Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Legal Weed Is the Last Bipartisan Cause in America

On Capitol Hill, a few Democrats and Republicans are coming together to push for marijuana legalization. Do they have a shot?

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Apr 20 2017, 5:50pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Before Dana Rohrabacher was a congressman from southern California, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, or a journalist, he was a walking stoner-surfer stereotype, albeit one with a rightward lilt—a folk-singing activist who loved weed and hated the government. As so many stoners do, he changed. "I stopped using marijuana when I was 23," Rohrabacher, a perennially smiley man who radiates an infectiously affable energy, tells me. "I don't want to brag here, but I've accomplished some things in my life. Had I been arrested for possession of marijuana, I wouldn't have done any of these things. I wouldn't have been able to be a reporter, which I started out as. I wouldn't have been hired by Reagan then. I wouldn't have then been able to get the job at the White House. I wouldn't have then been able to run for Congress."

We're in the congressman's office on a beautiful spring day. The walls are covered floor to ceiling with the souvenirs of a life spent in the conservative movement trenches: A letter a young child wrote to Reagan ("I really like to hear your speeches on TV. They aren't boring like Jimmy Carter's were"); a knife with an eagle forged into the handle; a photo of Rohrabacher in the late 1980s, when he spent a week with an anti-Soviet mujahideen infantry unit in Afghanistan. 

The 69-year-old has enjoyed a long and colorful political career as a hardcore Republican. These days he's known as "Putin's favorite congressman," having become an increasingly outspoken defender of the Russian president. (In the 1990s, he lost an arm-wrestling match to Putin, then the unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, in a DC dive bar.)

Though he's undeniably charming, it's safe to say that Rohrabacher and I don't agree on much—I find his aggressive pro-life stance reprehensible, for instance—but we see eye-to-eye on one issue, and maybe one issue alone: Both of us think weed should be legal.

When arguing for marijuana legalization, liberals often emphasize the horrible effects the war on drugs has on minority communities, or talk up the medicinal properties of pot. Rohrabacher, one of many conservatives who have turned weed into a bipartisan issue, comes at it from a more libertarian angle. "Young people have been led astray thinking that liberal Democrats would be better for their life," Rohrabacher tells me, later conceding that nanny-staters are "benevolent, I'm not charging them with being a bunch of fascists."

Dana Rohrabacher | Photo: Jared Soares

Rohrabacher's pro-pot views make him a minority in the GOP, but he thinks his party would win more support, especially among young people, if it followed his lead. "The irony that Republicans want to control your personal consumption of a weed, and have the federal government come down tough on you to make sure you're not consuming that weed is so contrary," he says.

"It's a freedom issue," he tells me. "If someone wants to live their own life, and they're not hurting somebody else, the federal government should butt out. It's as simple as that."

Rohrabacher is part of the bipartisan pro-legalization Congressional Cannabis Caucus, which he formed in February with Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, Alaska Republican Don Young, and Colorado Democrat Jared Polis. The caucus, Blumenauer tells me, "is an outgrowth of something we created four years ago, a marijuana working group where members in both parties, and their staffs, worked together to promote a common agenda, being able to share ideas, co-sponsor one another's legislation."

Each caucus member has their own reasons for supporting marijuana legalization, resulting in a rare convergence of differing views. When I ask Jared Polis why this issue matters to him, he replied, "It's very important to my constituents. Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 [legalizing recreational pot], and even before that we had medical marijuana... Pretty much across the ideological [spectrum], everybody agrees that it's none of the federal government's business, and we want to regulate the sale of marijuana as we see fit."

But when I meet Don Young, the 83-year-old Republican congressman from Alaska, he gets more personal. "I, very frankly, I don't use [marijuana]. I have not used it. A lot of my in-laws use it. So far it's been good. In a sense, it's less violent than alcohol," he tells me. "A lot of people forget that. Alcohol can cause real mental problems."

I can't say I support Don Young's political record—never mind the numerous bribery scandals he's been embroiled in—but as with Rohrabacher, here was something we could come together on. The walls of his office are beautifully adorned with the most magnificent taxidermy you'll ever see, all animals he hunted himself. (Except for the walrus tusks, Young emphasizes—Native Americans are the only people who can legally hunt those animals.) As soon as Young begins talking about weed—or rather "cannabis," as he corrects me—as it relates to his family and alcohol, we're on the same page, a feeling I certainly did not anticipate. And if the two of us can find common ground on this, why can't all of America?

Don Young | Photo: Jared Soares

America has been inching toward the full legalization of weed for years, but prohibition remains stubbornly in effect at the federal level, and isn't likely to let up anytime soon; one obstacle is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions talks like a drug war hardliner. What's significant about the current slightly quixotic push for national legalization is that given the level of rancor and gridlock on Capitol Hill these days, pot might be the last thing—apart from American flag lapel pins and war—that Democrats and Republicans agree on.

