Dana Rohrabacher, the fiery Republican Congressman from Orange County, has seldom had to burnish his conservative credentials.
In his nearly 26 years in the House of Representatives, he has stood out as a virulent anti-communist and a leader against favored trade status for China. Matching the intensity of any of new Tea Party colleague, he has raged against Obamacare and declared that impeachment may be in order for the president’s policies on immigration.
Now Rohrabacher, the surfer-politican, is considered an unlikely hero among advocates for marijuana legalization. This weekend, he is being touted at a vast marijuana advocacy event – the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco – as the important new face for the pot liberalization movement.
While addressing conference attendees, shaking hands and posing for photos, Rohrabacher said there is no political contradiction in his spending “my whole life fighting communism” and recently shifting to working on ending “the war on drugs” and support states’ rights on marijuana.
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“I don’t care if we’re talking about medical use of marijuana or recreational use of marijuana, to me, this is is freedom issue – period,” Rohrabacher said.
In 2014, and again last year, Rohrabacher was a critical force in rallying a sufficient minority of Republican votes to pass Congressional budget legislation intended to deny funding for federal drug enforcement efforts in states permitting marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.
He hailed his amendment, co-authored by California Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, as a death knell for federal raids on licensed marijuana providers in California and beyond. Last October, a U.S. District Judge agreed.
Ruling in the case of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, Judge Charles R. Breyer declared that the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment effectively banned U.S. drug agents from shuttering the Northern California dispensary. Breyer said to do so would interfere with the state’s medical marijuana law and contradict the will of Congress.
In an interview Saturday, Rohrabacher felt the judge’s ruling powerfully affirmed his cause.
“We clarified the law so that it is not legal for federal prosecutors to use their salaries or time to be in court prosecuting someone in a state where marijuana is legal,” Rohrabacher said. “The only law breaking in that court (in the California dispensary case) was the prosecution.”
Rohrabacher said he persuaded 67 Republicans to go along with the anti-federal interference amendment on marijuana by advocating states’ rights and individual liberty – not pot itself.
“In order to get those votes, I had to shame a number of my fellow Republicans about their fundamental beliefs,” Rohrabacher said. He added, “When a Democrat votes for medical marijuana or legalizing marijuana, he or she is not taking a chance. But (Republicans) are going against the core of their supporters. Some crazy right-wing kooks may run against them, saying you’re in favor of people supporting marijuana.”
Rohrabacher’s sticking his political neck out on the pot issue is paying some dividends. On Friday night, he was feted by marijuana advocates at a $1,000 per person San Francisco fundraiser. Also at the event was a liberal Democrat, Rep Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who has joined Rohrabacher on other marijuana reform efforts, including trying to ease banking rules for cannabis businesses.
“If we spent all the time dealing with all the things we disagree on, we would never get anything done,” Blumenauer said of working with Rohrabacher. “Nothing gives me more satisfaction than what we have been doing to change federal marijuana policy.”
Rohrabacher said he supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use in California, though he hasn’t endorsed the state's anticipated 2016 legalization initiative.
And he said support of legalization isn’t a call for getting high.
“I’m not endorsing the recreational use of marijuana, and I’m not endorsing the recreational use of tequila – which some people think I drank too much of a long time ago,” he said.