Joe Kennedy III Is on Board with Marijuana Legalization Now

Not a minute too soon.

Photo via AP

Joe Kennedy III, among the loudest anti-marijuana advocates in the Democratic Party, is making a gigantic U-turn on the issue.

After years of voting down bills that would increase access to the drug and prevent the federal government from cracking down on marijuana users, he’s now coming out in favor of legalization nationwide.

“My concerns about the public health impact of marijuana remain. But it has become clear that prohibition has wholly failed to address them,” he writes in an op-ed for STAT, published the same day as Massachusetts’ first recreational pot sales. “I believe legalization is our best chance to actually dedicate resources toward consumer safety, abuse prevention, and treatment for those who need it. It is our best chance to ensure that addiction is treated as a public health issue — not a criminal justice one.”

Among other issues he now believes Congress should address, he says marijuana needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government’s list of drugs deemed too dangerous to even be tested or used for medical purposes.

“Our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken, benefiting neither the elderly man suffering from cancer whom marijuana may help nor the young woman prone to substance use disorder whom it may harm,” he writes. “The patchwork of inconsistent state laws compounds the dysfunction. Our federal government has ceded its responsibility — and authority — to thoughtfully regulate marijuana.”

It’s hard to overstate how much of a 180 this is for the Congressman.

Kennedy had been exceptionally opposed to protections for marijuana users, voting against practically every pro-marijuana bill that came across his desk, including a proposal that would shield medical marijuana patients from federal prosecution, which only ten House Democrats opposed and which 67 Republicans supported, and one that would allow the use of CBD, the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, to treat epilepsy in children.

“I don’t think marijuana should be legalized,” he said in an interview with us back in 2016, in the middle of the battle over a ballot question to legalize the drug in this state. “If we’re going to say marijuana is a medicine, it needs to be treated like a medicine and regulated like a medicine. But when we look at full-on legalization, the potential danger that marijuana poses particularly to adolescents—I’m not convinced.”

In an interview in March with Vox’s Ezra Klein, he lamented that when Massachusetts decriminalized the drug in 2008, it removed one tactic used by police.“If you smelled [marijuana] in a car, you could search a car,” Kennedy said on Klein’s podcast, according to “When it became decriminalized, you couldn’t do that.”

When the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws rated lawmakers on their marijuana records in 2016, it gave Kennedy a “D,” putting him in the bottom 8 percent of Congressional Democrats.

In the meantime, the political winds have shifted. Two-thirds of Americans now support full legalization, including 52 percent of Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll. Even Trump officials now say federal legalization is all but inevitable in the coming years.

After Kennedy’s announcement this morning, NORML celebrated the news of his transformation.

“Welcome to the right side of history, @joekennedy,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “You’ll find the waters of justice are warm.”