The Cannabis Caucus is still in its infancy, but having four congressmen from across the ideological spectrum shows how widespread the cause of legalization has become. It makes the issue seem uncontroversial, which it should be. Marijuana has been mainstream since the nation's founding: George Washington, as multiple Cannabis Caucus members pointed out to me, was a hemp farmer. A recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans support legalization, compared to 12 percent in 1969. Eight out of nine marijuana measures on state ballots in 2016 were successful. Recreational pot got more votes than Donald Trump in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada; medical marijuana got more votes than Trump in Montana and Florida—both of which went red.

Blumenauer, who's been advocating for marijuana legalization since 1973, when he was a newly-elected 25-year-old state legislator, has watched public opinion undergo a radical shift. Like Rohrabacher, he understands this is an issue that transcends partisanship. "When we were working on this in the Oregon legislature in the 70s, the most persuasive, powerful speech then, and still that I've ever heard, came from a Republican pig farmer who never smoked, never drank, but thought that the failed policy of marijuana prohibition was stupid," he says.

Blumenauer is a small and serious man. In perfect Portland fashion, he sports a bowtie and a small plastic green bicycle pinned to his suit. "There is no place in America where a junior high girl can not get a joint in half an hour," he tells me. "A lot of people are involved in the criminal justice system for something that a majority of people now think is legal. It's focusing on the fact that's made the difference. And the public has driven this."

Earl Blumenauer | Photo: Jared Soares

The congressman has been trying to push through federal marijuana legislation since 1999, when he cosponsored Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank's Medical Use of Marijuana Act, a bill that died a quiet death. David Skillman, Blumenauer's deputy chief of staff, explains that when Blumanauer was first elected to the House of Representatives in the mid 90s, "There wasn't much federal pro-legalization legislation introduced in that period as advocates really focused on winning state policy changes." The success of legal marijuana initiatives, both medicinal and recreational, over the past 20 years has finally elevated legalization to a federal issue. In the 2017 congressional session alone, members of the Cannabis Caucus, along with other members of Congress, have introduced 12 bills to protect state marijuana laws, end federal cannabis prohibition, declassify marijuana as a schedule I drug—a category for "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse"—and give dispensaries tools to better operate their businesses. (Currently, legal marijuana businesses generally conduct all their transactions in cash because federal law prevents them from putting their money in a bank, as well as getting loans; additionally, legal marijuana businesses are burdened with insanely high taxes because unlike other businesses, they can't deduct any of their costs.)

No federal pro-weed measure has ever threatened to become law, however. That gives the White House an enormous amount of authority, with the president and his advisers deciding how lenient to be when it comes to states that have legalized pot. In Barack Obama's first term, the Drug Enforcement Administration oversaw 270 medical marijuana raids, more than the number of raids carried out throughout George W. Bush's entire presidency and Bill Clinton's last term combined. The administration changed its tune in 2013, when the DOJ issued the Cole memo, effectively promising that the feds would leave legal marijuana alone. But even after that, the administration continued to prosecute medical marijuana cases (in defiance of Congress), and declined to reschedule the drug.

For his part, Trump hasn't said much directly about weed. There have been hints that the president (and Sessions) would welcome a new crackdown, but given Trump's reliable capriciousness, how much can be read into that?

Polis, for one, is a little concerned. "We're worried that Sessions could move in a different direction and engage in mass prosecution or mass police action against people who are following our state laws," he explains to me in his DC office. On the wall behind him, he proudly displays a framed copy of Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill, a provision that allows researchers to grow industrial hemp—which is, naturally, printed on hemp.

Jared Polis | Photo: Nathan Bajar

Democrats like Blumenauer and District of Columbia representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, who recently joined the Cannabis Caucus, don't seem to share Polis's concerns. Blumenauer believes Sessions will stick to the Cole memo, meaning enforcement policy will be largely unchanged. "The only actual expression that we've had from Trump on the campaign trail when asked about it was that he thought that what was going on at the state level should be allowed to play out," he says. "So I think the facts on the ground, his early statement, and the broad public support indicates that we're still in pretty good shape."

"There are probably a half-dozen states where cannabis is legal and in some of them, the senators have considerable power that even members of the House do not have," Norton tells me, adding that Sessions "has privately indicated to them that he's not going to take action, so we don't believe and they don't' believe that anybody is in jeopardy."

