Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Discusses the State of Cannabis

April 20, 2017

Earlier today, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California spoke with PRØHBTD and several other press members about the current state of cannabis advocacy and legalization in the United States. The conservative House Member, who co-founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, had a lot to say. This is everything he told reporters with minimal editing:

[It was apparent] this last year that the movement for marijuana reform is cresting. It's largely gone mainstream. We had remarkable success in eight out of nine elections. And I think we are watching a pivot point. We recently announced the formation of a bipartisan Cannabis Caucus in Congress. And this spring will see a variety of different items of legislation introduced on a bipartisan basis. The reason for the increasing support that we've seen, especially in the last three sessions of Congress, is that, frankly, marijuana has gone mainstream. The surveys of late show that there's almost as many users of marijuana as people who smoke cigarettes. And there's a wide awareness on the part of the public that marijuana smoking is not nearly harmful as cigarette smoking, and they feel that alcohol [and painkillers create more] problems. 

We're watching the action driven by what's happened at the state level. We now have 95 percent of the public [with] access to some form of marijuana, medical marijuana, the low-THC [medicine] for seizure disorder that is in a number of states. We have the 65 million who have access to state-legal adult marijuana use. Obviously, that number was largely influenced by the passage of California this fall. But we've also seen in states as diverse as Maine and Nevada. It is, I think, recognition that this issue is coming of age. The consensus on medical marijuana is strong. It is less strong dealing with adult use, but the more familiar people are with it, the more they appear comfortable. And, again, when people have a chance to vote for it at the ballot box like California and Maine and Nevada and Massachusetts this year, they join Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the state of Washington. But this is gaining traction. 

My personal assessment is that it has come of age politically [as] reflected in what we've seen in Congress. I'm quite confident that there won't be a president in the future who is elected on an anti-cannabis platform. And we're continuing to watch the evolution of the issue as more and more people are involved, as the industry grows and as the consensus that this ought to be something that the federal government ought not to try and suppress regardless of people's individual feeling about marijuana. The overwhelming number appear not to want the federal government to interfere with what states do. 

The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment and the Subcommittee on Appropriations 

Things have been a little chaotic in Congress this last month. You may have noticed there's a little issue of healthcare, which kind of dominated the attention. And it complicated the work going forward in the appropriations process. We will be checking in as people come back. There's been a lot of work that's been undertaken to try and craft something to avoid a government shutdown this next Friday [April 28] when the continuing resolution expires. Because the support for the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment adds strength, it's been supported by the majority in the earlier form with my colleague, our former member of Congress, Sam Farr. It has received majority support. It is an area that actually will gain support for the ultimate resolution, [and] failure to address this would make it more difficult to be able to get this across the finish line. The appropriators in both parties, in both chambers, have been hard at work trying to fashion an agreement to avoid a government shutdown that most people think would be very unfortunate. And since this would help gain support, I think we're likely to continue to be successful in this effort.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly

Well, I think we can say one thing has been consistent, and that is we've received inconsistent signals from this administration on a wide variety of issues. It seems to be a characteristic that sometimes we find people, the same spokesperson, contradicting themselves in the course of the same presentation. I think what is important, first of all, is what the candidate Trump said on the campaign trail, [which] was that the states ought to be able to pursue what the states are doing. I think that's consistent with what most people I know who have some familiarity with Donald Trump think is his actual opinion. Second, I referenced the nine elections we had last fall. In eight of the nine states we were successful. Marijuana got a lot more votes than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. And millions of Trump supporters voted in favor of changing marijuana policies and legalizing adult use or medical marijuana. 

I continue to think that the strong support we've manifested in Congress, and we've seen, not just public opinion polls, but the elections that are the clearest expressions of public support. The only one we lost was a narrow defeat in Arizona, and I fully expect that that's back on the ballot in the foreseeable future. As far as the Attorney General is concerned, the indications are that the Cole Memo, which has provided the framework for states being able to continue state legal activities, would be respected. 

And last but not least, we are watching, now, the emergence of a multi-billion dollar industry where we are watching tens of millions of dollars in taxes being generated, and we're watching increasing public acceptance. So I'm quite confident that we will ultimately be successful working with this administration despite sometimes some confusing signals, which have characterized everything from foreign policy to healthcare. But bear in mind that even when we were working with the Obama Administration where President Obama declared that he had bigger fish to fry and wouldn't interfere with state legal activities, remember we still had to have the amendment to protect state legal activities. 

There's a vast bureaucracy—93 U.S. attorneys and a drug enforcement apparatus—[and] there might be some individuals who would take it upon themselves. And we've seen that, and they've been slapped down by the judiciary, for instance. Even attempting to violate the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, you'll recall. So, this is something we're prepared to deal with. I think we're likely to be successful. And, again, the people have been pretty clear that this is something they don't want the federal government to interfere with. 

This is a very unusual climate in your nation's capital. You're finding a degree of uncertainty. You're finding, even within the majority Republican party, there are some of the fiercest disagreements. So nothing is certain until it happens. But, I think the indications are very strong that we will be successful [in making the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment law]. But more to the point, I think what this represents in terms of reality on the ground and what is happening in state after state after state reflects this is where the American public wants to go, and it has been established and generating momentum. To do otherwise would be to precipitate yet another clash for an administration that seems to be bogged down on everything from immigration to healthcare. I don't think they want to pick a fight to be on the wrong side of the American public.

