The federal courthouse in right-leaning Orange County, Calif., is named after former president and Republican Party icon Ronald Reagan. Countless drug cases prosecuted in that building can be traced back to an expanded war on drugs under the 40th president, who once called marijuana “probably the most dangerous drug.”
The Republican congressman who represents the land of Reagan, however, wants marijuana legalized. After winning reelection in a landslide last week despite that well-publicized position, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday with a message for his party.
“To my fellow Republicans,” said Rohrabacher, a former Reagan press secretary and speech writer, “Wake up! . . . The American people are shifting on this issue.”
Flanked by lawmakers from Colorado, Oregon and the District of Columbia, where voters have chosen to legalize marijuana, Rohrabacher on Thursday made his most forceful case yet for Republicans to stand down on the issue.
In doing so, he laid out the contours of an argument about civil liberties, states’ rights and fiscal priorities that could prove key to whether the next Republican-controlled Congress moves to block Initiative 71, the voter-approved measure that could lead to legal sales of marijuana in the nation’s capital.
“This is great, usually on D.C. issues we’re standing up here by ourselves,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member of the House. She nodded excitedly to Rohrabacher’s appearance at the news conference, which she called to urge Congress to not block the D.C. measure.
The initiative, backed by almost seven in 10 D.C. voters, would legalize possession and home cultivation. D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants a companion measure sent to Congress allowing for the legal sale and taxation of the plant, akin to the regulation of alcohol.
Under the District’s convoluted layer of federal oversight, the next Congress will have at least a month to decide whether to disapprove those measures.
Anytime after that, conservative members could attach amendments to budget bills to preclude the District from spending its own money to carry out legalization, thereby reverting the District to stricter federal drug laws.
Rohrabacher co-sponsored a measure, which passed the House 219 to 189 in May, that would protect states’ rights to administer medical marijuana programs.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said he believes the bipartisan vote in favor of that amendment demonstrated that a “working majority” already exists in the Republican-controlled House to support loosening federal marijuana rules and could beat back efforts to upend the D.C. measure.
Holmes Norton said she wasn’t so sure and remained more cautious. “Everything starts over with the next Congress; anything could happen,” she said, even as she, too, called on Republicans to respect the will of D.C. voters.
It was Rohrabacher’s message that might carry the most weight. He urged fellow Republicans to rethink loosening marijuana laws:
“The fundamental principles are individual liberty, which Republicans have always talked about; limited government, which Republicans have always talked about; the doctor-patient relationship, which, of course, we have been stressing a lot about lately; and of course, states’ rights,” he said.
Rohrabacher also said loosening marijuana laws should be a fiscal issue for Republicans.
“Some of us have come to the conclusion that it is counterproductive to the people of this country to have our limited resources, we’re $500 billion in debt every year . . . to put in jail someone who is smoking a weed in their back yard, or especially for medical purposes. It is a total waste of resources,” he said.
The 13-term House Republican won with his largest majority ever in the state’s 48th Congressional District on Nov. 4, beating his Democratic challenger by a margin of more than 2 to 1, and garnering more than 64 percent of the vote.
With Republicans holding a 56-44 registration advantage over Democrats, Rohrabacher said his overwhelming win proved that his position on marijuana didn’t cost him conservative voters. Instead, he said, it broadened his appeal.
“I think I probably received an extra 5 percent of the vote from people who would not have voted for me otherwise, because it’s a signal that, ‘Hey, I am not so much of a right-winger’ that you can’t talk to me on things,” he said.
“To my fellow Republicans, this is going to help you politically,” he summed up. “If I can’t appeal to you on your philosophical nature, come on over for just raw politics, the numbers are going this way now.”