One of the most notorious dirty tricksters in American politics has a new cause: Convincing Donald Trump to legalize marijuana.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and ally who’s a prominent figure in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, has formed the United States Cannabis Coalition, a new political organization whose stated purpose is to “lobby the Trump administration from the top on down to recognize the medicinal value and potential of cannabis.”
Trump said on the campaign trail that he thinks marijuana “should be a state issue,” and Stone told VICE News his “first and foremost” goal is to “urge the president to keep his pledge and direct the Justice Department to reflect the views you stated in the campaign.”
That might prove tricky.
Trump’s views on marijuana policy are still hazy — he called Colorado’s recreational pot law “bad” last year and said it caused “some big problems” for the state — and his cabinet is stacked with anti-weed hardliners like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who believes that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions oversees the DEA and recently asked Congress for permission to go after the medical marijuana industry, heightening fears of a federal crackdown.
It’s also unclear whether the 64-year-old Stone still wields any influence over Trump. A longtime Republican operative who was a protege of Richard Nixon and helped elect Ronald Reagan, Stone encouraged Trump to launch his political career and started the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness, a pro-Trump super-PAC. Stone, however, is caught up in the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
In March, Stone claimed to have a “perfectly legal back channel” to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and suggested he knew about hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign before they were leaked. Stone also has longstanding ties to former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, another key figure in the Russia probe.
“I would use any legal means at my disposal to reverse course if Sessions is planning a crackdown.”
Trump tweeted on May 10 that he had not spoken to Stone “in a long time,” but Stone said in March that “they had been in contact since the inauguration.” Stone also claimed on May 5 that he and Trump had talked “less than a week ago.” Asked by VICE News whether he has discussed marijuana legalization with the president, Stone said he has a policy of “not discussing the frequency or the content or the scope of the conversation I’ve had with him since he was a candidate or since he was president.”
Stone did say that he and Trump talked about weed 15 to 20 years ago. According to Stone’s recollection, Trump was at the time in favor of ending the war on drugs.
“His argument then, as I recall, was put the cartels and the bad guys out of business,” Stone said. “Beyond that, I’m not going to characterize any conversations I would have [with Trump]. Obviously, I would use any legal means at my disposal to reverse course if Sessions is planning a crackdown.”
Stone filed paperwork with the IRS on Tuesday to formally create the United States Cannabis Coalition. It’s registered as a political organization with 527 status, the same tax-exempt classification used by super-PACs and other groups formed to influence elections. The address of the headquarters is in Hollywood, Florida, and two Stone associates are named as the treasurer and director.
Stone is expected to reveal more details about the group on Friday during a speech at a marijuana business convention in New York City. He said he’s not being paid to deliver the speech and characterized his new organization as a “nonprofit with the ability to both lobby and to aggressively mobilize activists and run advertising on this issue.” The group’s newly launched website seeks donations from the public.
He told VICE News the members of the group’s “advisory board” would not be finalized until Thursday night. Asked whether his “coalition” would include existing advocacy groups and individuals from across the political spectrum, Stone replied, “I’ll work with anybody — Democrat, liberal, Green Party, libertarian — if we agree on this issue.”
A career Republican who proudly calls Nixon — the progenitor of the war on drugs — his “mentor,” Stone is surprisingly progressive when it comes to drug policy issues. He’s been speaking out in favor of marijuana legalization for years, and he describes himself as “a libertarian convert” on the issue.
“It’s been an expensive, ignominious, racist failure,” Stone said of the drug war. “It’s not working. Drug abuse has to be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”
Stone said the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was one of the groups he contacted about joining his coalition, but Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director, was unaware of any discussions between Stone and the group until he was informed by VICE News. After consulting with other members of the organization, Strekal confirmed that Stone had reached out to a member of NORML’s board of directors. “There were no commitments made, to my knowledge,” Strekal said.
“We’re happy to have another voice join the chorus,” he added. “It’s my understanding that Mr. Stone has some sort of relationship with the president, and how he’ll be able to translate that into any meaningful change, I’m interested to see how that develops.”
Other leading groups that lobby for marijuana legalization were also in the dark about Stone’s new project. Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his organization hadn’t yet heard from Stone, but said they would be willing to collaborate.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to gain traction with President Trump — he just is all over the place.”
“This is someone who obviously has the ear of folks within the administration and has the ability to get the message out to a lot of supporters,” Tvert said. “If he’s interested in taking reasonable actions toward sensible reform, we’re all for it.”
Howard Woolridge, a co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which has a sizable contingent of conservative and libertarian members, said it could be valuable to have a prominent Trump ally like Stone pushing for marijuana legalization.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to gain traction with President Trump — he just is all over the place every other day,” Woolridge said. “A Trump supporter talking to Trump people is going to be well-received and can be influential. Regardless of what [Stone] did or didn’t do with Wikileaks or the Russians or whatever, to the people we need to convince, which is the Republicans and specifically the Trump people in the White House, we need guys like that.”
Stone said his group’s goals also include lifting barriers to medical and scientific research on marijuana, easing restrictions on banking for state-legal cannabis businesses, and removing pot from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, a restrictive category that includes heroin and other dangerous drugs. But mostly he wanted to portray himself as a counterbalance to the influence of Sessions and others drug warriors in the Trump administration, including Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
“Sessions and Kelly may see him every day, but they’re doing him a disservice,” Stone said. “I’d urge him to keep faith with the voters who voted for him on the basis of this pledge [to respect state policies on marijuana]. At the end of the day, he’s the decider.”