Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is taking his involuntary retirement from Congress in stride, moving his family from Orange County up to the woodlands of Maine as he settles into a new role as an advisory board member for a marijuana company.
The congressman, who was one of many House Republicans to lose their reelection bids during the 2018 midterms, is a longstanding advocate for cannabis reform, and he hopes to leverage his experience and connections in Washington, D.C. to bring about change from the outside as an advisor to BudTrader, an online advertising platform for marijuana businesses.
In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment last month, Rohrabacher talked about his transition into the cannabis industry, the role the issue played in his contentious reelection campaign, the trend of former marijuana foes now turning a profit on marijuana and why he believes President Donald Trump will take a leading role in passing reform legislation in 2020.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: When you look at politicians like former Republican House Speaker John Boenher, who never helped to advance marijuana legislation you were advocating for when he was in power and is now profiting off the legal industry, how does that make you feel?
Dana Rohrabacher: This is one of maladies of humankind. The sad parts of human beings. The guys aren’t going to be on your side until you’re on the winning side. I’m not shocked by it anymore. I’ve seen it in a number of areas, and cannabis is just one of them.
You have people now who are now being hired by the industry—well, I will have to say that very few of them did very much to help in this light. But that doesn’t mean [they] owe it to me or anyone else. I’m doing a good job, I think, helping BudTrader and others and the industry to actually mold itself and to grow up into maturity so it’s a service to our people. We need the Johnny-come-latelies to continue moving in the right direction, and that’s as simple as that.
MM: Where did the cannabis industry fit within your reelection campaign?
DR: I will have to say this that one thing that’s going to really help the cannabis industry. I just lost my last election, but I was outspent by 10 to 1.
I got some very powerful forces in the world mad at me to the point that these very—I call them the Bolshevik billionaires—came into my district and a lot of the people [abandoned me] because it looked like I was in trouble, I was under attack, all this negative advertising.
I was working on a major piece of legislation on the commercial space industry and, without it, there would not have been SpaceX. I’ll never forget, everybody was advising me not to do this because I was going to lose. I said, who cares if I lose or not, this is the right way we should go. With cannabis, that’s how it was for decades. What a waste of our money trying to prevent adults from smoking weed. Give me a break.
People who I helped like the commercial space industry, I got almost no help from them. But the only people who really stood up with me—the only people—were the cannabis people. The fact that the cannabis industry was so loyal to me when I was under attack in a brutal way, as compared to all of the other issues that I’ve been involved in, that’s going to get around to the people on Capitol Hill, and I think that’s going to serve the cause very well.
MM: To what do you attribute that loyalty?
DR: I think it’s because there’s still genuine fear in the past of consuming a product, meaning cannabis. When you have fear that someone is going to destroy your life by putting you in a cage or giving you a criminal record, and then someone is going to come along and eliminate that fear for your life, I think that is the main thing. They can sense that, they feel that and they understand that. They see that right now we’ve got some opportunities that I probably would have been well serving the industry while still in Congress.
I’ve done some things that I’m very proud of, but that never would have happened had I, for example, been arrested for smoking marijuana when I was 21 years old. What a waste for our country that would have been. I think the people in the cannabis industry recognize what a horrible waste this is and that I actually understand that from the inside out.
I think about a third of the money I had in my campaign could be traced to either people in the cannabis industry or just people who were very proud that I was willing to stand up for an issue that they would attack me on. I’m proud of the cannabis advocates. Look, it was time to go anyway, so now I can try to do good things from the outside.
MM: Do you think the loss of several marijuana-friendly GOP House members last year will hurt the chances of passing cannabis legislation in a bipartisan manner?
DR: Let me tell you what I actually think is going to happen there, on why that won’t happen. We’re going to do this and we’re going to make even further progress because President Trump is with us. President Trump made it very clear when he ran for election, he on a number of occasions—and I had private meetings with him and was reiterated this—where he said that medical marijuana should be totally legal and the recreational use for adults of cannabis should be left up to the states. That’s what he said on a number of occasions.
I think that because we have a president now—by the way, the last president didn’t do anything for us, although we thought [the administration would] but they didn’t do anything for us. They had some sort of an unofficial understanding that certain things wouldn’t be enforced and things like that, but we didn’t need an artificial understanding, we needed to change the freaking law.
[Next year,] all of these ideas will coalesce and there will be a bill that takes us another major step in the right direction. It won’t solve everything, but it’ll take us a major step in the right direction. It will be based on Democrats working with those Republicans who are still there, who were part of my team, and also the leadership of the White House will add a tremendous amount.
MM: Could you expand on your meetings with the president and what specifically he said about his position on cannabis reform?
DR: I really can’t. I think I would be betraying a trust there. But I can let you just know that the president had committed and I trust that he was sincere when he did. That’s what he committed to do. But I don’t want to go into too much detail on it because that, you know, when someone meets with you in the White House, I’m not one of these guys who just runs outside and spins it whatever they want. But the president was very clear and he has never backed down on this, and I am confident that in the second half of this term, you’ll see him providing leadership the same way we just saw him providing leadership on sentencing reform.
MM: Attorney General William Barr recently said that he’s prefer Congress to pass legislation allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies rather than maintain the status quo of having conflicting state and federal laws. What do you make of that?
DR: I have known [former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and I thought he would be susceptible—because both of us have conservative backgrounds—that he would be susceptible to the states’ right argument because the 10th Amendment of the Constitution is something he and other conservatives always quote. Leave it up to the states. I was so bitterly disappointed in Sessions, what he did when he was in.
I expect that this attorney general is going to be 100 times better than Jeff Sessions on this issue, but it will be based, I believe, just from what you have said and what I’ve read about him, it will focused on trying to move out any restrictions on the federal level and leave those decisions up to the local people.
MM: Shifting gears a bit, Denver and Oakland recently moved to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. Activists are working to get statewide decriminalization on the 2020 ballot in California. Do you have a stance on psychedelics reform?
DR: I’m going to have to see if we can find in Maine, where we have all these trees, how many mushrooms are out there.
I think that in terms of myself, whatever anybody else wants to do. But for me to be the most effective, I should be concentrating on cannabis. Obviously I believe in the freedom of people to consume what they want to who are adults. But in terms of advocating any particular changes being proposed, I’m going to limit myself until I get done with the cannabis issue to the point that we actually feel comfortable and I don’t need to use my work and prestige on that anymore, then I’ll move to something else.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.