The State of the Current Cannabis Bills in Congress

I think the areas in this year for congressional action are less likely to be stand-alone legislation but opportunities to be able to put something on to other vehicles. And the three main areas that I think we're going to see congressional action, first, we have bipartisan legislation to eliminate the federal roadblocks for research. And, in fact, my cosponsor of that legislation is Congressman Andy Harris, physician from Maryland, who does not support legalization of marijuana. But he strongly agrees that it makes no sense to not be able to provide the research answers for questions that demand answers, can be developed, and will be a benefit to everybody. 

The second area where I'm confident we will see some action deals with ending punitive taxation for the industry. Currently because of section 280e in the federal Internal Revenue Code, state legal marijuana businesses cannot fully deduct their business expenses. And it produces a tax burden that's two, three, four, five times what a similarly situated business would face. And this is not a partisan issue. When I first introduced this legislation, I was joined by Grover Norquist, the Republican anti-tax advocate who agreed that this just made no sense at all.

Last but not least, I've been working on this issue for decades, as you may know. I have talked to probably tens of thousands of people at this point. I've never met anybody who felt that there was any purpose served by forcing state legal marijuana enterprises to be conducted on an all-cash basis, not one person. And, of course, being all-cash makes it easier to launder money, to evade taxes and exposes people to the dangers of theft. Besides having an artificial barrier to being able to conduct business. I think it's highly likely that we will be able to take some vehicles that are moving through Congress and deal with these three provisions that have overwhelming bipartisan support, have no major opposition and would make a profound difference in being able [to help] the industry to function. Ultimately, I'm confident we will reschedule or deschedule marijuana. But in the meantime these provisions are critical, and I think they're highly-likely to occur. 

Best Committees to Push Cannabis Bills

My partner in legislation recently introduced, that is very comprehensive, is Senator Ron Wyden, my friend and colleague from Oregon. He is the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. I suspect that, if I were to pick one area where it's likely to flow the easiest, [it] would be working through Senate Finance. There are a number of people who care about it, but Ron being the lead Democrat, this being a bipartisan issue, I think there's a good opportunity there. 

But we're going to be facing tax reform in the House Ways and Means Committee. My partner there for 280e is Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida, so I think there will be instruments moving. I think there are partnerships that are developing. And I think more and more people will want to be able to sort this out because, after the November election, the array of members of the House and Senate who represent thousands of state-legal marijuana businesses and millions of marijuana users, recent evidence suggests that in some surveys there may be nearly as many marijuana users as cigarette smokers. Whether it's 33 [or] 55 million, this is a huge constituency. And the problems for these state-legal businesses, thousands of them, now face a number of Republican members of the House and Senate, and are going to demand answers. 

The Massive Smokeout in Washington, D.C. to Celebrate 420 

You know, it's not something that I would promote. But as a practical matter, the evidence on the need for advancing reform is available in every community, every community. One of the reasons I have been working so hard on these campaigns from Maine to California, Nevada, Arizona, is because there's been a complete failure of the prohibition of marijuana, even in states where marijuana is illegal, and where they have had really, heavy-handed enforcement which, by the way, falls disproportionately on young black men. Nobody thinks there's any difficulty in getting a joint, usually easier than they can get a six pack of beer. The demonstration about the need to reform and support what we're doing is evident in every state in the Union, including Secretary Sessions home state of Alabama.

So, [the D.C. joint giveaway and smokeout at the Capitol is] not something that I would suggest that we do. I don't think it is the best way forward. We're going to have many advocates and business people on Capitol Hill making the case in a calm, thoughtful, rational basis—the business case, the science case, the law enforcement case. But as a practical matter, everyday there are demonstrations in every community that the current system doesn't work. It's unfair, and it needs to change. 

Advice to State-Legal Cannabis Enterprises

I don't think people ought to be coasting. What I am pleased [with]... the people that I've been working with in the industry across the country are stepping up their game. They are working very hard in the states where legalization has taken place. We're encouraging, and I'm seeing people who follow through, to be able to make each one of their states the gold standard. They want to really make it work well. They want to be good citizens, good employers. It's important that they continue to carry their message to the news media, to Capitol Hill, talking about the opportunities and the challenges. We're watching a major industry emerge. Within a few years it's going to be three times larger, it's going to rival the size of the NFL. We're watching people understand the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana. States where medical marijuana is readily available prescribe fewer pills. Opioids kills people. Nobody dies as a result of smoking marijuana with an overdose. 

There are amazing business advances that are taking place in terms of product, and there's great progress being made in terms of public understanding because no one wants, and I'll just state from the outset, one of the reasons I've been so active in this for years is because I don't want kids smoking marijuana. And the current system is an absolute failure in keeping it out of their hands. I want more understanding of the science. I'm sure right now... there are dozens, and perhaps many more, pregnant women who are self-medicating with marijuana to minimize the impact of morning sickness. Now, I think using medical marijuana to suppress the violent nausea from chemotherapy is one thing, but the potential impact on the young, developing fetal brain is another. 

We all need to be making the case, building the momentum, educating the public, and I want the industry to be fully engaged because it's going to take another two to four years to work this through, for states to make their decisions, for the full force of the changes that we're talking about to come to pass and to work on a few of the states that remain to be able to enable them to have a wider range of freedom. This is a pivotal time. Nobody should take anything for granted. These are strange times in your nation's capitol, and sometimes things happen that are unexpected. 

I think the long term is clear. I've stated and I strongly believe in five years every state will be able to treat marijuana like it treats alcohol. In five years I think everybody will have access to medical marijuana, and that they will be able to pay fair taxes with a check. But there's still work to be done and I urge people to do it. 

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