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.
State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill
A coalition of state and local marijuana regulators sent a letter to House leadership on Wednesday, demanding that they prioritize a marijuana legalization bill that’s expected to get a floor vote following the election.
The letter, which is being supported by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), says that regulators “need comprehensive support in their individual and collective efforts to more responsibly and equitably manage challenges and develop solutions associated with cannabis and cannabis policy.”
They said the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act represents a solution, and they urged legislators to vote in favor of it when it comes up for a vote.
Enacting the reform “would ensure that the federal government is a partner to state and municipal regulators both in our collective responsibility to serve our community through the reform of failed cannabis policies and in our collective responsibility to recognize and correct injustices,” they wrote, adding that criminalization has created “widespread” harms that disproportionately impact communities of color.
🚨BREAKING🚨 @DrugPolicyOrg Joins State & Municipal Cannabis Regulators in Calling on Congress to Prioritize Federal Marijuana Reform by Passing #MOREAct 📢 FULL QUOTE from @DPA_ONA Dir. @MaritzaCPerez IN THREAD 👇 https://t.co/NPXrZ6LLK6
— Matt Sutton (@MattSuttonEP) October 21, 2020
“As such, our attempts to eliminate these harms must be systemic and comprehensive and will require collective leadership at every level of government and collaboration amongst both the public and private sectors in order to achieve outcomes by centering equity in cannabis policy development, reform and implementation,” they wrote.
Nine regulators from Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Massachusetts and Illinois signed the letter.
“For those of us who manage state and municipal cannabis policies, and for those individuals who have been and continue to be impacted by cannabis policy, the need for comprehensive federal reform is clear and urgent,” the letter states. “Existing federal prohibition policies are antithetical to our collective responsibility to promote policies that are based in science, compassion and harm reduction.”
Leadership initially signaled that a floor vote on the MORE Act would happen in September, but following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing marijuana reform before another coronavirus relief package, it was postponed until after the election.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) subsequently made a commitment that the body would bring up the bill sometime “later this autumn.” While advocates were disappointed by the delay, they’re confident the MORE Act will clear the chamber with some bipartisan support when it’s ultimately scheduled for action.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said last month that he was “confident” it would pass the House.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, also said that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in an interview with Politico.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
“These regulators know first-hand the complications of regulating a substance that remains illegal at the federal level and the harms imposed as a result on communities of color and low-income people,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at DPA, said in a press release. “They also understand that creating a safe and equitable industry, which the MORE Act does, provides a historic opportunity to begin repairing the extensive damage prohibition has caused over the last 50 years.”
Prior to the vote’s postponement, DPA and more than 120 other civil rights and drug policy reform groups such as the ACLU and NAACP sent a letter to House leadership emphasizing the need to pass the MORE Act to promote social justice.
Read the latest letter from the regulators on cannabis reform below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Key New Jersey Senate Committee Cancels Marijuana Legalization Hearing On Implementing Referendum
A New Jersey Senate committee announced on Wednesday that it would be taking public testimony on Thursday about how to implement marijuana legalization if voters approve the reform referendum next month—but the panel canceled the event later in the day.
While the legislature decided to leave adult-use legalization up to voters as a ballot measure, legislators must still develop regulations to enact the system—and the temporarily scheduled hearing appeared to be a first step in that process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to “receive public testimony concerning the legislative implementation of Public Question No. 1 on the General Election ballot, which, if approved, would legalize cannabis for personal, non-medical use by adults age 21 years or older,” a notice stated. “Public Question No. 1 would also create a legalized cannabis marketplace overseen by the State’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), who chairs the committee and previously introduced a legalization bill that did not advance to a floor vote, said earlier this month that he’s been working in recent weeks with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to finalize a detailed enabling bill to implement legal market regulations.
He said the measure, which could be enacted as soon as the first week of November, would look similar to a bill he previously introduced, though he wants to add a retroactive provision to end cannabis-related prosecutions for pending cases.
“This is something about social justice. This is an economic opportunity for New Jersey,” the senator said at the time. “We can be the first state in the Northeast—absent Massachusetts, but in our economic area—to move forward and I want to be a leader in this.”
A staffer with the Office of Legislative Services told Marijuana Moment in an email that “the public hearing scheduled for October, 22, 2020 at 9:30 am has been canceled” and said it was “unknown” if the event will be rescheduled.
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next month.
A survey released on Tuesday found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.
This story was updated to reflect the hearing’s cancellation.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Virginia Bill To Ban Police Searches Based On Marijuana Smell Gets Governor-Suggested Changes
The governor of Virginia suggested changes on Wednesday to bills that would stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana.
Thankfully for cannabis reform advocates, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) isn’t asking lawmakers to amend the marijuana odor provisions of the broader proposal to reform policies for law enforcement searches. Instead, according to a press release sent by his office, he is suggesting an unrelated change to ensure police “can initiate a traffic stop when an individual is driving at night without the use of both headlights and/or without the use of both break lights.”
The House and Senate will now consider the amendment, thought it’s not clear when they will do so. If the governor’s proposal is adopted by lawmakers without changes, the legislation will be formally enacted without needing his signature. Otherwise, it will come back to his desk for action.
Northam’s move comes one week after he signed separate legislation that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of cannabis is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.
Under the new search-focused legislation, if enacted, “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained as a result of such unlawful search or seizure shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding,” according to a summary.
“Eliminating non-essential interactions based on marijuana odor between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens is an important step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia,”Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director and the executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “However, it is only by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults that the Commonwealth can end its failed experiment with prohibition and begin repairing the decades of damage done to its communities and citizens.”
The Virginia legislature has been especially active on cannabis reform this year. But that said, lawmakers have not been able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior marijuana convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms.
Under the House-passed measure, eligible convictions would have been automatically expunged after a period of eight years. The Senate’s version, meanwhile, would have allowed people to petition to have their records cleared after a period of five years. The House bill covered more drug crimes, as well.
A conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers was appointed and tasked with ironing out the differences, but the negotiators couldn’t reach a deal by the time the special session’s agenda wrapped up last week.
During the state’s regular legislative session earlier this year, the governor and legislators also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.
All of these incremental changes come as legislators continue to pursue a broader adult-use legalization plan in the Commonwealth that would include a system of regulated and taxed sales and production.
The decriminalization bill that passed contains a provision that calls for the establishment of a working group to study and make recommendations about adult-use marijuana legalization. That panel is expected to issue its report to the legislature at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is doing its own analysis on ending cannabis prohibition and will similarly report on its findings before the end of the year.
A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate running to replace the term-limited Northam in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.