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Public support among Americans for the legalization of cannabis is higher than it’s ever been, according to a recent Gallop poll showing almost 70% of Americans in favor. In some respects, President-Elect Biden seems willing to bend an ear to changing public sentiment on cannabis.

The historic diversity of his cabinet picks lends credence to the belief that he might just be serious about social equity issues. Biden’s nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for Health Czar is a hopeful sign that the incoming administration will take public opinion seriously on the bipartisan issue of legalization.

Soon Biden must also nominate a Drug Czar, a crucial position for the majority of the public that feels it’s time to end cannabis prohibition and the unjust incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. This is where the president-elect will reveal his true commitment to social justice, decriminalization, and rescheduling.

Former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy is the most high-profile name to pitch himself to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy. There are few candidates that are less qualified or appropriate.

Kennedy, a Democrat, is a throwback to the hysteria of Reefer Madness. “Marijuana destroys the brain and expedites psychosis,” he stated in a typical, evidence-free rant. “It’s overall a very dangerous drug… there’s no distinction between the quality and types of drugs that people get addicted to” [i.e., there’s no difference between a meth addiction and a cannabis habit]… “it’s as destructive as alcohol and tobacco.”

These erroneous assertions are easily rebutted by the hundreds of clinical studies in PubMed, the online database of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In fact, these statements are easily refuted by the U.S. government’s own statistics on overdose deaths, car accidents, and drug use during pregnancy.

Since leaving office in 2011, the fact-adverse Patrick Kennedy, a recovered pharmaceutical drug addict, has used his public spotlight to double-down on prohibition, co-founding the country’s leading prohibitionist organization, the misnamed Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Kennedy’s philosophy of criminalization is wrong. In the context of a life-disrupting pandemic, economic recession, debilitating student debt, escalating climate-driven wildfires, and entrenched racial disparities, a focus on perpetuating the Drug War is tone deaf and anachronistic — especially at a time when the Democratic Party is striving to increase voter turnout among people under 35. 

Also concerning is Kennedy’s questionable profiteering from opioid-addiction firms, as reported by Politico and other news outlets, which characterized the former politician as “the unlikely go-to player for companies seeking to benefit from the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar response to the opioid crisis” and a “one-man nexus of government, private-sector and patient-advocacy work.”

To his credit, Kennedy has done much to highlight mental health issues during his post-congressional career. But even this effort has been marred by his biases and blind spots. In delivering a heartfelt plea to Congress for more mental health funding, Kennedy noted that “the biggest mental health institution in America today is the prison system.” He’s right about that. What he fails to note is that cannabis prohibition is one of the main reasons the United States invests more in prisons than in mental health treatment and anxiety relief.

There are a lot of signs that the U.S. is moving in a better direction on drug policy. The passage of the MORE Act by the U.S. House of Representatives — which would decriminalize cannabis — was an important milestone. And the U.S. Senate’s recent passage of the Cannabidiol and Marijuana Research Expansion Act also represents meaningful, albeit long overdue, progress in the effort to expand legal scientific research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Both are evidence that our federal government is willing to take a fresh look at cannabis policy.

In this context, let’s hope that Rep. Patrick Kennedy does not succeed in his attempt to become Biden’s Drug Czar. It would be a giant step backwards.

In possibly the most charismatic moment of his post-election victory speech in Delaware, soon-to-be-president Joe Biden spoke directly and confidently to the African-American community, saying: “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” referencing the overwhelming support he received among Black voters that catapulted him to the presidency. If Joe Biden intends to keep this promise, it would be a terrible mistake to appoint an old-school, diehard drug warrior as the next Director of National Drug Control Policy.

Kyle Lee is a compliance associate at CannaCraft, Inc., a major California cannabis company and a recent graduate of Columbia University.

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