The American people, in a strange way, can thank Republicans for the historic end to the federal war on medical marijuana. Due to a weird mix of events, newly elected House Republicans got a chance to do something they wanted — represent their constituents' viewpoints on legalizing medical marijuana — by essentially doing nothing at all late last year.
Central to this story is former tequila-drinking party-boy surfer from Huntington Beach named Dana Rohrabacher — a Congressional Republican — capitalized on powerful currents in the wake of the November 2014 election to float a bill to defund the federal war on medical marijuana. Astonishingly, it passed.
For the first time in US history, the Department of Justice cannot spend federal funds going after state-legal medical cannabis activity. The Farr-Rohrabacher Amendment is already being cited in federal courts in cases involving the seizure of both Harborside Health Center in Oakland and Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley.
The law is still open to interpretation, but the symbolism is not. A sea change in federal drug policy is underway.
A week ago Sunday in downtown San Francisco, Rohrabacher gave attendees at the International Cannabis Business Conference a never-before-heard account of what went on behind the scenes in Congress last December. "The leadership of the Republican Party in the House was not opposed to this amendment and had they been opposed, they could have whacked it out at any moment," he said.
The November 2014 election was a terrible day for Democrats as Republicans swept to power in the Senate, gaining control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in the Obama presidency. Republicans wanted to dismantle Barack Obama's legacy, but the first order of business was the budget. In order to avoid a government default, Republicans — and Democrats — had to pass a budget by the end of 2014.
Congress usually loads up its budget legislation each year with hundreds of amendments, and the idea of de-funding the government's war on medical marijuana was not new — it had been proposed before.
When the legislation was first introduced in 2003, it was no more than a lovable longshot, but the last time the amendment made it to the House floor in early 2014, it got a shocking number of bipartisan votes. This time around, Rohrabacher partnered with House Democrat Sam Farr of Salinas on the amendment (with ten co-sponsors) and added it in December as a rider on the huge, trillion-dollar, so-called "Cromnibus" budget bill.
With amendments like this — "it doesn't just come to a vote [on the floor of the House]," Rohrabacher said. The amendment, he explained, had to go through the Rules Committee, and a process known as "scoring."
If a bill manages to pass the House Rules Committee, then the legislation typically goes through a process called "scoring," in which the Congressional Budget Office determines the impact of the bill on the federal budget. Members of Congress are then essentially asked, "'how are you going to vote on this?'" Rohrabacher said.
But Rohrabacher was deliberately coy about what went on with his rider. He told the crowd with a smile, "it was approved by the Rules Committee. Hmmm."
The rider then moved to the floor, which is when it would have typically been scored. "It wasn't scored," Rohrabacher said, and smiled. "Hmmm."
With no score, the rider passed, and then it went to the Senate and president, who, in turn, did what they said they would do — pass and sign the budget in order to not let the government shut down.
"I was able to talk to various people in leadership and ... they found a way to 'let Dana be the point man here. Let him take all the grief if this has a bad impact.' The lead sled dog has the best view, but he is the one who gets bit in the ass," Rohrabacher said. "And you know what? It hasn't happened."
The former Reagan speechwriter and self-described "right-wing" "libertarian-conservative" said the Republican Party is essentially split. About 50 percent of the party, he said, is open to legalization on libertarian philosophical grounds — that "this is in keeping with the basic principles of our country": states' rights, small government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and getting politicians out of the doctor-patient relationship.
The other half has negative associations with pot. "They just have a gut response to marijuana of any kind. It's associated with a lifestyle they don't like — long-haired people with beards — people who make fun of their religious beliefs and their own things," he said. "They've got this visceral response to this lifestyle. They think that's what marijuana is all about and it's not."
The de-funding amendment comes up for renewal this year, Rohrabacher said. "We are on the edge now of building a new coalition," he said. "This year, I think we can win with a much bigger majority.
"We have a great opportunity in front of us now," he continued. "We have reached a tipping point."