On Capitol Hill, a few Democrats and Republicans are coming together to push for marijuana legalization. Do they have a shot?
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 cannabis, 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.”
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 legal marijuana 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 legal 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.”
America has been inching toward legal cannabis for years, but prohibition remains stubbornly in effect at the federal level, and isn’t likely to let up anytime soon.