When running for office, political candidates across America can expect to navigate a familiar gauntlet of questions from voters and journalists looking to determine their “character.” The questions range from the class-conscious (“How wealthy was your family while you were growing up?”) to the mundane (“What’s your favorite TV show right now?”), and they almost certainly include the clickbait-friendly crowd favorite: “Have you ever smoked marijuana?”
At the core of these questions is an assumption about representation: that voters want to figure out if a candidate is both “relatable” and “electable” enough to win at the polls and serve well in office. But these determinations of relatability and electability are amorphous and socially constructed; research has shown that these character-vetting questions often feed into a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people look through a lens of anxiety and prejudice to make assumptions about what they think other people want. This creates an odd feedback loop with the candidates themselves, who, in turn, are incentivized to follow a familiar playbook to demonstrate that they can be what other people think other people think makes a good leader.
Take, for example, the cannabis question. Throughout the later 20th century, public support for cannabis was low, and so many national politicians who had tried cannabis responded with denials and deflections when asked if they’d smoked pot. It didn’t matter that millions of voters were puffing tough and anecdotal evidence pointed to the benefits of cannabis, what mattered was that it wasn’t “presidential” to inhale.
But today, with polls consistently showing that a large majority of Americans support legal cannabis and the plant creeping into “normal” corners of society, candidates are cautiously starting to own up to their youths spent dabbling with the drug. However, many of these candidates still hold cannabis at an arm’s length: They admit to smoking the plant a few times, years ago, and they never got in trouble with law enforcement for their fun.
But there’s one candidate who doesn’t think she needs to position herself at a playful distance from cannabis. Mckayla Wilkes has been arrested for smoking pot and she still smokes it to this day. She’s a 29-year-old working as a project analyst for the government, she’s running for Congress in Maryland’s 5th district, and she’s setting a new precedent for what makes a politician relatable and electable.
What the Criminal Justice System Looks Like to Wilkes
Wilkes announced her candidacy for Congress with an unusual admission: she has a criminal record. She’d been sent to juvenile detention for skipping school, she’d been arrested for driving on a suspended license to get to her job and she’d gone to jail for possession of cannabis.
“I was terrified to let the public know about my ‘criminal past’ because of how stigmatized it is,” Wilkes told Cannabis Now in a phone interview. “But my campaign manager told me that it wasn’t a bad thing. He said, ‘You’re actually a better candidate because you’ve lived what so many people go through.’ I saw I had no reason to be ashamed or afraid.”
Wilkes says she was politically inspired by Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2016 because he “talked about issues actually pertaining to my community,” and then inspired to run for office after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC) defeated 20-year-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the 2018 midterms. Wilkes is backed by the same group, Brand New Congress, who backed Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory. Much like AOC, Wilkes is running against a powerful incumbent, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who has served in Congress since 1981.
“AOC set the precedent for regular people representing regular people,” Wilkes says. “My lived experiences are my qualifications. I may not be a lawyer, but I know how our laws affect our communities. To run for office, I don’t need rich friends and political connections, my experiences are enough.”
And many of the experiences that are informing Wilkes’s run for Congress are those that for a long time were considered disqualifying for someone looking to get a seat in Washington, D.C.’s halls of power.
When Wilkes was a teenager, she says she had trouble processing the grief of her aunt’s death, which led her to skip school and run away from home. “When I was in high school, I needed help. I was locked up instead,” she says. At 15, she was sent to juvenile detention.
Then, when Wilkes was in her early 20s, she was heading home from her cousin’s house where they’d been smoking cannabis. She’d just left the house and had forgotten to put on her headlights when a cop pulled her over.
“He could smell the cannabis odor, and asked if I had any marijuana on me,” she said. “He told me, ‘You can be honest, you won’t get in trouble.’ I told him the truth, believing him. He asked me to hand it over and I did. He asked me to step out of the car. I told him that I’m not a bad kid, and I showed him my class books, but he didn’t care. So I stepped out, he searched me, handcuffed me and took me to jail.”