Provided Sessions doesn't upend the status quo, weed will continue to exist in a gray area—legal in some circumstances in some states, legal in other circumstances in other states, and outright banned in a large chunk of the country. One path out of this mess would be full national legalization, but there are potentially others. Smart Approaches to Marijuana (or SAM), an anti-legalization group, is led by Kevin Sabet, who worked in the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton administrations. Sabet's view, he explains to me over the phone, is that there's some middle ground between a full war on drugs and a libertarian weed paradise. "We'd make sure that we have drug courts—because this isn't about just marijuana, people who are in the criminal justice system often have multiple substances going on, and different crimes, mental illness," he says. "So we'd make sure those things are addressed. But we certainly wouldn't legalize it."

To Sabet, and some other critics of weed legalization, the end of prohibition could spawn something more insidious, the corporatization of weed. Sabet calls marijuana "big tobacco 2.0." The way he sees it, "If [legal marijuana] was about social justice it wouldn't be a bunch of old white guys in the Cannabis Caucus. And the leader of every single marijuana and drug policy legalization group is also a white guy, which I think is very interesting."

Sabet also points out that in Colorado, marijuana-related arrest rates for black and Latino kids under the legal smoking age of 21 have actually increased since legalization.

He's far from the only observer to notice that legalization, in Colorado at least, has failed to rectify the racial inequalities at the heart of the war on drugs. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Keith Humphreys, a drug policy researcher at Stanford, explained the discrepancy like this:

Police do patrol more in neighborhoods of color, and they also get more calls to respond in neighborhoods of color… The emerging legal marijuana industry is overwhelmingly white-owned and white-dominated, and provides good access to white customers. So one possibility is that that leaves the illegal market disproportionately composed of people of color, both the buyers and the sellers.

The question of how to fight that discrepancy in arrests is one of the thorny questions policymakers will have to tackle even if weed becomes legal. Another is the rules that have frozen people with drug convictions—again, mostly blacks and Latinos—out of the thriving pot industry. Still, a 2015 report from the Drug Policy Alliance showed that arrests for pot, though still skewed along racial lines, had dropped dramatically since legalization. That's one of Norton's reasons for supporting legalization: "The overwhelming majority of arrests for marijuana use are of African-Americans and other people of color. So that ought to be reason enough."

Eleanor Holmes Norton | Photo: Nathan Bajar

In 2017, advocating for cannabis legalization is no longer a political taboo; nevertheless, it's hard to find a politician who will admit to actually lighting up. (Even Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson quit using marijuana during his run, though he tells me he has since resumed the practice.) Rohrabacher is the only member of Congress I know of who has spoken openly about using marijuana in office—and even then it's the medicinal sort that doesn't get you high.

"I've surfed away all the cartilage in my arms," he explains. It's difficult for him to move one of his arms; the other shoulder has been surgically replaced. He was in so much pain it was preventing him from getting a good night's sleep, so when a friend recommended a CBD salve, he was open to trying it out. "The first night I tried that salve, I'll have to tell you that I got a good night's sleep finally," he says enthusiastically. "It really only lasted about two hours. If we'd been doing the proper kind of research in marijuana, we might find a strain of marijuana that I can put on my arm and the pain would be gone for four, five hours, even six hours!"

Debates about marijuana are often held on a somewhat abstract level—racism, freedom, and public health are undeniably important issues, but as Rohrabacher's case shows, marijuana is often an intimate subject. I've spent most of my adult life as a binge-drinking substance abuser, and I quit drinking in October, something I sincerely believed I would never be able to do. I'm not sure that would have been possible without weed, which at least one study has suggested could help alcoholics and hard drug addicts transition out of their worst patterns.

I never binge-drank because I loved alcohol—I did so because I really wanted to get fucked up, and it was the substance most available to me. When I finally decided to quit doing something I had indulged in every single day for years, the addict inside me didn't suddenly wither away. I didn't suddenly start hating drugs. I just realized there was an alternative, a way outside of the anxiety of sobriety that wasn't going to absolutely annihilate me. And that alternative was weed.

I understand this is not everyone's experience with the drug, but this narrative is not uncommon, and I share this view with Don Young, of all people. "You have to understand that I live with American Indians. That's my home. That's my wife," the Alaska congressman tells me. "Marijuana is a lot better than alcohol. I want to stress that because alcohol creates violence, and I've seen great people cut somebody's head off drunk. You don't see that with marijuana. I'm not condoning it. I'm saying that was the effect upon them, and now they smoke."

It seems likely that more people will come around to this view, as marijuana use becomes more widespread and accepted, and as the old anti-weed arguments gradually wither away—even if we're a long way from full legalization, the Cannabis Caucus is optimistic that we're not going to go backwards. "It may have been set back a little bit, but I will firmly predict that there will never be an anti-cannabis candidate elected president of the United States," Blumenauer says. "I stick by my expectation that this is going to be over in the course of the next five years."

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.

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