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Rivals hit Jake Auchincloss over marijuana skepticism

Other candidates in crowded Fourth District contest back national legalization

Jake Auchincloss, a candidate for Congress in Massachusetts' Fourth District, spoke in front of the Taunton Post Office this week in support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Postal Service Day of Action.
Jake Auchincloss, a candidate for Congress in Massachusetts' Fourth District, spoke in front of the Taunton Post Office this week in support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Postal Service Day of Action.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In the latest progressive broadside aimed at Jake Auchincloss, other candidates in the crowded Fourth Congressional District Democratic primary are criticizing the Newton city councilor and former Marine captain over his shifting views on marijuana and refusal to back national cannabis legalization.

Six of the seven other candidates remaining in the race to succeed Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III support legalizing marijuana across the United States, saying the policy is essential to ending decades of racially disproportionate arrests over the drug.

Auchincloss, in contrast, believes states should be permitted to set their own marijuana policies without interference from the federal government. Under that approach, states could continue to criminalize the sale, use, and possession of cannabis — even as their neighbors build booming legal pot industries whose members could freely deposit profits in federally regulated banks.

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He’s also one of just two candidates in the field — the other is City Year founder Alan Khazei — who openly opposed the 2016 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts.

“Once again, Jake Auchincloss is out of step with the values of the Fourth District,” said Jesse Mermell, a former Brookline Select Board member and aide to former governor Deval Patrick who is also running for the seat. “In fact, everyone currently representing our district in Washington — Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Joe Kennedy — supports federal legalization of cannabis. I stand with them, and... any candidate committed to racial justice should be standing with us, too.”

Mermell added that drug criminalization has been “one of the number-one drivers of inequality in this country, disproportionately impacting communities of color and fueling mass incarceration.”

As a city councilor, Auchincloss opposed allowing recreational pot stores in Newton, saying substance abuse experts had “begged” him not to implement the ballot initiative in Newton and claiming inaccurately that cannabis use among young people has “exploded” in Colorado since commercial pot sales began there in 2014.

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The retail footprint of marijuana is bad for Newton,” Auchincloss said at a July 2018 Newton City Council meeting. “Newton would be the magnet city for retail marijuana sales, coming from the north, from the west, and from the south. ...We’re going to have a lot of intoxicated drivers on Newton roads coming back from the various [cannabis] stores.”

“I recognize, demonstrably, that’s actually not a popular opinion,” he added. “But I’m not elected to voice popular opinions; I’m elected to exercise my independent judgment.”

Two years later, Auchincloss’s judgment and tone on the issue appear to have evolved significantly.

At a council meeting this month, Auchincloss argued it was “critical” for Newton to treat applicants for local marijuana permits fairly. Regarding a newly licensed cannabis company in the city, he said, “I’m wishing the very best for this business, and I hope that they stay here for a long time and become part of the fabric of the community.”

Auchincloss now says decisions about marijuana policy “should be made through the lens of racial equity,” and that “the federal prohibition on marijuana should be removed” to enable “rigorous, peer-reviewed research” into the effects of legal cannabis products, according to a statement provided by his campaign.

Auchincloss did not offer to speak on the record about his stance on legalizing marijuana nationwide. But aides explained that his earlier skepticism was rooted in concerns about public health and the possibility that “Big THC” could attempt to subvert state cannabis regulations — a fear that was not entirely unfounded. They noted that since Newton residents opted in 2018 to allow marijuana stores, Auchincloss has voted in favor of permitting several such shops, “recognizing that we should make the law work as best as possible.”

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The Auchincloss campaign also referred a reporter to former Boston city councilor Mike Ross, an attorney who has represented cannabis firms seeking permits in Newton. Ross said he found Auchincloss “exceedingly fair and thoughtful” to deal with and a “welcome breath of fresh air” compared to reflexive opponents of marijuana.

While polls in recent years have consistently found that well over 60 percent of Americans back national legalization of cannabis, Auchincloss is hardly alone in his reluctance to embrace the move. A number of Massachusetts communities have voted to ban recreational marijuana stores, and nearly all of the state’s most prominent elected officials opposed the 2016 initiative. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, also supports the state-by-state approach, and defeated a number of rivals with more expansive drug policy platforms.

But that didn’t stop other Fourth District candidates from seizing on the issue. Several said it was just the latest example of Auchincloss — a onetime Republican who has drawn fire over a number of controversial past comments — moving awkwardly to the left in a progressive field.

Fellow Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman and former Wall Street regulator Ihssane Leckey were also critical of Auchincloss.

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Grossman said Auchincloss’s views on cannabis “go against our Democratic values”, and Leckey called them “way out of touch with the American people and... indicative of his consistent failure on issues of racial justice.”

“We cannot continue the racist War on Drugs as Jake is proposing — we must end it,” Leckey said in a statement.

In addition to legalizing marijuana, Mermell, Leckey, and Khazei said they favor expunging past marijuana convictions from court records. Along with fellow pro-legalization candidates Grossman, social epidemiologist Natalia Linos, and attorney Ben Sigel, they stressed the importance of accounting for past racial disparities in law enforcement when awarding licenses to grow and sell cannabis legally.

Khazei, however, does share some of Auchincloss’s concerns about marijuana retailers in local communities. In a statement, he said the opening of a New England Treatment Access dispensary near his home in Brookline has been “problematic on a number of levels,” including in its effect on traffic.

And while Khazei has long backed decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing the drug for medical use, he opposed the 2016 initiative, citing the “gateway drug” theory, which has not been proven. Today, according to his campaign, Khazei backs national legalization mostly because he believes the policy will inevitably pass anyway and that marijuana must be tightly regulated to prevent youth access and steer profits to low-income communities instead of large corporations.

Besides Auchincloss, the other candidate in the race to oppose full cannabis legalization is tech entrepreneur Christopher Zannetos, who supports legalizing only medical use of the drug. According to several internal polls released by his opponents, Zannetos is trailing the rest of the field, garnering support from just 1 percent of voters in the Fourth District.

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Since scoring an endorsement from the Globe’s editorial board late last month, Auchincloss’s record has come under fire, including his defense in 2016 of Newton high school students who flew a Confederate flag from their car window, his criticism of efforts to establish a holiday recognizing indigenous people as “taking PC too far,” and a 2010 Facebook post in which he seemed to justify burning the Quran.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.