Wilkes says the police kept her overnight in a small holding cell with over a dozen other women. At the time, her eldest child was less than a year old — she is now the mother of two — and her family and friends didn’t know why she didn’t come home that evening.
“I felt demeaned, like I was less than a person,” she said. “That was all over what we call in Maryland a ‘dub bag,’ just $20 worth of weed. My arrest is on my record even though I wasn’t convicted. I had to go to group therapy and I had to get drug tested.”
Today, Maryland has a medical marijuana program and it treats the possession of fewer than 10 grams of cannabis as a civil offense, with a maximum fine of $100. However, a recent report from Baltimore Fishbowl and the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found that, since the passage of Maryland’s decriminalization law in 2014, arrests for cannabis are down — but the racial disparities in cannabis arrests are going up. In Baltimore, for example, 96% of people who have been arrested for cannabis possession since 2014 were black, despite the fact that white people and black people use cannabis at comparable rates.
“Cannabis laws are still hurting our black and brown communities,” Wilkes says. “Because there are still disparities in arrests for substances, these laws are clearly still another tool of oppression.”
She advocates for federal legalization of cannabis, the immediate record expungement of cannabis crimes and investment in the communities hurt by the War on Drugs. Her opponent, Rep. Hoyer, has called for descheduling and decriminalizing cannabis, but has also stated that he believes cannabis is a “threshold drug.”
And again, Wilkes’s policy belief is one that is informed by her first-hand experience: her criminal record comes up when applying for jobs or promotions and new contracts through her work as an administrative assistant for the U.S. Army.
“Even though I have security clearance, my criminal record still comes up at my job,” Wilkes says. “I always get asked about it. It’s hard to keep telling my story and repeating what happened over and over again.”
Race, Cannabis & Political Narratives
Of course, Wilkes isn’t the first candidate to have a criminal record. Most notably, George W. Bush was arrested in 1976 for drunk driving, but this revelation only became public five days before the 2000 presidential election — which Bush eventually won with some help from hanging chads in Florida and a Supreme Court ruling.
But of course, in America, race matters in discussions about the criminal records of a candidate: who gets a second chance, who has the resources to overcome the barriers within the criminal justice system and who even gets a criminal record in the first place.
Wilkes’s story about being arrested for cannabis possession as a college student draws an uncomfortable parallel with a story that Pete Buttigieg — South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate — tells about his time in college.
Buttigieg, a white man, told an audience at the South by Southwest festival last March that a campus police officer caught him smoking weed while he was a student at Harvard University. After a verbal exchange with the officer, Buttigieg ended up with his hands on the hood of the car while the officer searched his pockets. But the exchange went no further.
“He yells a few more obscenities, and just as I’m getting ready to take a ride with him, he drives off,” Buttigieg said, according to Boston.com. “And that was it. It’s a funny story I can tell about my college days.”
The story that Wilkes, a black woman, tells about her college run-in with the cops over cannabis has no such funny ending.
Smoking a Blunt on Capitol Hill
Not only does Wilkes own up to having tried cannabis in the past, but she also readily admits that she currently smokes weed. Wilkes says that she consumes cannabis to help her with anxiety, though she does not have a medical marijuana card. A representative on her team said this is because her insurance won’t cover the expense of getting the card or the marijuana.
“I don’t want to take Zoloft. My doctor prescribed it to me and it completely zoned me out,” Wilkes says. “I took myself off and smoked weed instead. My panic attacks decreased. I could eat again, I could sleep again.”
When asked if she would smoke cannabis if she’s elected to represent Maryland’s 5th district, especially given that cannabis consumption is legal in Washington, D.C., Wilkes didn’t skip a beat.
She says that she recently met Anthony Clark, a man running to represent Illinois’s 7th district in Congress. Clark is a disabled veteran with a recommendation for medical cannabis to treat his PTSD, and he recently released a campaign video where he smokes cannabis. Wilkes says the two of them talked about cannabis when they met at the Brand New Summit, an event hosted by Brand New Congress.
“When we get elected to Congress,” Wilkes says she told Clark, “we’re going to smoke a blunt together to celebrate.”
TELL US, do you care if your congressmember smokes cannabis?