One of the first representatives to champion cannabis in Congress was Dana Rohrabacher, a long-serving Republican representing California’s 48th district in Orange County.
During his tenure, Rohrabacher co-founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and co-authored significant cannabis language in Congress. However, when he was unseated by Democrat Harley Rouda in the 2018 midterms, Rohrabacher left behind a mixed legacy, tarnished with an abnormal fondness for Russia and buoyed by his leading work on cannabis reform.
Rohrabacher is most famous in cannabis circles for spending a decade working to block the Department of Justice from spending its resources to go after state-legal medical marijuana patients and dispensaries, in what was first known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment and later became known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment. In recent years, he was also a staunch advocate of wider adult-use cannabis legalization. He stood alongside now-California Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Francisco as they announced in spring of 2016 that the Adult Use of Marijuana Act had garnered enough signatures to get on the ballot.
In 2018, Rohrabacher was one of seven representatives in California that Democrats pushed hard to unseat during the midterm elections. They were successful in unseating him from a position he’d held since 1989. Today, Rohrabacher says, “I’m a free man after all these years,” and he tells Cannabis Now that he has spent much of his time preparing his family for a cross-country move to the shores of Maine.
On Monday, we spoke to Rohrabacher over the phone about the future of cannabis policy in Congress, how he thinks cannabis legalization will influence the 2020 presidential elections and why he thinks President Donald Trump hasn’t moved to legalize pot yet.
Why Congress Hasn’t Acted More on Cannabis Policy
We asked Rohrabacher why much of Congress has not progressed at the same rate as their constituencies on the cannabis issue, given that recent polling shows 84 percent of Americans support legalizing cannabis.
He was quick to point out that his amendments blocking federal agencies from using funding to target state-legal cannabis businesses used more of a states’ rights approach to garner support, as opposed to how any individual group might be polling.
“That was a huge step forward from nothing to something,” Rohrabacher said. “Now what we need are a bunch of little steps in order to match that giant step we made, in order to make it work, in order to make it practical.”
He pointed to how impractical moves like blocking banking access to the legal market are, saying, “How stupid is that?”
He said he believes there are a lot of issues like cannabis banking that, when rectified, will make the cannabis industry able to function like a real industry. He said the reason that these things haven’t changed at the pace we would hope is a lack of leadership.
“We had almost no leadership during the Obama administration,” he said. “I was expecting after we passed the original Rohrabacher-Farr amendment that, because I was just dealing with Democrats inside the Obama administration, we’d be making a lot of progress. And we did not.”
Rohrabacher said the Attorney General — though he did not specify under Trump or Obama — could have easily taken cannabis off Schedule I “and we could have done a number of things.”
Rohrabacher went on to say, despite former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ prohibitionist ideas and the president not making any concrete moves forward, the Trump administration has been on the right side of the cannabis issue.
“His [Sessions’s] presence became a real drag on everything,” Rohrabacher said. “But as I said, I think President Trump has made it real clear he’s on our side. Whether people use medical marijuana… whether personal use by adults should be left up to the states.”
Rohrabacher said he believes one of the reasons there hasn’t been a lot of movement on cannabis legalization under Trump is that the president was “in survival mode” before going into midterms last year. He now believes by the second half of 2019 there will be a federal legalization plan.
Why Rohrabacher Thinks Federal Cannabis Legalization Will Happen By 2020
“By the time we have a presidential election, there will be some more activity on it and the president will be on our side,” Rohrabacher said. “Which will help out tremendously, especially if Biden is the Democratic nominee.”
Rohrabacher added that former Vice President Joe Biden, who declared he was running as a Democratic candidate for president on April 25, was a huge proponent of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. “Joe Biden is a drug warrior, much more than the President ever was,” Rohrabacher said.
While the cannabis legalization issue has become increasingly bipartisan, Rohrabacher said that if Biden became the Democratic candidate, the president could use it to make cannabis his personal cause.
“I think it will all come down to who the nominee is for the Democratic Party,” he said. “If it’s Biden, and then we have President Trump talking about being the person that wants to liberalize marijuana laws.”
However, Rohrabacher said he expects the primary battle to pull Biden closer to center on the marijuana issue, given that currently, he is the only presidential candidate from either party advocating against marijuana legalization.
“Oh yeah, clearly Biden will be changing his position and altering it trying to pretend what he was doing before he didn’t do,” Rohrabacher alleged. “He’s going to try and create the illusion he wasn’t the ultimate drug warrior before. That’s what he’ll try to do. If anyone buys that from him, they’re fools.”
Rohrabacher believes if Biden were to make it all the way to the Oval Office, he thinks it unlikely that he would act on cannabis legalization. “I’d imagine the best we could get under Biden is no action,” he said.
“He wasn’t just someone that wasn’t going along with the people like myself,” he said. “I believe in freedom, that people have a right to control their own lives — and to consume, especially when it comes to cannabis, the plants God gave us. Biden doesn’t believe that.”
Rohrabacher said he hopes to convince Trump in the coming months to come out with a very strong pro-cannabis legalization position.
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