that cannabis is beneficial.
“If we’re saying it has a benefit, let’s get the evidence-based research and get it covered,” she said.
But bolstering research in a significant way would almost certainly require a change in federal law that her husband’s creation, SAM, staunchly opposes. The organization insists that research is possible within the status quo.
SAM also strongly opposes the way in which medical cannabis is administered in states such New Jersey.
“Medical marijuana should really only be about bringing relief to the sick and dying, and it should be done in a responsible manner that formulates the active components of the drug in a non-smoked form that delivers a defined dose,” the organization’s website states. “However, in most states with medical marijuana laws, it has primarily become a license for the state-sanctioned use of a drug by most anyone who desires it.”
Although Kennedy backs certain modest reforms, her opposition to legalization in a primary field of other Democratic candidates who openly back the idea—which, despite campaign trail promises from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to end prohibition, has yet to happen in the Garden State—makes here perhaps the most conservative on marijuana policy.
Even the now-GOP incumbent Drew appears to back the idea of easing restrictions on research.
“We are quite sure now…that medical marijuana, if used properly, can certainly help people,” he told the local newspaper. “I have supported legalizing medical marijuana and expanding its use in a medical sense, as well as enabling more research to occur.”
He also backs decriminalization, though like Kennedy opposes broad legalization. “I just don’t know that we need another recreational drug,” he said. “And I don’t think it will help urban areas.”
In any case, Kennedy’s support for rescheduling in order to bolster research does make her more progressive on cannabis than the organization her husband, himself a former member of Congress, founded.
While Amy Kennedy’s departure from the SAM platform is notable, she isn’t the only Kennedy who sees a need for reform where Patrick Kennedy’s SAM does not. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) announced last year that he’s in favor of cannabis legalization after previously standing against the policy change and unsuccessfully campaigning to defeat a 2016 ballot measure to end prohibition in his state.
The congressman is mounting a primary challenge to unseat Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and has transformed from a legalization skeptic to a supporter.