Big Pot Tries to Stop Patrick Kennedy From Becoming Drug Czar
(Bloomberg) -- The marijuana lobby has a new foe, and this time it’s not a Republican but a Kennedy.
Patrick J. Kennedy, the former eight-term congressman and son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, wants to be the next White House drug czar but the marijuana industry is dead-set against him.
Kennedy, who speaks openly about his life-long struggle with drug abuse, is now an advocate for those with mental health and addiction problems. He favors allowing pot for medical reasons but opposes legalizing its recreational use.
That’s anathema to an industry whose goal is to make cannabis use as normal as alcohol and nicotine -- and to legalize the substance in all 50 states while Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
While there’s no indication that Kennedy is under active consideration, the brawl over what normally is a low-profile appointment illustrates the huge stakes for an industry that’s increasingly flexing its muscle in Washington.
The debate also highlights the different views that President Joe Biden, who coined the term “drug czar” in 1982, and Vice President Kamala Harris have expressed. Before she became Biden’s running mate, Harris sponsored marijuana industry-backed legislation in the Senate. Biden favors keeping marijuana illegal nationally, a view that’s more closely aligned with Kennedy’s.
Harris’s positions are now the same as Biden’s, a Harris aide said, asking not to be identified because the vice president has not publicly weighed in on the issue. A White House official declined to comment on who is being considered for the job.
One lead contender, according to two people familiar with the matter, is Rahul Gupta, the chief medical officer at the March of Dimes and a former state health official in West Virginia. Gupta was part of Biden’s transition team.
Another top candidate is H. Westley Clark, a former official at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Regina LaBelle, currently the acting drug czar, is also on the short list, the people familiar said. Gupta and LaBelle declined to comment and Clark, who has industry support, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But the marijuana industry has spotlighted Kennedy, 53, out of concern he would be an obstacle to its goal of broader legalization.
Cannabis companies frame nationwide legalization as a way to create jobs, boost tax revenue and help overhaul the criminal justice system. Legalization would also rapidly increase their profits by allowing the sale of more products to more customers with fewer legal and regulatory headaches.
Kennedy worries that the industry is putting profits over public health. He agrees with experts like Susan Weiss, senior adviser to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who warns that marijuana can be addictive and may harm the brains of young people. She also says the effects of exposure to high-potency products are not well understood.
Weiss, who would not comment on the drug czar post, said the brain continues to develop in adolescence and early adulthood. “We worry about exposure to cannabis during those periods,” she said. “We do know there’s a use disorder, and it’s not so easy to get rid of,” said Weiss, using a technical term for addiction. “They are usually young people” who develop it.
Kennedy has strong backing from mental-health experts, such as Arthur C. Evans Jr., chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association. But the former lawmaker lacks industry support.
Kennedy’s views are based on “outmoded morality” and “out-of-touch edicts that simply don’t work,” the Marijuana Policy Project said in a Feb. 8 email. The pro-pot group, with thousands of individual dues-paying members, has been involved in many state legalization efforts.
The U.S. Cannabis Council, an industry lobbying group, also opposes Kennedy. “Someone who isn’t paying attention to the fact that 15 states have legalized would not be a good fit for the job,” said Steven Hawkins, the council’s interim chief executive officer.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 15 states while 36 have approved it for medicinal use. It’s classified as a Schedule I drug – the category reserved for the most dangerous substances, like heroin – which is higher than the Schedule II classification for opioids.
U.S. sales of legal cannabis and its derivatives are expected to exceed $26 billion this year, up from $22 billion last year, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company.
Whoever gets the drug czar post would signal what the administration’s marijuana policy is likely to be. Biden helped create the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose director is often called the drug czar. Drug use is also a personal topic for Biden, whose son, Hunter, has struggled with addiction.
In a CNN town hall appearance on Feb. 16, the president supported decriminalizing pot possession when he said: “No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation.”
As a candidate, he said he would use executive authority to ease restrictions on research and allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as an opioid alternative. But marijuana would still be illegal under federal law.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has an annual budget of $379 million, coordinates other government agencies involved in drug policy. While the opioid crisis will probably top its agenda, marijuana policy is likely be a close second.
Kennedy is co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an Alexandria, Virginia, based non-profit that seeks to reduce marijuana use. The organization is funded through individual donations and family foundations. It doesn’t accept pharmaceutical, alcohol or tobacco industry money.
He decries the industry’s promotion of legalization as a means of repairing the harm done by the decades-long war on drugs, during which a disproportionate number of Black people went to prison for drug offenses. The industry has said it hopes to help Black people participate in the profits of a legalized industry, such as by opening Black-owned dispensaries in Black communities.
Instead of helping close the racial divide, legalization may exacerbate it by harming careers and setting up Black youth to fail, Kennedy argues. “Even if the U.S. says we’re going to legalize, it doesn’t mean that a bank or a construction firm is going to say it’s OK to screen positive,” Kennedy said.
“I won’t try to get this job by not ruffling any feathers and keeping my head down and not saying anything about what I see as a true threat on the horizon,” he said. “We know it’s not about this social justice issue. It’s about the money.”
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