The first recreational marijuana shops in the commonwealth of Massachusetts are opening their doors Tuesday, two years after Massachusetts resoundingly voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. It’s a familiar trend across the country, where popular support for marijuana has surged. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have now legalized marijuana in some form — three on Election Day just this month.
I’ve remained skeptical.
My reluctance to embrace legalization stems primarily from one place: my ongoing work with the mental health and addiction communities. I’ve seen the devastating effects of drugs that are used and abused. I’ve met family after family torn apart by addiction. And I’ve heard — repeatedly — from mental health advocates on the frontlines who have grave concerns about what access to marijuana might do for those prone to abuse. They worry about research showing marijuana can be addictive, particularly for adolescents.
At the same time, I’ve heard from others who see marijuana quite differently. The parent whose epileptic child needs marijuana to calm her seizures. The veteran whose trauma it eases. The black teen arrested for smoking a joint while his white friends did the same with impunity.
Over the past year, I’ve worked to rectify these perspectives. I’ve read, I’ve researched, I’ve had countless conversations with people on both sides. One thing is clear to me: 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. The patchwork of inconsistent state laws compounds the dysfunction. Our federal government has ceded its responsibility — and authority — to thoughtfully regulate marijuana.
This needs to change. Given the rapid pace of state-level legalization and liberalization, I believe we must implement strong, clear, and fair federal guidelines. To do that requires us to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and legalize it at the federal level.
Since 1970, marijuana has been included in the CSA as a Schedule I drug — those that have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse — along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.
Given the FDA’s recent approval of prescriptions derived from marijuana, other countries’ recognition of its legitimate medicinal uses, and lower rates of addiction than alcohol or nicotine, this classification is hard to justify. And the failures of the resulting federal prohibition are stark.
We see it in our criminal justice system, where skin color dictates how likely you are to be arrested and charged for marijuana possession — despite equal use by people of all races — which devastates families and communities of color.
We see it in our system of health care, where our country lags woefully behind in research needed to ensure that the use of marijuana — whether medical or recreational — meets the highest health and safety standards as outlined by the FDA. The Schedule I classification of marijuana makes clinical research difficult, if not impossible, to pursue on American soil. At least 15 American companies have fully moved their clinical trials to Israel, where research on marijuana is better supported.
And we see it in states like my home state of Massachusetts, where pervasive conflicts between federal and state laws disadvantage all stakeholders involved. Banks fear a crackdown on transactions with marijuana suppliers and dispensaries because they are still illegal under federal law, leaving the state-law-abiding businesses no choice but to operate with cash-only transactions. Career placement agencies in Springfield that benefit from federal dollars can’t point job seekers down the block to the marijuana dispensary that’s hiring. Affordable housing developers in Foxboro can’t lease to marijuana retailers without fear of losing funding.
As long as marijuana remains regulated by the CSA, the federal government is barred from rectifying these failures or acting with any oversight authority as states move ahead with reform at record pace. So a broken, patchwork system flourishes in our country today with no federal guardrails — like the ones we have for alcohol and tobacco — to protect public health and safety and ensure equal justice.
Legalization would restore the federal government’s ability to regulate a powerful new industry thoroughly and thoughtfully. It would allow us to set packaging and advertising rules, so marketing can’t target kids. It would help set labeling requirements and quality standards, so consumers know exactly what they’re buying. It would ensure that we can dedicate funding to encourage safe use and spread awareness about the risks of impaired driving. And it would create tax revenue for research on mental health effects, safe prescription drugs, and a reliable roadside test.
My concerns about the public health impact of marijuana remain. But it has become clear that prohibition has wholly failed to address them. 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.
Legalization is not a cure-all. Risks remain and regulatory vigilance is required. Criminal justice inequities will persist until adequate state-level reforms are sought nationwide. But legalization would guide states choosing to move forward with strong and clear national standards meant to ensure that all Americans are protected fully and equally.
Joe Kennedy III has served as the U.S. representative for Massachusetts’s 4th Congressional District since 2013.