Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III is set to offer the Democratic Party's rebuttal of President Donald Trump's State of the Union address tonight, which will be a highly divisive event since only 38 percent of the public approves of the president.
But Congressman Kennedy doesn't exactly speak for the country either — at least not on the issue of marijuana reform, a topic where the rising star of the Democratic Party departs from the Kennedy legacy of defending civil rights.
Kennedy Opposes Marijuana Reform
A clear majority of Americans favor marijuana reform according to recent polls, which peg support for marijuana legalization at 64 percent. That number has been steadily growing since 1996, when only 25 percent of Americans were in favor of ending cannabis prohibition.
Yet Congressman Kennedy remains staunchly opposed to reform. In 2015, Kennedy opposed a congressional amendment that would've barred the Department of Justice from interfering with states that had defied federal prohibition by legalizing cannabis for medicinal or recreational use. To be clear, the amendment was not about legalizing cannabis. It was about respecting the rights of states, the civil liberties of cannabis consumers and the wishes of patients who use medical marijuana.
That same year, Kennedy voted against the congressional amendment protecting states that have legalized medical marijuana from prosecution. So it seems like he's not only against legalization, but he's also in favor of letting federal agents round up people with cancer, severe epilepsy, HIV and other debilitating conditions that have been approved for medical marijuana by state regulators.
As Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment pointed out, Kennedy's opposition to these measures put him at odds not only with the majority of his Democratic peers but many Republicans who are more progressive on the issue than Kennedy.
Here’s a list of 67 Republicans who are more progressive on marijuana than Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who Dems picked to respond to Trump’s State of the Union.— Tom Angell 🌳📰ⓥ (@tomangell) January 28, 2018
In 2015, Kennedy voted to let the DEA arrest medical cannabis patients and providers. These GOP members voted to protect. pic.twitter.com/7vES29UTgk
Kennedy is also at odds with his own constituents when it comes to cannabis. When his home state of Massachusetts geared up to vote on a legalization ballot initiative in 2016, Kennedy opposed the measure.
“I don’t think marijuana should be legalized,” Kennedy told Boston magazine before the vote. “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.”
His reasoning makes two things clear: first, he's seriously behind the times since he chose to argue about medical marijuana (which his state legalized in 2013) while his constituents had moved on to debating recreational legalization. Which is about as bad as responding to Trump's electoral victories in the Southern States by saying you're not quite on board with the Louisiana Purchase yet.
Secondly, Kennedy's position makes it clear that he hasn't paid attention to the social damage caused by prohibition — damage that is threatening his family's legacy as leaders of the civil rights movement.
Cannabis and Civil Rights
If Kennedy wants to keep cannabis away from kids, then he should drop his support for prohibition. Banning marijuana hasn't curbed cannabis consumption in America or anywhere else in the world. In fact, prohibition makes marijuana more accessible by empowering a black market run by street dealers who have no incentives to card their clients. In contrast, legalization and regulation takes cannabis off the streets and puts it in stores that rigorously check IDs to make sure that minors aren't getting their hands on marijuana.
And despite what Kennedy suggests, legalization does not lead to increased cannabis use among adolescents.
While Kennedy is right to worry about the risks that cannabis use poses to minors, the biggest threat to them isn't smoking marijuana but getting caught with it...especially if they're black.
According to a 2016 report by the FBI, someone gets busted for marijuana possession every 48 seconds in America. Minorities are arrested far more often than whites despite the fact that marijuana use is just as prevalent among whites and non-whites. In fact, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU.
Getting arrested can do irreparable damage to the lives of American youths. Having a criminal record makes it extremely difficult for a person to get a student loan and advance their careers, or to apply for public housing, or even to vote. Cannabis prohibition is not only infringing on the rights and freedoms of young Americans but also hobbling the social mobility of the people President John F. Kennedy helped by fighting for the Civil Rights Movement.
And that shouldn't surprise Joe Kennedy since the war on marijuana was concocted by his great uncle's old political rival — Richard Nixon. And according to Nixon's Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman, the drug war was racist by design — a way to disrupt hippies, blacks and other communities that opposed them by going after
"[T]he Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," Ehrlichman said in a 1994 interview. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
That lie caught on with the American people, and it has taken decades for people to realize that legalization isn't just about personal freedom but civil rights and social justice.
Unfortunately, Joe Kennedy hasn't realized that yet, so someone should remind him that he's a Kennedy, not a Nixon. Tonight's rebuttal to Trump's State of the Union would be as good a time as any for Kennedy to turn a new leaf on cannabis — especially since America is being ravaged right now by an opioid epidemic that could be controlled or perhaps even cured with medical marijuana.