Shalala's stance for marijuana 'justice' follows decades of cannabis opposition

On the national holiday dedicated to all things marijuana, Donna Shalala joined the 420 party, declaring that if elected to Congress she’ll work to decriminalize cannabis and change federal laws that classify the drug as a narcotic without medicinal value.

"Decriminalizing marijuana shouldn't just be a policy priority — but a moral imperative," Shalala tweeted Friday, April 20.

It wasn't a controversial stance to take for Shalala, who's running in the Democratic primary to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress. At a time when Florida is overseeing a government-sanctioned cannabis marketplace that just topped 100,000 users, not supporting the rescheduling of cannabis might be more newsworthy.

And that's where Shalala stood not so long ago.

Before declaring her interest in Ros-Lehtinen's seat, Shalala was known as a cannabis critic. For decades, and during her entire stint as Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton, she warned of the dangers of marijuana and criticized states that began to buck the federal government and establish their own medical markets. As recently as 2013, she was on record questioning her own party for its support of a medicinal marijuana market in Florida.

"Donna isn’t being honest about marijuana," wrote Ben Pollara, the political consultant who led the recent effort to create Florida's marijuana market by voter referendum. “Maybe she’s converted to the position she claims today, but for most of my 33 years alive, she’s been on the wrong side. She’s been an ADVOCATE for the wrong side.”

Ben Pollara

When California and Arizona passed the nation’s first medicinal marijuana ballot amendments in the mid-1990s, Shalala warned that “any law premised on the notion that marijuana or these other illicit drugs are medically useful is suspect." Pollara, who now works for the campaign of Shalala competitor Mary Barzee Flores, wrote in a campaign email that the former University of Miami president also oversaw a "draconian" policy banning the use of marijuana at the school without exception for those with medicinal needs.

And when the Miami-Dade Democratic Party came out in support of Pollara's ill-fated, first attempt at creating a medical market in the state, Shalala wasn't happy. "Outrageous to get the party involved in an issue that affects public health," she wrote from her university email account to then-party Chairman Juan Cuba.

Irvin Rosenfeld, one of the few, remaining marijuana patients who still get their cannabis from a short-lived legacy federal program started in the 1990s, said Shalala's position on cannabis was so well-known when she became University of Miami president that he had worried she'd stop the university's participation in receiving and distributing his medicine. But he said there's been lots of new evidence and research in the last few years alone, and he's open to the possibility that Shalala has had a genuine change of heart.

"We’ve had people such as John Boehner who were adamantly against it and are now all for it. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and say I’m hoping she’s learned," Rosenfeld said. "Maybe she’s looking at it with a more positive light."

Irvin Rosenfeld is one of a handful of individuals that receive medial marijuana from the federal government. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

In a statement, Shalala's campaign said the candidate remains worried about the effect of marijuana on children — an issue that occupied much of her cannabis criticism as HHS secretary — but cited new research, public perception, and criminal justice statistics for her change in thinking on marijuana. The statement cited "strong evidence showing real medical benefits of marijuana when used properly," statistics showing states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen a drop in opioid deaths, and the overwhelming support for Amendment 2 in Florida two years ago.

"Donna's thinking and understanding of marijuana has evolved, just as the general population's perspective and the science has evolved," the statement said. "She believes that we must reschedule cannabis to allow the government and the scientific community to work together to thoroughly study its effects and potential benefits. And, we must decriminalize cannabis because for far too long we have witnessed families and lives being destroyed over marijuana, especially individuals of color. We must follow the science and look at the facts."