Rep. Don Young remembered as a national leader for marijuana reform

Cannabis advocates in Congress and nationwide are remembering Rep. Don Young as a national leader who pushed for federal legalization and protecting the rights of consumers in states where marijuana use is legal.

The 88-year-old congressman died March 18 as he and his wife were traveling to Alaska. A cause of death has not been provided.

Young, a founding member of the Cannabis Caucus in Congress, led proposals to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and allow states to regulate it. Young said he had never smoked cannabis but believed the “federal government has no business unduly restricting responsible citizens from exercising their rights or restricting states from listening to their constituents and reforming marijuana laws.”

Young personally visited Alaska’s legal marijuana operations in 2020 as part of a well-publicized tour to call attention to the industry. He also introduced several bills to legalize marijuana and supported legislation to protect the rights of business owners and consumers in states and jurisdictions where cannabis already is legal.

The cannabis reforms that Young sponsored and supported have yet to be enacted and signed into law. But U.S. lawmakers said that Young’s influence changed minds and made marijuana reform an issue relevant to both parties.

Republican Rep. David Joyce, a former prosecutor in Ohio, co-chairs the Cannabis Caucus. Joyce said Saturday that Young “taught me how to lean into an issue and create a path where no one had tread before.”

Last year, the Cannabis Caucus demanded that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) adopt a policy to ensure military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use.

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said on social media that “when I needed a Republican [to] co-lead on marijuana reform Don was there.”

The GRAM Act, which Young introduced in April 2021, was one of several marijuana reform bills that the congressman carried. The bill aimed to prevent the federal government from restricting the gun owner rights of marijuana users in states where cannabis is legal.

In 2021, Young joined the first Republican-led bill to decriminalize marijuana.

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-SC, introduced the States Reform Act with four GOP co-sponsors, Young among them. The other Republican co-sponsors are Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Tom McLintock of California and Peter Meijer of Michigan.

The States Reform Act would end the federal prohibition and let individual states regulate cannabis like alcohol. The federal government would levy a 3% tax on sales, sending the revenues to police programs and to the Small Business Administration to help business startups. The bill was referred to several House committees.

The legislation is similar to a bill Young had previously introduced called the Common Sense Cannabis Reform Act. In addition to federally legalizing marijuana, Young’s bill would have protected banks to service legal marijuana businesses. It also guaranteed that military veterans could use cannabis in compliance with state laws.

“The Congressman is pleased to see a growing number of his Republican colleagues come around to the very work he’s been doing on the Cannabis Caucus for many years,” Zack Brown, Young’s communications director, said in 2021. “Fundamentally, this is a states rights’ and individual liberty issue.” Contact staff writer Linda F. Hersey at or 907-459-7575.

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